By Austin Nolen
Yesterday, a federal grand jury indicted Keonna Thomas, 30, of Philadelphia on charges of attempting to aid the Islamic State (IS or ISIL). As I wrote after her arrest earlier this month, similar cases elsewhere in the country have raised questions about potential civil liberties issues. Several weeks after her arrest, more information has come out about the investigation into Thomas and a picture of the investigation is beginning to take shape, though questions still remain.
Much of that information has come to light in Thomas’ court appearances. On April 9th, after a hearing, Magistrate Judge Marilyn Heffley found sufficient evidence to allow the case to continue and ordered Thomas to be held without bail pending her trial. Prior to that ruling, however, defense attorneys questioned FBI special agent Martin McDonald about the case.
McDonald revealed that a grand jury was used to determine that Thomas was allegedly responsible for pro-ISIL tweets; that the case was investigated by a Philadelphia Joint Terrorism Task Force, an entity which brings together local, state and federal agencies; and that on March 27th, 2014, a day after Thomas allegedly bought a ticket to Barcelona, the FBI served a search warrant on Thomas’ home. Prosecutors claim that without this search warrant, Thomas would have flown to Barcelona on March 29th to attempt to join ISIL. Defense attorney Kathleen Gaughan also revealed that FBI agents had spoken to her client in 2013, the year when her tweeting allegedly began.
In a tense moment at the hearing, defense attorney James McHugh asked McDonald if he had verified that one of the people Thomas had allegedly corresponded with was actually located in a terrorist training camp in Syria. McDonald responded that “I don’t know that we’re going to discuss that at this time,” and Assistant US Attorney Jennifer Williams quickly requested a side bar, or an off the record discussion, between the attorneys. When McHugh’s questioning resumed, he moved on from this issue. It’s unknown what was discussed at the sidebar, but the exchange may hint that issues about intelligence or other sensitive matters could arise during the case. There is no evidence at this time the authorities utilized informants or other similar methods.
Thomas will next appear before a judge to be presented with the indictment and to be asked how she pleads. According to her defense attorneys, she will be pleading not guilty. No date has been set for that hearing.
Editor’s note: a previous edition of this article stated that three separate Joint Terrorism Task Forces exist in Philadelphia. In fact, Pennsylvania as a whole has three JTTFs. For more information on intelligence gathering agencies operating in Pennsylvania, click here.
Audio of the preliminary/detention hearing, courtesy of the Clerk’s Office for the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania: