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Colleen LaRose, the middle-aged American woman who called herself Jihad Jane, hurried to the computer in her duplex near Philadelphia—the place where she had spent months entertaining murder.
Minutes earlier, an FBI agent had left a card on her door, requesting a call, and LaRose had known precisely what to do. She emailed her al-Qaida handler for advice.
It was July 17, 2009, and almost four months had passed since LaRose had agreed to kill in the name of Allah. Now, the FBI left a calling card on her doorstep. How had they found her? And what did they know?
Her al-Qaida handler, Eagle Eye, lived in Pakistan. He was wise. He was pious. He would guide her.
LaRose, now 46, had never seen his face, but during online chats, he had seen hers. Her blonde hair, fair skin and green eyes made her a prized recruit, especially for the undertaking Eagle Eye had ordered. She would blend in nicely, avoiding suspicion. Eagle Eye's plot called for her to travel to Sweden and murder Lars Vilks, the artist who had blasphemed the Prophet Mohammad.
When LaRose reached Eagle Eye, he told her to call the agent back. Find out how much the FBI knows, he said.
Obediently, LaRose dialed the number. The agent picked up.
Have you ever visited extremist Islamic forums? he asked.
No, never, she lied.
Have you ever solicited money for terrorists?
No. Another lie.
Do you know anyone who goes by the online name Jihad Jane?
No, LaRose said.
The call didn't last long, and the FBI agent didn't reveal much. She couldn't tell if the FBI had seen her YouTube posts supporting al-Qaida and violent jihad.
For more than a year, LaRose had clashed online with YouTube Smackdown, a group that flagged and reported hate speech and jihadist activity. Maybe they had contacted the FBI. But so what? Her YouTube rants couldn't be considered a crime.
Then again, what if the FBI knew more? What if agents had read messages LaRose exchanged with Eagle Eye in Pakistan or his associate Black Flag in Ireland? The men were al-Qaida—that's what they said, anyway.
What about her jihadi friends inside the United States—the woman in Colorado and the teenager in Maryland? Did the FBI know about them? Or about her pledge to kill the Swedish artist?
Despite the concerns, LaRose plunged forward. Without disguising herself, she began contacting fellow jihadists online. She warned them of the FBI's visit and asked them to delete anything that might prove incriminating.
Then LaRose took the next step on her path to martyrdom - an act she later described as one of the proudest moments in the conspiracy to kill the artist in Europe.
She found a bargain flight to Amsterdam for $400.
"I went straight to the airline," she says today. "I didn't use no middle person. I also made it two weeks ahead of time."
The plot, loose as it was, was advancing. Jihad Jane booked the flight for August 23.
The Honor Student
Shortly after the FBI agent left her duplex, LaRose emailed a high school student who lived near Baltimore, about 150 miles away.
Please contact jihadi forum administrators, LaRose begged the teen. "Ask him to PLEASE remove ALL my posts … because I told the FBI guy I don't know that site."
The teenager, who went by Hassan online, did as asked. "She is being threatened by the FBI," he explained in a message to the forum administrators.
Hassan wasn't a creative pseudonym like Jihad Jane. It was simply the middle name of Mohammed H. Khalid, a gangly Pakistani immigrant who lived with his parents, older brother and two younger sisters in Ellicott City, Md.
Khalid, 15, had met Jihad Jane on YouTube months earlier and their online friendship had grown quickly. By now, they were talking to some of the same people overseas: an al-Qaida operative named Eagle Eye and a Muslim man in Ireland who called himself Black Flag.
Like LaRose, Khalid had become radicalized watching videos of Muslim children maimed or killed in attacks by Israeli or American forces. Khalid was not a convert. He had been born a Muslim in Dubai and raised in Pakistan from age 11 to 14.
His family, classic American immigrants seeking a better life for their children, had arrived in Maryland in 2007. Khalid's father delivered pizzas. His mother kept the home.
The family of six squeezed into a modern-day tenement, a tiny two-bedroom apartment selected for its location inside the best school district his parents could afford. In one bedroom, Khalid and his brother shared a mattress. In the other, his sisters lived beside stacked boxes of perfume the family peddled at a weekend flea market. Their parents slept on a mattress in the dining room.
Khalid excelled during his first two years at Mt. Hebron High School. He earned A's in English, Algebra, Science and U.S. History. He joined the chess club and later became an administrator for the school web site.
Although his parents were thrilled with Khalid's grades, they began to notice subtle changes. He seemed withdrawn and spent so much time alone in his bedroom on his laptop. They worried he might be downloading porn.
Eager to learn more about his Muslim heritage, the 15 year old had stumbled onto violent jihadi videos and become addicted. The anti-American rhetoric proved intoxicating to an immigrant boy struggling to find an identity in a place that embraced neither his race nor his religion.
Khalid began translating from Urdu to English sermons and violent jihadi videos - snuff-style images of U.S. soldiers in the throes of death, and beheadings of Americans Nick Berg and Daniel Pearl. Khalid posted the videos and began to solicit money online for al-Qaida. He never aspired to kill anyone personally. He later described himself as a "keyboard warrior."
"I will be a great facilitator," he wrote to a friend.
To shield his identity, Khalid studied basic terrorist tradecraft - how to use programs such as Pidgin to encrypt chats and Tor to cloak his location. He learned to use code words - for example, "HK" in place of "jihad." The letters were chosen because J falls between H and K on the keyboard.
Now, in mid-July 2009 - around the time Jihad Jane warned him about the FBI—Khalid launched a new online endeavor. It was brimming with teenage bravado. He called the blog Path to Martyrdom/Resisting the War Against al-Islaam. From the blog, Khalid linked to hundreds of videos of al-Qaida sermons and violent attacks.
He intended Path to Martyrdom to be anonymous. His keystrokes betrayed him.
Pivoting between maintaining the school's website and his new jihadist blog, he inadvertently linked the "About Me" section of Martyrdom to the wrong web page—the page for his high school track team.