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Why 'Jihad Jane' could be free in four years (+video)

An American who called herself Jihad Jane was sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting with an Al Qaeda-linked terrorism cell to kill a Swedish artist.

By Staff Writer / January 6, 2014

Colleen LaRose said that her fair skin and green eyes had helped her go unnoticed as she plotted to kill an artist who had depicted the prophet Mohammed as a dog.

Tom Green County Jail/AP

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An American-born woman who called herself "Jihad Jane" was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Monday for plotting with an Al Qaeda-linked terrorism cell to kill a Swedish artist.

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Staff Writer

Elizabeth Barber is a staff writer at The Christian Science Monitor. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and English from SUNY Geneseo. Before coming to the Monitor, she was a freelance reporter at DNAinfo, a New York City breaking news site. She has also been an intern at The Cambodia Daily, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and at Washington D.C.’s The Middle East Journal.

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Colleen LaRose, who converted to Islam online, pleaded guilty in 2011 to a collection of charges connected to her collaboration with alleged Al Qaeda militants to kill Lars Vilks, the artist who had drawn the prophet Mohammed as a dog. The charges included conspiracy to kill in a foreign country and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.

Prosecutors had originally asked for a life sentence for Ms. LaRose but had downgraded their request to multiple decades, citing her extensive cooperation with authorities. Since LaRose has already served four years in prison and could be eligible for time off for good behavior, she is expected to be released in about four years, the Associated Press said. Her sentence also includes five years of supervised release.

In 2007, Mr. Vilks, the artist, had completed a series of drawings of Mohammed as a dog for a local art exhibition. That exhibition ultimately declined to show them, and, following rejections from the several European exhibitions to which Vilks subsequently reached out, the Swedish newspaper Nerikes Allehanda published just one of the pictures. Outrage simmered throughout the Muslim world. Militants in Iraq put out a $100,000 reward to anyone who killed Vilks.

Vilks, who now has a 24-hour security detail, was never attacked.

Public defenders described LaRose not as a greedy criminal seeking bloodstained cash, but as a “lonely and isolated” woman engaged in a desperate, deluded search of a calling in life, even if that calling came from a terror cell. LaRose’s defense team had cited her traumatic past, including childhood sexual abuse, underage prostitution, a marriage to a much-older man, and heavy drug and alcohol use, as explaining the ease with which violent jihadists had manipulated her into joining their cause.

Vilks told the AP that he believed LaRose had spent enough time in prison, calling the sentence “overkill” for “a person who has been through a lot of difficulties in her life and needs mental care more than anything else.”

US investigators say that LaRose met Ali Charaf Damache in a jihadist chat room, where she used the chat name JihadJane, and was persuaded to join him in Ireland in 2009 to coordinate an attack on the artist. The founder of one of the sites told The New York Times in 2010 that LaRose appeared to be using the chat room like a dating service, as if “looking for a soul mate” and pledging her devotion to jihad as an route toward marrying a jihadist.

Mr. Damache also allegedly recruited a second American woman, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, whom he married. Damache is in custody in Ireland, fighting extradition to the US, and Mrs. Paulin-Ramirez is scheduled for sentencing in the US this week.

LaRose left Ireland after just six weeks, for reasons on which prosecutors and LaRose’s defense team disagree. Prosecutors told the judge that LaRose quit the terror cell when she “grew frustrated because her co-conspirators were not ready for action,” not because she questioned the ethics of the murder plot, the AP reported. For that reason, LaRose should still be considered a threat to public safety, prosecutors said, arguing for a prison sentence multiple decades long.

Prosecutors also said that a stiff sentence could be valuable in helping to change the standard profile of a violent jihadist to include blonde women, like both LaRose and Paulin-Ramirez, whose suspicious activities are less likely to be noticed or reported because of their looks, Reuters said. LaRose had bragged after her arrest that her green eyes and fair skin had let her travel without questioning.

The defense, though, argued that LaRose had returned home on realizing that the terrorists’ mission was not true jihad and that Islam was a peaceful religion. Public defender Mark Wilson said that LaRose’s reformed understanding of the meaning of Islam ensured that she was not a public threat: “There’s virtually no chance that she would ever be involved in violent jihad ever again,” he said, according to the AP.

LaRose told the court that she was “in a trance” during her foray into violent jihad but said that the trace has since lifted and she no longer wishes to be a jihadist, Reuters reported.

LaRose surrendered to authorities in Philadelphia in 2009 after returning from Ireland, but the arrest was not made public until her co-conspirators were arrested in March 2010, AFP said.

Mohammad Hassan Khalid, an honor student from Baltimore and another co-conspirator in the case, has asked that his sentencing scheduled for Tuesday be delayed to allow more time for psychological evaluation. Mr. Khalid, who committed his crimes at ages 15 and 16, is the youngest person in the United States to be charged with terrorism, Reuters reported.

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