American 'Jihad Jane' Faces Terrorism Charges

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Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent
Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security, NYU School of Law

Colleen Renee LaRose has been detained on suspicions she supplied materials to terrorists and traveled to Sweden to launch an attack. Her tactics helped her blend into Western society, and challenge many of the profiling tactics used to identify potential terrorist threats.


Yesterday, we learned that an American woman faces terrorism charges that could send her to prison for life. Her name is Colleen Renee LaRose, a petite, blonde-haired, green-eyed, 46-year-old from suburban Philadelphia who will more likely be better known under a name she allegedly chose for herself: Jihad Jane.

According to a federal indictment, she adopted the cause of violent jihad, used the Internet to recruit accomplices, and traveled overseas on a mission, reportedly to murder a Swedish cartoonist who published a controversial drawing of the prophet Muhammad atop the body of a dog.

NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joins us to tell us what we know, and what we don't, about Colleen LaRose. If you have questions about the case of Jihad Jane or its implications, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email: And Dina joins us. Dina, nice to have you with us, as always.


CONAN: And what do we know about Colleen LaRose?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, here are sort of the outlines of her biography. She dropped out of high school. She's been married several times. She used to live in Texas before she lived in Pennsylvania, and she'd been arrested for writing bad checks and for drunken driving. Neighbors said she was quiet and kept to herself. I say all of this because, in other words, she's precisely the kind of person who would fly under law enforcement's radar, you know. She's - as you said - a petite, blonde, American woman and to this point, that had not been a terrorist profile.

CONAN: So the idea that - while we always hear that, of course, Saudi men are picked apart, picked - aside for greater scrutiny, those were the ones who attacked. Well, that's not what we see lately: a Nigerian, and now a 46-year-old, American blonde.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Or even more so that there's been this pattern of Americans who have been signing up for jihad, and that we've being seeing this sort of steady drumbeat over the last couple of years, and finding out that Americans are in these training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In some cases, they're staying there to fight. In other cases, they're coming back here and they're being caught.

And if you talk to intelligence officials, they'll tell you that for the past two or three years, this has been the trend they've been worried about. And she's sort of emblematic of that.

CONAN: But again, from what we know or from the indictment and other things, it seems like she recruited herself. She was not recruited.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, interestingly, if you look at all the coverage, no one says that she was actually an al-Qaida operative in any way. My understanding is that this was very much a sort of a homegrown, sort of grassroots group that found each other on the Internet, had like-minded ideas, and just sort of went with what they considered to be violent jihad to prove that their ideas were correct.

And you know, that doesn't make them - really, any less dangerous than al-Qaida in the sense that these are all people who maybe don't have the skills, but they have the will to do some sort of attack. And sometimes, you don't need to be skillful. Sometimes, all you need is just to be lucky.

CONAN: And she is believed - again, reportedly - to be connected with other people who were arrested in Ireland yesterday. And that may have been the explanation for the timing, as she was picked up in October, but the indictment not sealed until yesterday.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right. I think that the reason why - my understanding from my sources is that the her indictment was unsealed yesterday once these arrests in Ireland were actually made. Now the arrests in Ireland were linked to this alleged plot to kill this cartoonist who had put the head of the prophet Muhammad on the body of a dog, and this was found to be very disrespectful. And - so that's why he was in the crosshairs.

CONAN: And indeed, there had been a bounty announced on some terrorist Web sites for those who might serve justice upon this cartoonist.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You know, I have a question about that, though. I mean, if al-Qaida put $100,000 bounty on him, how do you collect something like that?

CONAN: Where do you apply? Yes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, yeah. Exactly.

CONAN: And is there any suggestion that Jihad Jane - as she apparently styled herself on the Internet - that she was, in any way, in touch with a terrorist organization?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Not that we know of. I mean, there have been some reports that perhaps she had followed someone called Anwar al-Awlaki, who is a radical imam who lives in Yemen, who's been connected to several other plots including the Abdulmutallab Christmas Day bomber plot, and to the Fort Hood shooting that happened last year. But you know, that connection can be quite tenuous because Anwar al-Awlaki is all over the Internet.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And people are sort of logging on to his sermons all the time.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Karen Greenberg joins us. She's executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law, author of "The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days," and she joins us on the phone from her office. Nice to have you with us on the program today.

Ms. KAREN GREENBERG (Director, Center on Law and Security): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And how does this arrest change the way intelligence agencies will go about looking for possible terrorists?

