Leyla Ekren, a quiet but scrappy girl from rural Kansas, lost her childhood in Syria, where her mother dragged her after war broke out more than a decade ago.
Even as she fell ill with typhoid fever, her mother, a hardened militant who would ascend the ranks of the Islamic State group, demanded that she undertake military training. As delirium and pain ravaged her mind and body, Leyla, then 10, found her effervescence evaporating. She just wanted to die.
“I got closer and closer to death, my mind started to deteriorate,” she said. “My ribs showed through my skin like a ladder. My stomach was sunken in like a bowl. My nose would bleed all the time. I would have random seizures as my body started to collapse. My mother did nothing.”
She survived, yet her mother, Allison Fluke-Ekren, again bent Leyla to her will, forcing the girl to marry an Islamic State fighter when she was 13. He raped Leyla. In the fall of 2017, with the help of the U.S. government, Leyla, now several months pregnant and still in her teens, made her way home to Kansas, where she gave birth.
The extent of the Islamic State group’s atrocities in Syria are well known, but this tale, backed by interviews, testimony and court documents, is an extraordinary account of one daughter’s abuse at the hands of her mother. Just as extraordinary was her willingness to help federal investigators locate Fluke-Ekren, who was brought back to the United States in January to face prosecution and pleaded guilty months later to providing material support to a terrorist organization.
Years after the United States declared victory in Syria, the damage wreaked by the Islamic State group continues to reverberate to places as far as Overbrook, Kansas, a tiny town in the gently rolling hills outside Topeka. Leyla’s account underscores the depth of those scars, a reminder that the intense suffering in Syria did not just stay in the Middle East.
Leyla Ekren, now 20, told her story for the first time in public Tuesday as she watched a federal judge in Northern Virginia sentence her mother to a maximum of 20 years in prison. Trembling, Ekren recounted her mother’s abuse in Syria. In a letter to the court, she also accused her mother of molesting her.
“I felt degraded my entire life,” Ekren said, struggling at times to finish her statements. Her mother had married her off to a “random ISIS fighter as a sex slave,” she said using an alternative name for the Islamic State group, abandoning her in Raqqa, Syria, with “my rapist.”
Before the hearing, Raj Parekh, the first assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, filed a sentencing memo describing the cruelty that Fluke-Ekren unleashed on her children, including her oldest son, Gabriel Fluke, who spoke briefly at the sentencing.
Such memos often offer a standard recounting of the crimes, but Parekh sought to paint a brutal portrait of Fluke-Ekren’s relentless abuse of her children and her unyielding devotion to extremism.
Fluke-Ekren “left a trail of betrayal,” Parekh said, becoming “a terrorist military leader, and in effect, the empress of ISIS.” He added that she was “driven by fanaticism, power, manipulation, delusional invincibility and extreme cruelty.”
Dressed in a black hijab with a green shirt that read “prisoner,” Fluke-Ekren, 42, vigorously denied abusing her daughter or forcing her to marry, claiming it was Ekren’s decision.
Crying at times, Fluke-Ekren said, “I deeply regret my choices.”
Fluke-Ekren grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, on an 81-acre farm that has belonged to her family for more than a century. She married in 1996, giving birth to Gabriel and a daughter, Alaina, soon after. But the marriage crumbled, and the couple divorced in 2002. She was a “con artist,” her first husband recalled, a characterization echoed by their son, who described her as “a monster.”
In 2002, as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, Fluke-Ekren converted to Islam and married again, this time to Volkan Ekren, an international student who came from a prosperous family in Turkey. They had five children, including Leyla.
Fluke-Ekren radicalized her second husband, family members say. In 2008, the family moved to Cairo, where Ekren and Fluke said the beatings persisted. Conflicted about whether to stay to protect his siblings, Fluke chose to leave Egypt to live with his paternal father.
By late 2011, the family was based in Libya, where her daughter said her mother’s stubborn quest to groom young recruits took hold and her desire to commit violent attacks began. Fluke-Ekren hatched a plan to use a school as a military training center for young women, hoping her husband could persuade the Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia to fund the initiative. For some girls, Ekren said, the training included watching videos of U.S. soldiers appearing to sexually assault Iraqi women.
Fluke-Ekren and her husband lived in Benghazi at the time of the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA. base. After the attacks, which killed four Americans, she helped review and summarize documents stolen from the compound that were then provided to Ansar al-Sharia.
