Colleen LaRose, now known around the world by the pseudonym “Jihad Jane,” has been charged by US authorities with conspiring to commit murder and recruiting others for terrorist activities. She will appear in federal court on March 18 to answer this indictment.
Blond, Michigan-born, and female, Ms. LaRose does not fit easily into the template of a terror suspect. She apparently connected with Islamist extremists over the Internet while she sat alone at the computer in her home on Main Street in Pennsburg, Pa.
Her boyfriend of five years, Kurt Gorman, said he had no idea that LaRose had a hidden radical Muslim identity. She fled their home without telling him last August, taking with her his passport and the computer’s hard drive.
She is one of only a handful of women ever charged with terrorist offenses in the United States. Perhaps a trial will clear up some of the mystery of her behavior. Pending more information, here are three crucial questions about her case:
What was the spark that lit her interest in radical Islam? Born in Michigan, raised in Texas, living in Pennsylvania, LaRose may have had no contact with actual Muslims prior to professing a willingness to die for their cause in electronic messages.
In June 2008, LaRose posted a comment on YouTube saying she was “desperate to do something somehow to help” suffering Muslims. According to the timeline in the US indictment, it appears that only after that was she connected with a loose band of international extremists who suggested she help plot the murder of Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks.
What caused her interest in the first place? Was it a person, an Internet chat room, a news event?
How many women did she recruit? The federal indictment, among other things, charges that LaRose “recruited women online who had passports and the ability to travel to and around Europe in support of violent jihad.”
Was Jihad Jane the head of a kind of terrorist women’s auxiliary?
Seven people were arrested in Ireland on Tuesday in connection with the plot, according to US law enforcement. Of these, one is reported to be an American woman married to an Algerian, who was also arrested.
Possibly the wording in the indictment refers to this woman only. Possibly there are more.
By Western standards of behavior, radical Islamists treat women as second-class citizens, beings to be ordered about, clothed from head to foot and served food only after men have eaten. But the women themselves may see this treatment as giving them a specific role in a traditional culture.
“Women who are drawn to that extremist form of ideology don’t see it as subjugation,” says Juan Carlos Zarate, senior adviser for the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Has she already provided information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation? The FBI knew of LaRose’s radical postings prior to last August, when she traveled to Sweden. At that point, they had already interviewed her once.
She was arrested on Oct. 15, 2009, in Philadelphia. Her indictment was dated March 4, 2010. What was going on in that intervening time, which was almost five months?
Almost certainly she was interrogated by law-enforcement officials. Perhaps the FBI used that time to get as much information from her as it could. Or perhaps she gave no information, and law enforcement used that time to follow up leads provided by their surveillance of her past activities.
“It could be that we’ve rolled up the network and gotten all we can out of [her arrest],” says William Martel, an associate professor of international security studies at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.