Ms. GREENBERG: Well, first of all, it shows us how they've already changed some of their methods, which is to have to go from looking for recruitment in mosques to recruitment or even self-recruitment on the Internet. And so - and you can tell by this case that this is a way in which they've transformed themselves already and are continuing to do so.

What they're going to have to do in the future is something that I think they've been cognizant of for a long time, which is to recognize that you can't really tell what shape, size, form, religion, ethnic background terrorism is going to come from and therefore, the tools for apprehending suspects are not -easily fit into a profile box. And actually, that's always been true. This is just a very bold reminder of that.

CONAN: It also seems like breaking up this alleged plot does not - going to lead to anywhere else. She's not going to be able to unravel this and go back to the leadership of any other organization. This is apparently, at least, leaderless.

Ms. GREENBERG: Right. But it's this kind of terrorism that is - can be quite frightening, actually. Because if you think about people who are somewhat unstable, unhappy, whatever they're looking for, that just decide to identify themselves as people who are part of a larger, violent activity and use the code words that might have to do - or the targets that are associated with what we understand as international Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, then we have a very large non-network. And going about it is going to be - apprehending these people is going to be quite difficult.

CONAN: Now, let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guests are Karen Greenberg and Dina Temple-Raston, 800-989-8255. Email us, And we'll start with Mohammad(ph), Mohammad calling us from Dearborn.

MOHAMMAD (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, there.

MOHAMMAD: Yeah. My comment is just that, you know, I'm just really sick about -of people like this, that, you know, of al-Qaida and the Taliban that all claim to be following the ways of the Quran when really, they're following a very distorted and, you know, mutated view of it that supports such acts of violence.

I mean, yes, the cartoon was offensive. But at the end of the day, it's a cartoon; it's not going to harm me in any form. And killing a human being over it is just unacceptable under any circumstances.

CONAN: And do you think that most of the people that you know, Mohammad, would agree with you?

MOHAMMAD: Yes, I would. In fact, most of the people I know, you know, would not even consider people in al-Qaida and the Taliban to be Muslims. We consider them as some sort of pseudo-religion that simply wears the mask of Islam - a cult, if you would.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. And, Karen Greenberg, you study this. It appears from what we can tell in the Islamic world, that more people are coming around to that point of view that Mohammad is talking about.

Ms. GREENBERG: Right. And I think what's happening is that the word jihad or even, you know, concern for Muslims in other countries has become a useful slogan for people who are angry about a variety of things. And we've certainly seeing that in this country, where a number of cases - in Dearborn, by the way, as Dina and I have talked about - there are number of cases where they use the words, but they don't really have a strong identification with many of the things that are fundamental to the religion.

CONAN: At least...

TEMPLE-RASTON: That is the case this time as well - in this instance.

Ms. GREENBERG: Exactly.

TEMPLE-RASTON: We actually have no idea what the affiliation is.

Ms. GREENBERG: Or if there is one.

CONAN: Or if there is one, indeed. Dina, let me also ask you about some of the profiling - if you will - aspects of this. We've just had an incident in this country where there were six Pakistani legislators, invited here by the State Department, that attended some high-level meetings in Washington, D.C., and then were going to take a flight to New Orleans. And at Reagan National Airport here, just outside of Washington, D.C., they were put - stepped aside for extra screening. This, a result of procedures instituted after the attempted bombing on Christmas Day. Pakistan is one of those countries whose nationals will be asked to undergo secondary screening. They were outraged by this, refused to undergo it, have returned home, being hailed as heroes for defying the Americans. This kind of - well, you know, it's a public relations disaster.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Certainly. And I think that there's always been the sense that you really can't profile, because you don't know what the terrorists are going to look like. I mean, to this point, for example, we've never had someone...


TEMPLE-RASTON: ...who's a Nigerian who has stepped into this breach, and now we've had one of those. So I think for a long time, law enforcement in this country has known that you can't jump to any conclusions about which people might be dangerous and which wouldn't. What's interesting about this particular woman, just really quickly...

CONAN: Sure.

TEMPLE-RASTON: that she's only the second American woman, in all the time that we've been doing terrorism cases, who's actually been charged with terrorism charges. That's how rare this is. And that's what makes this important, is that she's showing that there's - there could be a turn here.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line and go next to - this is Adam(ph), Adam calling from Miami.

