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Jihadi Love: Does U.S. Law Prohibit Marrying an ISIS Fighter?

Source: Foreign Policy – By Elias Groll – Austrian judge scored a victory for young jihadi love this week when she issued a preliminary ruling that two teens who had tried to travel to Syria to marry Islamic State fighters committed no crime. The pair was picked up in Romania en route to Syria, and the Salzburg judge could find no crime on which to try them.

“In her opinion the girls’ behavior is not criminal, not yet, because they were stopped in Romania and did not really get to join a terrorist organization,” a court spokeswoman said Tuesday, Jan. 13.

That got us thinking here at Foreign Policy about how American counterterrorism statutes would look on an attempt by a young woman to travel to Syria and marry a jihadi fighter. Would following her heart be illegal because of, say, measures that prohibit providing material support to terrorist groups?

So far, the phenomenon of jihadi brides has been mostly confined to Europe, where there have been numerous, if hazy, reports on young women heading to Middle East war zones to join and sometimes marry members of various jihadi groups. (And the lack of concrete information on the phenomenon of women traveling to Syria has also led to some spurious reporting, including the viral, but totally unsubstantiated, story about how Tunisian women weretraveling to Syria to wage “sex jihad” and sleep with as many as 100 fighters before returning home to give birth.)

But the phenomenon of jihadi brides isn’t limited to Europe. There has been at least one such case in the United States, and with foreign fighters and their hangers-on continuing to stream into Syria and other battlefields, there’s reason to believe more young American women might be seduced — or coerced — into the idea of a jihadi wedding.

Would that be legal?

American laws dealing with terrorist groups and their supporters are broad and give prosecutors a heavy cudgel with which to pursue such cases, according to Zach Goldman, the executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the New York University’s School of Law. While marrying a militant fighter wouldn’t be illegal in itself, the actions she would carry out as part of that relationship would all but certainly fall afoul of anti-terrorism statutes.

Consider, for example, Section 2339A of Title 18, which prohibits providing “material support or resources” to terrorist groups. It’s a law that has been widely used to carry out prosecutions against American supporters of terrorism, and the definition of material support is sufficiently broad that a possible jihadi bride would probably find herself in violation of it. It includes the provision of any “service” to the group, including “currency or monetary instruments.” A shared bank account whose funds might be channeled to the group or its activities could conceivably be prosecuted. Indeed, providing the group with “personnel” is enough to be prosecuted under the statute.

And such an act doesn’t have to be actually carried out. Prosecutors can also go after a prospective jihadi on conspiracy charges.

Another statute prohibits the receipt of “military-type training” from a terrorist group, which according to Goldman would need to amount to no more than firing a gun under the supervision of a jihadi fighter. The Islamic State has made a concerted effort to provide such training to its female recruits. Propaganda videos that include women often feature them firing automatic weapons, a prosecutable offense under U.S. law. An American woman who followed her Islamic State husband to a gun range — even if all she ever shot was a paper target — could probably be prosecuted for receiving that training.

Consider the example of Shannon Conley, of Arvada, Colorado, who in September pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist group. She had tried to travel to Turkey, where she was going to be met by associates of her suitor, an Islamic State fighter in Syria, according to the criminal complaint in her case.

A nurse’s aide, Conley had expressed that she wished to provide medical aid to the Islamic State. She said that she didn’t want to fight but might be willing to do so eventually. “If it was absolutely necessary, then yes,” she told investigators when asked about whether she would engage in actual combat. “I wouldn’t like it … but I would do it.”

That gave the FBI all it needed. She was indicted for providing personnel and expert assistance under Section 2339B of Title 18, “providing material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations.”

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