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‘Jihad Jane’ Suspect Suggests Changing Face of Terrorism

March 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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American Colleen LaRose, the self-proclaimed "Jihad Jane," faces terror charges for trying to murder a Swedish artist for his depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Gwen Ifill talks to a reporter about the threat of domestic terrorism.

GWEN IFILL: An American woman who called herself Jihad Jane was charged yesterday with using the Internet to launch a homegrown terror plot.

Colleen LaRose, who lived in suburban Pennsylvania, was accused of trying to murder a Swedish artist, Lars Vilks. Vilks angered Muslims by depicting the Prophet Mohammed with the body of a dog.

Authorities say the case demonstrates the changing face of terrorism.

For more on all of this, we turn to Washington Post staff writer Carrie Johnson, who has been following the story.

Welcome, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, The Washington Post: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: It seems unusual to have a woman involved in a case like this. How unusual it is?

CARRIE JOHNSON: It is quite unusual for an American woman to be charged with terrorist-related offenses in the United States. It’s happened one of only a handful of times in the last several years.

And FBI analysts and intelligence agents say it underscores that the bureau needs to refocus its efforts to follow every lead, no matter how farfetched it might be.

GWEN IFILL: How serious a threat do we think she was? We — she could have easily just been someone noodling around on the Internet, but it sounds like it was more than that.

CARRIE JOHNSON: It certainly was.

Her path to radicalization was a lengthy one, over a period of many months, more than a year. She reached out to other people of like mind in the Internet to foment what she called violent jihad. She actually vetted possible recruits, people with Western passports, people who could travel and would blend into Western society and the U.S.

And she, in fact, traveled to Western Europe herself last year in August to advance this plot against the Swedish artist.

GWEN IFILL: So, she had been involved in this for a while. How did they finally uncover it?

CARRIE JOHNSON: Well, it’s not entirely clear how the FBI got on to her, but it’s quite clear from reading the charging documents that they had been monitoring her electronic communications, her space — her page on MySpace, video she had posted on YouTube, e-mail she had exchanged with people across Western and Eastern Europe and South Asia for many, many months.

GWEN IFILL: Now, we know that she was arrested, or charged, or held. She’s been in custody since last October. Why are we just hearing about this now?

CARRIE JOHNSON: She was arrested in October in Pennsylvania on a single charge of stealing her boyfriend’s passport and taking it with her overseas when she traveled to Europe.

She was arraigned in the courthouse in Pennsylvania at that time, but it attracted no notice. And, since then, she’s been held very quietly, while FBI agents and investigators around the world have tried to track down leads from the electronic communications she exchanged with other people.

GWEN IFILL: You’re talking about tracking down leads around the world. Do we know whether she was acting alone?

CARRIE JOHNSON: She was charged along with five unnamed co-conspirators.

And we do know, Gwen, that, yesterday, early morning, in Ireland, four men and three women were arrested and taken into custody by the Irish police on suspicion of working with Ms. LaRose on this plot.

GWEN IFILL: And we think there is a connection between her and those folks in Ireland?

CARRIE JOHNSON: We do think there’s a connection. Law enforcement in the United States has not fully disclosed that yet, nor have the authorities in Ireland. But I would expect to see more people arrested in the weeks ahead.

GWEN IFILL: Now, she mentioned in her e-mails that she drew attention to the fact that she was blonde, had blue eyes, and, therefore, could blend in, in places like Sweden, where she would have had to go to carry this out.

Is this challenging law enforcement’s notion of what profiling can gain them?

CARRIE JOHNSON: It exactly is.

The U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, Michael Levy, has said the LaRose case, Jihad Jane, shatters any assumptions law enforcement may have had in the past about profiling. She’s, in fact, a very small person, according to some arrest records from earlier in her checkered past. She’s only about 4 feet, 11 inches tall and only about 100 pounds.

So, it would have been possible for authorities to dismiss this possible threat.

GWEN IFILL: And would it have been possible for people who she knew in Pennsylvania, people who are neighbors, people who are even relatives to have been on to what she was up to?

CARRIE JOHNSON: Well, she appears to have led a rather isolated existence after moving to suburban Pennsylvania about five years ago.

But, interestingly enough, her live-in boyfriend at the time, Kurt Gorman, has told reporters since the arrest yesterday, or the indictment yesterday, that he had no idea what she was up to. He was very puzzled when she disappeared in August of last year, along with his passport.

And he was quite surprised that she had been going on the Internet and exchanging this kind of rhetoric with like-minded extremists.

GWEN IFILL: So, it was his passport that she was taking around with her and offering up to other people?

CARRIE JOHNSON: Yes. There are some e-mail communications cited in the indictment in which she offers to give his U.S. passport to the brothers fighting jihad overseas.

GWEN IFILL: So, let’s talk about what this ongoing investigation might be. Is it an investigation which centers in on one individual who clearly was an aberration, or are they drawing a big wide net looking for any number of people who might be involved in this same type of activity?

CARRIE JOHNSON: I think it’s fair to say that they are following and surveilling, may already have in custody in the international sphere and possibly in the United States more individuals with whom she communicated online.

There are many people who are cited in the indictment without names, only initials and numbers. And it’s fair to say that authorities are tracking all of those people now and pumping them for information and new leads about other possible terrorists who have come to the fore as a result of this case.

GWEN IFILL: Can you tell us anything about those leads?

CARRIE JOHNSON: Well, they’re very closemouthed about this for a good reason, which is to say, if they don’t have these people in custody, they don’t want them to scatter to the winds from hearing about it on television.

That said, I think, in the weeks ahead, we’re likely to see more public arrests and charges.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, are — do we know that we’re cooperating with other governments on an investigation like this, or is this basically a U.S.-led investigation?

CARRIE JOHNSON: Gwen, that’s a great question.

We do know that authorities in Sweden, Ireland, the United States, and Interpol, which is the — essentially a clearinghouse for arrest warrants for international fugitives, are all on this case now.

GWEN IFILL: Carrie Johnson of The Washington Post, thanks for your reporting.