Terrorism Recruits No Longer All Fit The Mold

A booking mug shot of Colleen LaRose from 1997.

This 1997 photo released by the Tom Green County Jail in San Angelo, Texas, shows a booking mug shot of Colleen LaRose. Tom Green County Jail/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Green County Jail/AP

Her moniker on the Internet was Jihad Jane. Her real name is Colleen LaRose. And the petite, 46-year-old blonde from the suburbs of Philadelphia represents one of law enforcement's worst nightmares as the potential new face of terrorism.

Prosecutors unsealed an indictment this week that says LaRose converted to Islam and then trolled the Internet to recruit others who might take part in possible terrorist attacks. She allegedly looked for people like herself — women with American or European passports who could, as she put it, "blend in." Officials say LaRose is just the latest in a growing number of Americans who are signing on with terrorists, and it is a worrisome trend.

Anyone who has been tracking terrorism cases over the past year would find these names familiar: Najibullah Zazi, Kamel Derwish, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Sahim Alwan, Nidal Hasan, Yahya Goba, Anwar al-Awlaki, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. But what might not be as well known is that more than half of them are Americans.

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"It is the same problem we see in Europe," says Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor and frequent consultant to the government on terrorism. "There really is no longer any one profile of the terrorist. We want to believe that there is, but there isn't. More and more — whether it's local high school students who have reputations of being good students and good boys, or whether it's the next-door neighbor's housewife — what we see is that there is just an incredible diversity of the people being attracted to these movements, and that it's no longer possible to say who a terrorist is or even to say that it's someone so dramatically different from ourselves."

Just consider LaRose's biography. She dropped out of high school. She'd been married several times. Back in Texas, where she had lived before Pennsylvania, she had been arrested for writing bad checks and for drunken driving. Neighbors said she was quiet and kept to herself. In other words, she is precisely the kind of person who could fly under law enforcement's radar.

A petite blonde American woman, before now, didn't fit the terrorist profile. Hoffman says LaRose poses a problem for counterintelligence efforts because agents now must consider any profile.

"The problem is given how diverse these people are, it just raises the challenges for both law enforcement and intelligence to run these threats to ground," he says.

Recruitment Getting 'Easier'

Perhaps the most famous American to have joined the ranks of the enemy is Adam Gadahn, who grew up on a goat farm in Southern California. Gadahn has been a prominent spokesman for al-Qaida for years. He stars in English-language propaganda videos for the group. Reports this week said Pakistani authorities had captured him. As it turns out, that was a mistake; they hadn't.

Gadahn is not the only American who has become the public face of a terrorist group. Last year, al-Shabab, a Somali militia thought to have links to al-Qaida, produced a jihadi recruitment video that featured a young man named Omar Hammami.

The video starts with a jihadi rap song about the glories of battle in Somalia and then cuts to Hammami himself, counseling young militia men. "The only reason we are staying here," he says on the videotape, "away from our family, away from the cities, away from ice and candy bars and other things is because we are waiting to meet with the enemy."

It is no accident that Hamammi speaks English with an American accent. He was born in the U.S. and grew up in Alabama. His father is a Syrian immigrant; his mother is an American.

Law enforcement officials say the video — which has gone viral on the Internet — is aimed at recruiting Americans for al-Shabab. Experts say slick videos like that coupled with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made a terrorist recruiter's job easier, particularly here in the U.S., where traditionally it has been harder.

"It really is this culmination of these eight years of being involved in these two wars that is starting to supercharge the environment among these diaspora communities," says Reid Sawyer, the head of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. "It certainly doesn't mean there is going to be a wave of these individuals coming forward; it just means the numbers are increasing."

The increased numbers don't come as a complete surprise. Intelligence officials have been tracking American recruiters for years now. They say there are special jihadi training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are actually reserved for Westerners. Increasing calls for recruits on the Internet aren't just made in Arabic; they are in English or with English subtitles. So there is no mistaking the intended audience.

This time last year, Bryant Neal Vinas, a young Hispanic man, stood before a judge in a Brooklyn courtroom and pleaded guilty to terrorism charges. He said he had spent 14 months in Pakistan training with al-Qaida before he was arrested and then extradited to the U.S. He told officials he had been permitted into al-Qaida's inner circle. The group had big plans for him because he had an American passport and a clean record and is Hispanic. He made clear that what al-Qaida is looking for is people like him — or like Jihad Jane — people who don't fit the stereotypical profile of a terrorist.

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