'Jihad Jane' pleads not guilty
Philadelphia - The Philadelphia-area woman who authorities say dubbed herself "Jihad Jane" online, pleaded not guilty on Thursday in federal court to a four-count indictment charging her in an overseas terrorist plot.
Colleen LaRose, 46, of Pennsburg, appeared in court wearing a green jumpsuit with corn rows in her blonde hair. A May 3 trial date was set.
She was accused of conspiring with jihadist fighters and pledging to commit murder in the name of a Muslim holy war. Authorities say she wanted to kill a Swedish artist who had offended Muslims.
Authorities say she grew acquainted online with violent co-conspirators from around the world. They say she posted a YouTube video in 2008 saying she was "desperate to do something" to ease the suffering of Muslims.
She was arrested in October 2009 in Philadelphia while returning to the United States.
LaRose spent most of her life in Texas, where she dropped out of high school, married at 16 and again at 24, and racked up a few minor arrests, records show.
After a second divorce, she followed a boyfriend to Pennsylvania in about 2004 and began caring for his father while he worked long hours, sometimes on the road.
In 2005, she swallowed a handful of pills in a failed suicide attempt, telling police she was upset over the death of her father - but did not want to die.
As she moved through her 40s without a job or any outside hobbies, her boyfriend said, she started spending more time online.
Though her boyfriend, Kurt Gorman, did not consider her religious, and she apparently never joined a mosque, LaRose had by 2008 declared herself "desperate" to help suffering Muslims in the YouTube video.
"In my view, she sort of slipped sideways into Islam... There may have been some seduction into it, by one or more people", said Temple University psychologist Frank Farley.
LaRose and Gorman shared an apartment with his father in Pennsburg, a quaint if isolated town an hour north west of Philadelphia. Just days after the father died last August, she stole Gorman's passport and fled to Europe without telling him, making good on her online pledge to try to kill in the name of Allah, according to the indictment.
From June 2008 to her August 23, 2009, departure, the woman who also called herself "Fatima Rose" went online to recruit male fighters for the cause, recruit women with Western passports to marry them, and raise money for the holy war, the indictment charged.
She had also agreed to marry one of her overseas contacts, a man from South Asia who said he was a dealer in bombs and explosives, according to e-mails recovered by authorities.
He also told her in a March 2009 e-mail to go to Sweden to find the artist, Lars Vilks.
"I will make this my goal till I achieve it or die trying," she wrote back, adding that her blonde American looks would help her blend in.
Vilks questioned the sophistication of the plotters, seven of whom were rounded up in Ireland last week, just before LaRose's indictment was unsealed. Still, he said he was glad LaRose never got to him.
Although she had written to the Swedish embassy in March 2009 to ask how to obtain residency, and joined his online artists group in September, there is no evidence from court documents that she ever made it to Sweden.
Instead, she was arrested returning to Philadelphia on October 15.
Alarming new development
LaRose's case is seen as indicating an alarming new development in which militants are drawn not from Muslim immigrant communities but from Americans born and raised in the United States.
In Chicago, another US citizen, David Coleman Headley, was expected to plead guilty on Thursday to scoping out targets in India for the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks and plotting to attack a Danish newspaper.
Headley was born Daood Gilani to a Pakistani father and American mother, but later changed to his mother's maiden name and adopted a Western first name, allowing himself to blend in more easily.
LaRose allegedly boasted in internet traffic, where she went by the monikers "Fatima LaRose" and "Jihad Jane", that her looks allowed her to go anywhere undetected.
Her alleged recruitment drive targeted women with the kind of mobility to escape initial suspicion. They were to possess "passports and the ability to travel to and around Europe in support of violent jihad," the indictment says.
She is accused of trying to transfer a stolen US passport "to facilitate an act of international terrorism".
Experts say the already complex battle between US security forces and a myriad of militant groups is becoming even more muddled.
LaRose's transformation into an alleged Islamist plotter is "one of our worst nightmares playing out", said Jerrold Post, author of The Mind of the Terrorist and director of the political psychology programme at George Washington University.
"Individuals carrying American, British, French, any European passport who are indistinguishable from other citizens and who have been somehow radicalised... I have every reason to believe this will be increasing in frequency," Post told AFP.
US counter terrorism agencies are "concerned" about the influence of inspirational figures who reach out online to radicalise new adherents, said National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair.
One such figure is Anwar al-Awlaqi, a radical imam who was born in New Mexico and is believed to be hiding in Yemen, Blair told a congressional hearing last month in his annual threat assessment last month.
Al-Awlaqi has been cited as an influence on three of the hijackers in the September 11 2001 attacks and was in email contact with Major Nadal Hassan, the US army psychiatrist accused of opening fire at the Fort Hood army base and killing 13 people in November.
The imam has also been linked to a Nigerian student accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound flight with explosives in his underwear on Christmas Eve and Sharif Mobley, a New Jersey-born man arrested in Yemen this month on terror charges.
"Thus far, radicalisation of groups and individuals in the United States has done more to spread jihadist ideology and generate support for violent causes overseas than it has produced terrorists targeting the homeland," Blair said.
Rising political tensions following the election of the nation's first black president combined with a lengthy and deep economic downturn has also led to the growth of other forms of domestic terrorism.
The number of extremist groups and armed militias which advocate radical anti-government doctrines and conspiracy theories nearly tripled last year to 512 from 149 in 2008, according a recent report by to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which tracks the activities of hate groups.
The rash of cases of so-called home-grown terrorists is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States.