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Colleen LaRose answered the door of her duplex near Philadelphia to find an FBI agent standing on the porch.
He had questions about her interest in Islamic websites.
For LaRose, whose online name was Jihad Jane, it was the second time the FBI had questioned her that summer. Weeks earlier, she'd spoken with an agent by phone and offered a series of lame lies: She had denied any interest in jihadist forums, denied wiring money overseas, denied that she went by Jihad Jane.
This time, on Aug. 21, 2009, LaRose lied less.
Yes, she visited Muslims websites, she said. As a recent convert to Islam, she wanted to learn as much as possible. Yeah, she said, maybe her political views had angered others online. But she denied raising money for al-Qaida or having any connection with extremists.
Lying to the FBI is a crime, the agent told her.
OK, she said.
Then he asked if she planned to travel to Holland.
She was thinking about it, she told the agent, but there had been a death in the family—a heart attack had just taken her boyfriend's father. His funeral was the next day.
When the agent asked for a way to keep in touch, LaRose gave him her cell number. Call anytime next week, she told him.
A day later, LaRose attended the funeral. The day after the service, Aug. 23, she pulled the hard drive from her computer and stashed it in a box. She gathered $2,000 in cash and packed three suitcases. With a bargain plane ticket to Amsterdam in hand, LaRose persuaded an acquaintance to drive her to the airport.
She was moving ahead with the plan conceived by the al-Qaida operative in Pakistan, the man she knew only as Eagle Eye. Already, she had pledged to kill the Swedish artist Lars Vilks. He had blasphemed Islam by drawing the Prophet Mohammad's head on a dog.
As she headed to Europe with plans to murder in the name of Allah, LaRose left her boyfriend and mother with the impression she was running a quick errand.
Landing in Amsterdam, LaRose felt euphoric. She had shed her old life—46 years scarred by rapes, prostitution, drugs and failed marriages—for this new one full of promise.
At the airport, LaRose donned a full burka for the first time. More firsts awaited: She would meet her first jihadist, enter her first mosque and learn how to pray.
She gave the taxi driver the name of the mosque, and as the cab pulled away from the airport, a song from childhood popped into her head.
Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?
It was the theme from the 1970s TV series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. LaRose imagined herself as the lead character, Mary Richards. If she had been wearing a hat instead of a burka, LaRose thought, she would have stepped from the cab with a huge smile and acted out the show's classic opening, twirling around and tossing her hat in the air.
'Well, it's you girl and you should know it!
With every glance and every little movement, you show it.…
You're gonna make it after all....'
When the taxi driver found the mosque, no one was waiting for LaRose. For nearly an hour, she stood outside in a full hijab with her luggage. Then it began to rain.
Finally, another Muslim woman arrived and took LaRose to see her contact, a man named Abdullah. LaRose had expected him to introduce her to fellow jihadists, to train her for her mission, to teach her the ways of Islam.
None of that happened. Now that LaRose had actually arrived and it was time for action, Abdullah the terrorist was suddenly hedging, dodging, equivocating, pleading for patience.
Two weeks into her visit to Amsterdam, LaRose concluded that Abdullah was a poseur. It was time for her to leave, she told him, and Abdullah quickly agreed. He suggested that she visit his associate in Waterford, Ireland, the man who called himself Black Flag.
LaRose packed her bags.
Back in the United States, one of LaRose's most trusted allies was struggling, too.
Mohammed Hassan Khalid had lost access to his primary weapon of jihad: his computer. His parents took it away.
It happened a few weeks into the boy's junior year in high school, after Khalid's parents confronted him about the long stretches he spent alone in his bedroom with his laptop. They suspected he was trolling for porn.
When Khalid refused to explain what he was doing, his parents grabbed his computer. Khalid threw a tantrum but they wouldn't give it back.
Then, this aspiring jihadist, who knew that his friend LaRose had twice been visited by the FBI, made an odd and impulsive choice: He dialed 911 and invited law enforcement into his home. His parents, he told the dispatcher, were abusive.
When police arrived, the officers backed the parents. Only after authorities left and Khalid gave his parents his password would they begin clicking through his computer. They discovered his al-Qaida translation projects and jihadi videos.
As the teenager later wrote to a friend, they "saw the beheadings, which scared the crap out of them."
Stripped of access to his online life, Khalid soon became despondent. He refused to eat. He slept all day. After a few days, his parents dialed 911 themselves and had Khalid admitted overnight to a psychiatric facility.
The boy told no one about Eagle Eye, Jihad Jane, Black Flag, or the stolen passports LaRose had sent him for safekeeping—including the one he had forwarded to Black Flag in Ireland.
'No Matter the Risk'
Waterford seems an unlikely place to launch a jihad.
Founded by Vikings and renowned for its crystal, the southern Irish city is far more tranquil than Dublin or Cork. Only a few hundred Muslims live there, many who immigrated for jobs at the regional hospital. To create a mosque, local Muslims converted a suburban home near the hospital.
Yet the city became the confluence of the Jihad Jane conspiracy. Here, in September 2009, Black Flag met his two prized recruits in person for the first time: LaRose and Jamie Paulin Ramirez, the lonely Colorado woman whom he had persuaded to come by telling her that Allah had willed it in a dream.
Both women were Americans—white, blonde and recent converts to Islam. And though they had often chatted online, neither knew that the other was coming.
Short but thin and handsome, Black Flag was known in Waterford by his given name, Ali Damache. Born in Algeria in 1965, Damache grew up in central France. After high school, he sold perfume and cosmetics in the women's section of a Paris department store for many years. Around 2001, he moved to southern Ireland.
Damache bounced from sales job to sales job—he worked at a drug store, a telephone call center, a real estate agency and an insurance firm. To comply with Irish welfare and immigration law, each time he lost a job he enrolled in computer-training programs, giving him access to computers and a reason to spend a lot of time online.
He wed an Irish Catholic woman, a marriage that lasted about seven years. In 2007, Damache began regularly going to mosque and, about a year later, wearing Muslim attire.
By 2009, Damache was calling himself Black Flag. Online, he made contact with Eagle Eye, LaRose, Ramirez, Khalid, Abdullah and others whom the FBI has linked to al-Qaida cells.
Throughout the summer, even after LaRose tipped him that the FBI was watching, Damache continued to send online messages that U.S. authorities say place him at the hub of the conspiracy.
"The job is to knock down some individuals that are harming Islam," Damache explained to a friend in Europe. He was busy building "an organization," he wrote, divided into a "planning team … research team … action team … recruitment team … finance team."
Damache wrote breathlessly of his plans for LaRose. "We have already organized everything for her. We are will to die in order to protect her no matter what the risk."
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