Colleen LaRose, the so-called “Jihad Jane” from Pennsburg, PA accused of conspiring with foreign terrorists to kill a Swedish cartoonist who insulted Islam, pleaded not guilty during a minutes-long hearing in federal court this morning.
The diminutive LaRose, was accused in a four-count indictment charging her with conspiring with jihadist fighters and pledging to commit murder in the name of a Muslim holy war. A May 3 trial date was set.
The hearing provided the first public glimpse of LaRose since she was accused of plotting to kill Lars Vilks, whose sketched the Prophet Muhammad’s head onto a dog’s body in 2007.
She did not speak except to say “not guilty” and her face betrayed no emotion during the hearing, which lasted less than five minutes.
Afterward, defense attorney Mark Wilson would not comment on LaRose’s mental state but said none of her relatives or friends were in the courtroom.
If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $1 million fine.
“Of course she has,” Wilson responded when asked if LaRose has reacted to the possibility of spending life in prison. He would not elaborate on her reaction, however.
He said she has “some awareness” of the attention her case has drawn.
LaRose, 46, who authorities say referred to herself as “Jihad Jane” and “Fatima Rose,” departed for Europe in August to carry out the mission. She left without telling her live-in boyfriend Kurt Gorman, who continues to reside in the apartment they shared on Main Street in the small Montgomery County town.
LaRose returned to the United States in mid-October, when the FBI took her into custody at the Philadelphia International Airport. She has been held in a Philadelphia prison since. The case became public March 9, when federal authorities unsealed a four-count grand jury indictment.
The indictment alleges she wrote in a Sept. 30 e-mail that it would be “an honour & great pleasure to die or kill” and “only death will stop me here that I am so close to the target!”
The indictment does not link her to any organized terror group, but federal authorities say she used the Internet to recruit jihadist fighters and solicit passports and funding.
Gorman has said he was shocked when he learned of LaRose’s alleged involvement in a terrorist plot. He has said he didn’t even know she harbored Muslim sympathies.
Wilson said Gorman will be called as a witness “if possible” but would not say whether he has already spoken to Gorman.
Gorman, a native of Hilltown in Bucks County, met LaRose while on a business trip to Texas 2004 for his family’s Quakertown-area radio equipment business.
He said LaRose did not have a job or drive a car and spent a lot of time alone in their apartment caring for his sickly father. He said she fled to Europe without telling him the day of his father’s funeral.
Although Gorman portrayed her as a recluse, a former neighbor said she was notorious for engaging in drunken fights.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has questioned the religious devotion of alleged converts like LaRose, given her live-in boyfriend and apparent failure to ever pledge her faith at a mosque.
“Maybe it’s not the Islamic faith that is making them do this; maybe it’s just their personal demons,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for CAIR.
LaRose spent most of her life in Texas, where she dropped out of high school, married at 16 and again at 24, and racked up a few minor arrests. After a second divorce, she followed a boyfriend to Pennsylvania in about 2004 and began caring for his father while he worked long hours, sometimes on the road. In 2005, she swallowed a handful of pills in a failed suicide attempt, telling police she was upset over the death of her father — but did not want to die.
As she moved through her 40s without a job or any outside hobbies, her boyfriend said, she started spending more time online.
Though Gorman did not consider her religious, and she apparently never joined a mosque, LaRose had by 2008 declared herself “desperate” to help suffering Muslims in a video she posted on YouTube.
“In my view, she sort of slipped sideways into Islam. There may have been some seduction into it, by one or more people,” said Temple University psychologist Frank Farley.
Just days after Gorman’s father died last August, LaRose stole Gorman’s passport and fled to Europe without telling him, making good on her online pledge to try to kill in the name of Allah, according to the indictment. From June 2008 through her Aug. 23, 2009, departure, the woman who also called herself “Fatima Rose” went online to recruit male fighters for the cause, recruit women with western passports to marry them, and raise money for the holy war, the indictment charged.
She had also agreed to marry one of her overseas contacts, a man from South Asia who said he could deal bombs and explosives, according to e-mails recovered by authorities.
He also told her in a March 2009 e-mail to go to Sweden to to find the Vilks.
“I will make this my goal till i achieve it or die trying,” she wrote back, adding that her blonde American looks would help her blend in.
Vilks questioned the sophistication of the plotters, seven of whom were rounded up in Ireland last week, just before LaRose’s indictment was unsealed. Still, he said he was glad LaRose never got to him. Although she had written the Swedish embassy in March 2009 to ask how to obtain residency, and joined his online artists group in September, there is no evidence from court documents that she ever made it to Sweden. Instead, she was arrested returning to Philadelphia on Oct. 15.
Some terrorism experts wonder if LaRose posed any serious threat to Vilks or the United States — or was simply a lost soul.
“People in distress blame the government, and now blaming the government means taking the side of these Muslim terrorists,” said Ian Lustick, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor. “They’re about as jihadist as you and me, but they’re a lot less happy.” LAT