'JihadJane' suspect dropped out before high school, married at 16

The self-described "Jihad Jane" who thought her blond hair and blue eyes would let her blend in as she sought to kill an artist in Sweden is a rare case of an American woman aiding foreign terrorists, authorities say.
By Carrie Johnson and Alice Crites
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Pennsylvania woman who allegedly used the Internet alias JihadJane to recruit people for violent jihad had dropped out before reaching high school and was married at age 16, the start of a bumpy life that might have left her vulnerable to radical beliefs, according to federal sources and public records.

While caring for an ailing man in a suburban community where she had few friends, Colleen Renee LaRose, 46, turned to YouTube, MySpace and electronic message boards, where she found like-minded individuals bent on supporting international terrorism, according to an indictment unsealed this week. Her path to radicalization took years and included a series of online contacts with men who urged her to action, the sources said.

LaRose left her live-in boyfriend in Pennsburg, a quiet town outside Philadelphia, and traveled to Western Europe in August as part of an alleged plan to kill a Swedish artist. LaRose believed she could "blend in" to the community because of her blond hair, blue eyes and small frame, she wrote in e-mail messages to her alleged co-conspirators.

FBI analysts and national security experts have worried for years that Westerners with easy access to passports could be recruited for terrorist aims. Michael L. Levy, the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, said the JihadJane case "shatters any lingering thought that we can spot a terrorist based on appearance."

Central to LaRose's case is the Internet, which is being used increasingly by al-Qaeda and other groups to penetrate U.S. borders with radical propaganda, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael E. Leiter said in a talk last month to the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.

"LaRose's actions again reflect the fact that immersing oneself in the propaganda and culture of jihadists through the Internet can lead to an individual attempting to undertake a violent act, no matter that person's age, gender, or background," according to an analysis by the SITE Intelligence Group, a private firm that monitors jihadist Web sites.

LaRose is scheduled to appear in court March 18 for an arraignment on charges that she conspired to support terrorists and kill a Swedish artist and that she lied to FBI agents about her online activities and associations. Prosecutors say she could face life in prison if convicted. Mark Wilson, a public defender representing her, declined to comment.

LaRose was arrested in October in Pennsylvania, accused of attempting to transfer a passport stolen from her boyfriend, Kurt Gorman. She was appointed an attorney, appeared at a brief public court hearing, agreed to be detained and waived her right to a speedy trial. The grand jury indictment accusing LaRose of terrorist offenses did not emerge until last week and was unsealed by authorities Tuesday.

The charges came as a surprise to neighbors on Main Street in Pennsburg, a little less than 50 miles from Philadelphia, where LaRose had lived for years while taking care of Gorman's elderly father.

In an interview with CNN, Gorman said LaRose had vanished -- with his stolen passport -- in August, shortly after his father's death. Prosecutors say she traveled to Europe to find artist Lars Vilks as part of an alleged plot to kill him in revenge for his provocative drawing of the Prophet Mohammed on the body of a dog.

"Sounds crazy," Gorman told CNN. "It is hard to believe. . . . She wasn't no rocket scientist. She was limited in her capacity, so I'm not sure how much she thought she could do on her own."

Four men and three women were arrested in Ireland by local police this week in connection with the case, according to European news accounts.

LaRose had brushes with the law in Pennsylvania, where in 2002 she faced charges of public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, according to public records. She also fought charges in South Texas, where she lived with Sheldon "Buddy" Barnum, the man she married at 16.

In a telephone interview, Barnum, who was 32 at the time of the 1980 wedding, said: "What do I remember about her? Nothing. Wasn't nothing to remember."

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