American Colleen LaRose is accused of conspiring with jihadists and pledging to commit murder in the name of a Muslim holy war. Authorities say she wanted to kill a Swedish artist who had offended Muslims. Her trial was set for May 3.
The Philadelphia-area woman known as "Jihad Jane" has told the FBI about her alleged role in a plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist, according to officials familiar with the case. But Colleen LaRose, 46, entered a not guilty plea Thursday in a Pennsylvania courtroom, marking the beginning of the process toward a possible plea agreement.
LaRose has been in U.S. custody since October. Her arrest was unsealed earlier this month after officials arrested her alleged co-conspirators in Ireland.
Officials have released only the sketchiest of details about LaRose. They say she began trolling the Internet for people to help her, in her words, "ease the suffering of Muslims" a short time after she converted to Islam. They believe she converted in late 2008 and began visiting a roster of Islamist Web sites. But she is not connected to any particular mosque, and her live-in boyfriend said he didn't know she was Muslim.
Officials familiar with the case told NPR that it appears that LaRose was more troubled than a fervent believer in radical Islam. She has had a rather hard-luck life, with a first marriage at age 16 and a second one at age 24. She dropped out of high school, has been unemployed and tried to kill herself by taking pills in 2005.
She had spent the past couple of years caring for her live-in boyfriend's ailing father. It was during that time, officials said, that she discovered Islam on the Internet and began to call herself Jihad Jane and Fatima Rose in chat rooms. When her boyfriend's father died last August, LaRose apparently disappeared.
Prosecutors say she stole her boyfriend's passport and traveled to Ireland, where she allegedly met with others who were plotting to kill Swedish artist Lars Vilks. He published a cartoon in 2007 of the Prophet Muhammad on the body of a dog.
Muslims have found the cartoon deeply offensive, and LaRose and a handful of her co-conspirators allegedly wanted to kill the artist. Al-Qaida has put a $100,000 bounty on Vilks' head, but the group that conspired to kill him has no ties to any organized terrorist organization.
LaRose allegedly told the group that with her blonde hair and pale eyes, she would be able to blend in to carry out the attack in Sweden. She vowed that she would die trying. But officials say she never made it there. Instead, she spent some time in Ireland. Her indictment was unsealed after a handful of people linked to the Vilks case were arrested in Ireland earlier this month.
LaRose has been charged not only with conspiring to murder the cartoonist, but also with allegedly trying to recruit women with Western passports to marry fellow violent jihadists and with raising money for terrorist causes. She had also allegedly agreed to marry a man from South Asia who said he knew how to work with bombs and explosives.
When news of LaRose's arrest first surfaced this month, the focus had been on how she seemed to belie all the stereotypes about would-be terrorists. The tendency has been for those who sign up for violent jihad to be young, disaffected, male and Muslim.
But U.S. officials familiar with the case now say they think LaRose is an unusual exception, not the beginning of a trend. They say she was clearly looking for somewhere to belong, and Islam provided an outlet. One official familiar with the case told NPR that he thinks LaRose fell in love with this man from South Asia, whom she met online, and that prompted her to sign on to violent jihad.
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