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The American who called herself Jihad Jane read the words on her computer screen. Colleen LaRose was fiddling on the Internet, passing time in her duplex near Philadelphia, when the call to martyrdom arrived from halfway around the world.
The order came from an al-Qaida operative. The date: March 22, 2009.
This was it, she thought. Her chance. At 45, LaRose was ready to become somebody.
A compact woman with a seventh-grade education, LaRose was a recent convert to Islam. She found a place for herself quickly, raising money and awareness online for the plight of her Muslim brothers and sisters. They were underdogs, just like her.
During her darkest days, LaRose had endured incest, rape and prostitution. She surrendered her life to drinking and drugs, from crack to crystal meth. Now, if she accepted the order to kill, she would surrender her life to a higher power: Allah.
The man who issued the directive called himself Eagle Eye. LaRose knew him only by his online messages and his voice, and he claimed to be hiding in Pakistan. Eagle Eye wanted her to fly to Europe to train as an assassin with other al-Qaida operatives, then to Sweden to do what few other Muslim jihadists could: blend in.
The terrorists believed that her blonde hair, white skin and U.S. passport, even her Texas twang, would help her to get close enough to the target: Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist who had blasphemed the Prophet Mohammad by sketching his face on the head of a dog.
"Go to Sweden," Eagle Eye instructed LaRose. "And kill him."
A year later, when U.S. authorities revealed the plot, they repeatedly described the Jihad Jane case as one that should forever alter the public's view of terrorism. At the time, one official said the conspiracy "underscores the evolving nature of the threat we face." A second said the case "demonstrates yet another very real danger lurking on the Internet" and "shatters any lingering thought that we can spot a terrorist based on appearance."
The case was so serious, authorities said, that they charged LaRose with crimes that could keep her in prison for the rest of her life.
The court filings and press releases draw a frightening portrait of the Jihad Jane conspiracy. But an exclusive Reuters review of confidential investigative documents and interviews in Europe and the United States - including the first with Jihad Jane herself--reveals a less menacing and, in some ways, more preposterous undertaking than the U.S. government asserted.
"I got so close to being able to do this," LaRose says today of the plan to kill Vilks.
In truth, what happened proved more farcical than frightful, more absurd than ominous.
The conspiracy included a troubled trio of Americans, each a terrorist wannabe: LaRose; a Colorado woman named Jamie Paulin Ramirez; and a Maryland teenager named Mohammed Hassan Khalid. All have pleaded guilty to breaking U.S. terrorism laws, but only LaRose was charged in the plot to kill Vilks. Her sentencing was recently rescheduled to May 7 from December 19.
Since the 9/11 terror attacks, the FBI has investigated hundreds of cases similar to the Jihad Jane conspiracy. With each investigation comes a challenge: how to prevent acts of terrorism without violating civil rights or overreacting to plots that are little more than bluster.
"We are going to err on the side of caution," says Richard P. Quinn, the FBI's assistant special agent in charge for counter-terrorism in Philadelphia. "We will go after operatives and operations that are more aspirational than operational because to do otherwise would almost be negligent."
At least at the outset, authorities had no way to be certain how much of a threat LaRose might pose, given her resolute conviction and her unique attributes—primarily the way she looked. No one disputes that LaRose and Khalid managed to make contact with overseas al-Qaida operatives and with a loose affiliation of young American-born male Muslim jihadists inside the United States.
Quinn says the case exemplifies al-Qaida's new approach to terrorism. He says the Jihad Jane conspiracy—from recruiting to planning—"represents the many new faces of the terrorist threat."
But some civil rights advocates say the U.S. government has exaggerated the danger posed by aspiring terrorists—in this case and scores of others.
"You can't say these people are totally innocent—they aren't, and there's something wild and scary about them—but almost all of them seem to be incompetent and deluded in some way," said Ohio State University professor John Mueller, who has written extensively about how the government has handled terrorism cases. "When you look closely, many of these cases become interestingly cartoonish."
Interviews and documents, many composed by those involved in the Jihad Jane case as the conspiracy unfolded, often reveal their innermost thoughts. They also show the gullibility of the main players or the ways that they botched almost every assignment along the way.
Khalid, a troubled high school honor student who lived with his parents in Maryland, inadvertently linked his secret jihadist blog to a page on his school website.
Ramirez, a lonely Colorado woman known as Jihad Jamie, headed to Europe to train for holy war. She was lured to Ireland by a Muslim man promising a pious, married life but soon came to believe that all he really sought was a cook, a maid and a sex slave.
Perhaps most intriguing is the story of LaRose, the aspiring assassin whose devotion and naiveté left her susceptible to recruitment but prone to failure.
In the only interview she has given, LaRose says she became devoted to the Muslim men she met online and blindly followed their instructions because they seemed righteous. "I just loved my brothers so much, when they would tell me stuff, I would listen to them, no matter what," she says. "And I also was ... lost."
Indeed, just weeks into her jihad, she became homesick. And days before returning from Europe to America, she emailed the FBI--to see whether the government might spring for her airfare home.
Despite the media attention the case has received, many details haven't been previously disclosed. Among them: how LaRose, Khalid and Ramirez became radicalized; how they found one another; how they repeatedly bungled the plot that authorities say posed a "very real danger;" and how they came to sacrifice everything for a group of strangers who promised immortality but delivered ignominy.
"Jihad Jane is a perfect figure in some ways because it's like a soap opera," says her intended victim, the artist Vilks. "This is today's most interesting part of terrorism—the amateurs."
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