The school ultimately failed. Disillusioned with Ansar al-Sharia, which apparently was not violent enough, she forced her family to move to Syria in late 2012 or early 2013, where she joined the ranks of the Nusra Front, a Qaida offshoot, and her husband became a key translator for the group. They lived at an abandoned factory on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, prosecutors said.
Again, Fluke-Ekren insisted on training young women, trying to establish a battalion for girls, but the Nusra Front resisted. She left the group and continued to train her daughter, who contracted typhoid fever. Only after her mother saw an opportunity to secure money from her husband’s family did she take her to Turkey for medical care, Ekren said. Her father remained in Syria, where he would rise to oversee the training of Islamic State group snipers.
The journey was grueling. As they crossed into Turkey, Ekren recalled, “I had to walk miles through fields with land mines,” adding that she had to “hide from the Turkish military in tall grass while I was convulsing.”
There Fluke-Ekren sought new passports for her family, prompting U.S. Embassy officials in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, to interview her. Her answers about her husband’s activities in Benghazi raised suspicions among the officials, according to a State Department report.
By 2015, they had moved to Mosul, Iraq, where Fluke-Ekren helped the Islamic State group handle widows whose husbands had died fighting. The family returned to Syria, and Volkan Ekren was killed in an airstrike as he conducted reconnaissance for a terrorist attack, prosecutors have said.
By Leyla Ekren’s account, her mother, no longer able to leverage her husband’s authority, forced her to marry an ISIS fighter in 2015 in a bid to gain political influence in the Islamic State group to establish a female battalion. She ultimately succeeded, training women and girls in Raqqa to become familiar with AK-47 assault rifles, grenades and suicide belts. Fluke-Ekren also aspired to attack the United States, including a shopping center and a college in the Midwest.
One marriage gave way to another: first to a Bangladeshi man working for the Islamic State group who specialized in drones and planned to drop chemical bombs using them, then to a leader for the Islamic State military who was responsible for defending Raqqa. He later died in battle.
In total, Fluke-Ekren gave birth to 11 children and adopted one child, leaving a trail of familial wreckage. Two died in Syria, including an infant and 5-year-old Zaid, who was killed in a missile strike. Her oldest daughter, Alaina, remains missing while another son is living in Turkey. Six others are in foster homes in Virginia.
In the fall of 2017, as Raqqa was slipping from the Islamic State group’s grasp, Ekren escaped the city, reaching a checkpoint in Baghuz run by the Syrian Democratic Forces. In an interview that October with CBS News, Ekren, then 15, was unnamed but revealed she was from Kansas. Her father had brought her to Syria against her will, she said. Still apparently under the sway of her mother, she suggested Fluke-Ekren was possibly in the United States.
“Hi, Mom,” she said. “If you see this video, please contact me.” Describing the horrors of Raqqa, she said that her husband, an ISIS fighter, was killed in an airstrike and that they were expecting a child.
Fluke-Ekren was not in the United States, but in Syria, where she would marry yet again. Confident that her mother would try to find her, Ekren set up a social media account and, coordinating with FBI officials eager to track her down, planned to surreptitiously record their exchanges.
In December 2020, Fluke-Ekren contacted her daughter over an encrypted messaging application: “I’m scared too, I’m wondering if maybe I’m talking to the FBI, I don’t know. Please can you just send me a message.”
Days later, Ekren responded, concealing that agents had pressed her about Fluke-Ekren for several years and reassuring her mother that the FBI had no interest in her.
“That’s very good,” Fluke-Ekren replied. “And you’re doing great, I am proud of you.” One day, she added, her daughter would return to Syria.
Fluke-Ekren soon reached out again. She rationalized the deaths of Ekren and Zaid, believing her cause was just. “You don’t feel regret,” she said.
In the summer of last year, Fluke-Ekren was detained by unknown forces in Syria. After arresting her in January, FBI agents questioned her about her adopted child. Volkan Ekren was the father, she said, hiding a far grimmer reality.
In fact, the child’s parents were killed in a suicide attack in Syria, one that Fluke-Ekren had encouraged, according to court documents. The mother, whom Fluke-Ekren had befriended, balked at carrying out the attack because she was pregnant.
But Fluke-Ekren assured the mother she would raise the child if she carried out the bombing. She fulfilled her promise, Parekh said.