Terror Suspect Jihad Jane's Unlikely Journey

A Pennsylvania woman who called herself Jihad Jane faces federal terrorism charges. Colleen LaRose did not fit the profile of an international terrorist. Authorities are alarmed because she apparently seemed to understand that her ability to blend in made her a valuable to terrorist groups.

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A Pennsylvania woman who called herself Jihad Jane faces federal terrorism charges. Colleen LaRose was not apparently much of a threat. While authorities say that she wanted to launch a terrorist attack, she did not have the training to do so. That's why U.S. officials seemed less alarmed by her plans than by her appearance, a petite blond American woman who did not fit the profile of an international terrorist, because that is what made her potentially valuable to terrorists.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins us with more on how Colleen LaRose allegedly became Jihad Jane. What do we know about her?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we know that she seemed very unremarkable. She dropped out of high school. She had been married several times, maybe twice, maybe more - isn't exactly clear. She was living with her boyfriend in a suburb of Philadelphia until very recently. She'd had some run-ins with the law in Texas where she lived before moving to Pennsylvania, and she'd been arrested for drunk driving and for writing bad checks. And we also know that she was very petite. She was four-foot-11 and about 100 pounds.

SIEGEL: And is she a Muslim convert?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, officials said she converted, and there are some photographs of her in which she was covered, but it's unclear exactly when she converted. That said, her boyfriend of five years said that she wasn't that religious. And he said he didn't even realize that she was Muslim. Apparently, she moved out of their apartment quite suddenly just this past August.

SIEGEL: And tell us exactly what she's accused of, Dina?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, according to the indictment, she's been trolling the Internet under the name Jihad Jane, and she had made contact with some terrorist suspects in Europe and South Asia. And eventually, apparently she agreed to try and kill a Swedish artist named Lars Vilks. He'd drawn this cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog, which had really angered Muslims all over the world.

And, in fact, al-Qaida had even put a $100,000 bounty on his head. And LaRose apparently actually said that with her blonde hair and her green eyes she would fit right in in Sweden, so it would be easy for her to commit the murder.

SIEGEL: So, having said that, did she actually try to follow through and take part in killing the Swedish artist?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, allegedly she traveled to Europe to do the job. But Lars Vilks is still alive, so obviously she didn't carry out her mission. Now, I should stress here that unlike a lot of the terrorism cases that we've seen recently, she didn't seem to have any special training to do any of this. And as you put these pieces together, you know, I mentioned that back in August she moved out of her boyfriend's apartment, well, that's about the time that she went to Europe and allegedly targeted this cartoonist.

So it appears, and we're, again, we're still putting this together. Her conversion to Islam was either pretty quick or pretty stealthy if her boyfriend didn't know about it. She's also charged with stealing her boyfriend's passport and conspiring to give it to one of these terrorism suspects she allegedly met online.

SIEGEL: And If I understand the timeline here, her leaving, perhaps her conversion might have coincided with learning of the $100,000 bounty that might have been had for doing this.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's unclear. That bounty has been out there for some time. We don't know when she exactly learned about it.

SIEGEL: Now, the thing again, as you say, that U.S. intelligence officials are worried about here isn't the plot, it's the fact that she is simply not the stereotypical terror suspect. She would surprise - she defies any kind of profiling you might undertake.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. Exactly. And what's even more important than that is she seemed to understand full well that that's the role that she played. She allegedly said that her blond all-American looks would help mask her plan to kill this cartoonist. And authorities allege that she went even further - that she was on the Internet and tried to recruit others for terrorism, specifically looking for women and for people who held U.S. and European passports because they would be able to move around more easily - and that's what got officials worried. They knew this day was coming when the pool of terrorist suspects would grow. The profile would change. She's supposed to answer the charges against her in Philadelphia on March 18th.

SIEGEL: Okay, thank you, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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