Pa. suspect: Caretaker by day, ‘Jihad Jane’ online
Associated Press Writer
PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Colleen LaRose spent long days caring for her boyfriend’s father in a second-floor apartment in Pennsburg, a small town north of Philadelphia.
But online, federal authorities say, the devoted caretaker developed a daring alter ego, refashioning herself as “Jihad Jane” while helping recruit and finance Muslim terrorists – and eventually moving overseas to try to kill an artist she perceived as an enemy to Islam.
LaRose, 46, was charged Tuesday with conspiring with jihadist fighters and pledging to commit murder in the name of a Muslim holy war, or jihad. The indictment was announced hours after authorities arrested seven suspected terrorists in Ireland allegedly linked to LaRose, who has been in prison since her Oct. 15 arrest while returning to the United States.
In e-mails recovered by the FBI over 15 months, LaRose agreed to marry an online contact from South Asia so he could move to Europe. She also agreed to become a martyr, the indictment said.
But perhaps she felt like one already.
Born in Michigan, LaRose moved to Texas as a girl and had married twice by age 24. Her first marriage came at 16, to a man twice her age in Tarrant County, Texas, public records show. There are no records or reports of any children from either union, both of which were long over by the time she met Pennsylvanian Kurt Gorman in 2005.
LaRose lived with Gorman and his father in Pennsburg, caring for the older man while Gorman worked at his family’s small business in another town, Gorman said this week.
“She was a good-hearted person,” he said Wednesday. “She pretty much stayed around the house.”
But online, she grew increasingly devoted to a loose band of what authorities say were violent co-conspirators from around the world. They found her after she posted a YouTube video in June 2008 saying she was “desperate to do something somehow to help” ease the suffering of Muslims, the indictment said.
She eventually agreed to try to kill Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who had angered Muslims by depicting the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog, according to a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to discuss details of the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Despite Web images that show LaRose in a Muslim head covering, Gorman said he never picked up on any Muslim leanings. She never attended religious services of any kind, he said. Gorman, 47, sensed nothing amiss in their five-year relationship until the day after his father’s funeral last August.
“I came home and she was gone. It doesn’t make any sense,” he said Wednesday outside his firm in nearby Quakertown.
That same day, LaRose had removed the hard drive from her computer and set off for Europe – federal authorities won’t specify where. She had swiped Gorman’s passport and planned to give it to the co-conspirator she had agreed to marry, the indictment said.
It’s unclear how she was able to travel overseas, given that the FBI, presumably tipped to her online postings, had interviewed her July 17. According to the indictment, she denied soliciting funds for any terrorist causes or making the postings ascribed to “JihadJane.”
By Sept. 30, she wrote online that it would be “an honour & great pleasure to die or kill for” her intended spouse, the indictment said. “Only death will stop me here that I am so close to the target!” she is accused of writing.
Her federal public defenders, Mark T. Wilson and Ross Thompson, declined to on the case again Wednesday.
Irish police disclosed, though, that they had arrested two Algerians, two Libyans, a Palestinian, a Croatian and an American woman married to one of the Algerian suspects. They were not identified by name.
“I’m glad she didn’t kill me,” Vilks told The Associated Press on Wednesday, saying the suspects appeared to be “low-tech.” He said he has built defense systems in his home to thwart would-be terrorists, including a safe room and electrified barbed wire.
LaRose is scheduled to appear in court March 18 on the indictment, which was returned March 4 and unsealed Tuesday. The document does not link her to any organized terrorist groups.
She is unusual in being one of just a handful of U.S. women ever charged with terrorism, the Justice Department said. And her online conversations suggest she knew that to be an advantage – as she thought her blond, American profile would help her move freely in Sweden to carry out the attack, the indictment said.
The case “shatters the conventional wisdom that somehow the U.S. is immune to the heady currents of radicalization that have affected citizens of other Western countries,” said Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman, an international securities expert.
LaRose lived in a tidy red brick apartment building on Main Street, a busy roadway lined with porch-front houses, many decorated with American flags, and a post office.
“It’s a great place. A quiet little town,” said Pennsburg real estate agent Debbie Turner. “But you never know who your neighbors are. You have to be careful.”
LaRose had a few minor convictions in Texas in the 1980s for trespassing and other misdemeanors, according to online records, which list her then as 4 feet 11 and 105 pounds. She was also twice arrested in Texas on misdemeanor public intoxication charges.
“For all intents and purposes, she’s the neighbor next door,” said Hoffman, noting that the Internet enables like minds around the world to meet up, for better or worse.
“You could get all the thrills of participation in an illegal clandestine act in the comfort of your own bedroom,” he said. “This is someone who, I think, because of the communicative power of the Internet is able to … enter into something that is larger than herself.”