ADAM (Caller): Hey, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

ADAM: Well, basically, my question was essentially - I've always been, sort of uncomfortable with the way that, you know, certain aspects of the war on terror have been handled. The one thing that - not so much Guantanamo but the foreign nationals who have been caught (unintelligible), supposedly, but the few American citizens who I have heard of who have been detained and, you know, and held indefinitely in DOD brigs - such as Padilla, I mean, that's the only one I can think of at the top of my head.

And I'm just wondering how these two cases are being handled completely differently. These are two American citizens who were both arrested on terrorism charges. I believe Jose Padilla was supposedly trying to plant a dirty bomb somewhere in Chicago, I believe. But either way, they were both tried and they're being handled apparently very differently.

CONAN: Karen Greenberg, Jose Padilla - the allegation was that he was going to try to plant a dirty bomb. That was not what he was eventually charged with.

Ms. GREENBERG: Right. Exactly. And the Padilla case is one of those cases that I think, you know, years from now - if not now - we will feel was mishandled in the way we classified it, in the way we kept, you know, reconfiguring the charges and the alleged evidence against him. The reason these cases are being handled differently, let me just suggest, is that we've become much better professionals, we as a country and the Department of Justice, at understanding how to try these cases in a way that does not lead with fear but leads with a very practical, very pragmatic, very crime-oriented sense of how to apprehend, how to build the case, and certainly you see this here with the delay in our knowing about it.

They held this. They weren't out there trying to, you know, blast that they had found a terrorist. They waited, they let this plot, as it seems to us - play itself out until they had apprehended the people in Ireland. And so I think that the Justice Department and the FBI, in particular, has learned how to build these cases and not just begin to look at people and round them up, and accuse them with charges that ultimately will not hold.

CONAN: Adam, thanks very much for the call.

We're talking about the case of the allegedly self-styled Jane Jihad. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let me remind you, we're talking with NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston, and with Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law, author of "The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days."

And Dina, there has been a series of cases that have wound up, of Americans and people inside this country who have been pleading guilty of late to terrorism charges - and cases that, as Karen Greenberg was just suggesting, handled much more straightforwardly than there were, say, eight years ago.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, it's - I wrote a book about the Lackawanna Six, which was the original - sort of so-called sleeper cell here in this country. They were six young men from upstate New York, Buffalo area, who had actually gone to an al-Qaida camp ahead of the 2001 attacks.

And in that case, you know, they really hadn't been planning anything when they were brought in, and they were brought in for material support to a terrorist organization. And I would say - and I think Karen would agree with me - that if that same case were to come up today, the FBI would be watching them for a year, two years, waiting for something to unfold rather than grab them so early in the process.

And this has to do with just - sort of this confidence that we're seeing in law enforcement, that they can let these things run their course and learn more about the people who are involved, and gather more intelligence. And I think that's why we're seeing more of these cases. I mean, you remember early cases, it was always - things seemed a little drummed up or a little thin. We just don't seem to see that in these cases that we're seeing now. And I - this has to do with a new competence in putting these cases together.

CONAN: And Jane - Greenberg, a new emphasis on that patience, waiting to see how it plays out, as was traditional with the FBI - rather than the theory that you had to nip these plots in the bud before they could come to fruition.

Ms. GREENBERG: Right. But there's also another factor here, which is that - and this is one of the concerns with the number of cases that we've had since - in the last six months, which is that it does convey a sense - and maybe Dina would disagree - that the threat is growing, and that it's varied in a way that is moving at a very fast pace, and that - you know, the fact that these cases are serious, which makes us, I think, comforted, the sense that our institutions have a better sense of what terrorism is about and how to go about countering these threats, there seem to be more threats.

And that's a different kind of concern. And you know, we're seeing them from -look, we have people who are from abroad. We have people who are from abroad and come here. We have native-born Americans. We have a whole variety of people who are beginning to identify themselves with causes that we would put in this larger category of terrorism.

CONAN: Dina, we just have a few seconds left.

TEMPLE-RASTON: I completely agree. I think 2010 is going to be an even rougher year than 2009 was. There were 11 plots in 2009. That is almost a third of the plots we've seen in this country since 9/11.

CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, joining us from our bureau in New York. Dina, as always, thanks for your time.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're very welcome.

CONAN: And Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law, author of "The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days," with us from her office at NYU. Thanks very much for your time today, too.

Ms. GREENBERG: Thank you.

CONAN: Tomorrow, elections in Iraq, the surge in Afghanistan, still no Middle East peace talks - the U.S. and the Middle East,what's changed? Ted Koppel will join us. That's tomorrow's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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