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A Pennsylvania woman known as "Jihad Jane" pleaded guilty on Tuesday to four criminal charges, including a terrorism offense, that could send her to prison for life.
Colleen LaRose, 47, appeared in federal court in Philadelphia and admitted that she used the Internet nickname Jihad Jane to recruit U.S. citizens for a violent overseas plot. The case has attracted international attention because LaRose is such an unlikely radical.
LaRose married at 16, and in the years after, she lived a hardscrabble life that included brushes with the law and a suicide attempt. One Pennsylvania newspaper said her story had all the makings of a country western song.
That is, until LaRose turned to the Internet and got involved in an international plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist who had offended Muslims.
Bruce Hoffman studies terrorism at Georgetown University.
"Blue-eyed, blond, petite suburban housewife is not what readily comes to mind when we think of a radical homicidal terrorist," Hoffman says.
He says LaRose is an amateur but that the Jihad Jane case is still worth taking seriously.
"There's no evidence she received training anywhere. There's no evidence she was following anyone's orders or directions," Hoffman says. "But nonetheless, even this person, let's say, on the margins of terrorism, I think, in a very short span of time, I think was able to pull together at least the bare bones of a plot."
A plot that went like this: LaRose, using the handles Fatima or Jihad Jane, urged other people, especially American women, to travel overseas to wage jihad.
Prosecutors say LaRose wanted recruits who could easily blend into European society: people with U.S. passports and no criminal record.
"Putting aside the personality that she brought into this, it appears to be a case where she learned everything she knew from the Internet, and that was the source of her radicalization," says Patrick Rowan, a former national security prosecutor who is now a partner at the McGuire Woods law firm.
The Internet also proved her downfall. A group of volunteers who prowl the Web for extremists apparently came across some of LaRose's postings. They alerted the FBI.
Authorities finally caught up with LaRose in Ireland. She'd gone there to visit people she'd met online to try to carry out an attack on the cartoonist Lars Vilk.
Juan Zarate is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and he's been following the LaRose case.
"It's a very interesting and important case as we look at the metastasizing of the ideology," Zarate says, "and whether more and more Americans are being drawn to the narrative that al-Qaida has espoused for many years and has grown more and more popular around the world among some."
So many are being drawn to it that the FBI is getting flooded with tips about a wide range of wannabe terrorists, according to Hoffman at Georgetown University.
"Al-Qaida and other groups are trying to get us to focus on this quote unquote low-hanging fruit of the less competent terrorist, in hopes that they suck up our time and attention. And perhaps the more professional and, indeed, a more sophisticated and successful terrorist plot can therefore be perpetrated," Hoffman says.
LaRose will be sentenced later this year on four charges: providing material support to terrorists, conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, making false statements and attempted identity theft.
One of the women she allegedly recruited, a young mother from Colorado known as "Jihad Jamie," is facing trial in May on a charge of providing material support to terrorists.
David Kris, leader of the Justice Department's National Security Division, and George Venizelos, special agent in charge of the FBI's Pennsylvania office, said in written statements that the episodes demonstrate "the need to remain vigilant" to evolving threats.
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