PENNSBURG, Pa. - The Pennsylvania woman who allegedly used the Internet alias JihadJane to recruit people for violent jihad had dropped out before high school and was married at age 16, the start of a bumpy life that might have left her vulnerable to radical beliefs, according to federal sources and public records.
While caring for an ailing man in a suburban community where she had few friends, Colleen Renee LaRose, 46, turned to YouTube, MySpace, and electronic message boards, where she found like-minded individuals bent on supporting international terrorism, according to an indictment unsealed this week. Her path to radicalization took years and included a series of online contacts with men who urged her to action, the sources said.
Ms. LaRose left her live-in boyfriend in Pennsburg, a quiet town outside Philadelphia, and traveled to Western Europe in August as part of an alleged plan to kill a Swedish artist. She believed she could "blend in" with the community because of her blond hair, blue eyes, and small frame, she wrote in e-mail messages to her alleged co-conspirators.
FBI analysts and national security experts have worried for years that Westerners with easy access to passports could be recruited for terrorist aims. Michael Levy, the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, said the JihadJane case "shatters any lingering thought that we can spot a terrorist based on appearance."
Central to the LaRose case is the Internet, which is used increasingly by al-Qaeda and other groups to penetrate U.S. borders with radical propaganda, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter said recently.
"LaRose's actions again reflect the fact that immersing oneself in the propaganda and culture of jihadists through the Internet can lead to an individual attempting to undertake a violent act, no matter that person's age, gender, or background," according to an analysis by the SITE Intelligence Group, a private firm that monitors jihadist Web sites.
Ms. LaRose is scheduled to appear in court March 18 for an arraignment on charges that she conspired to support terrorists and kill a Swedish artist and that she lied to FBI agents about her online activities and associations. Prosecutors say she could face life in prison if convicted. Mark Wilson, a public defender representing her, declined to comment.
Ms. LaRose was arrested in October in Pennsylvania, accused of attempting to transfer a passport stolen from her boyfriend, Kurt Gorman. She was appointed an attorney, appeared at a brief public court hearing, agreed to be detained, and waived her right to a speedy trial. The grand jury indictment accusing her of terrorist offenses did not emerge until last week and was unsealed by authorities Tuesday.
The charges surprised neighbors on Main Street in Pennsburg, a little less than 50 miles from Philadelphia, where Ms. LaRose had lived for years while taking care of Mr. Gorman's elderly father.
In an interview with CNN, Mr. Gorman said Ms. LaRose had vanished - with his stolen passport - in August, the day after his father's funeral. Prosecutors say she traveled to Europe to find artist Lars Vilks as part of an alleged plot to kill him in revenge for his provocative drawing of the Prophet Muhammad on the body of a dog.
"Sounds crazy," Mr. Gorman, 47, told CNN. "It is hard to believe. … She wasn't no rocket scientist. She was limited in her capacity, so I'm not sure how much she thought she could do on her own."
"She was a good-hearted person," he said yesterday. "She pretty much stayed around the house."
But online, she grew increasingly devoted to a loose band of what authorities say were violent co-conspirators from around the world. They found her after she posted a YouTube video in June, 2008, saying she was "desperate to do something somehow to help" ease the suffering of Muslims, the indictment said.
Despite Web images that show her in a Muslim head covering, Mr. Gorman said he never picked up on any Muslim leanings. She never attended religious services of any kind, he said.
Born in Michigan, Ms. LaRose moved to Texas as a girl and had married twice by age 24. Her first marriage was at 16, to a man twice her age, in Tarrant County, Texas, public records show. There are no records or reports of children from either union, both of which were long over by the time she met Mr. Gorman in 2005.
Her first husband, Sheldon "Buddy" Barnum, who was 32 at the time of their 1980 wedding, said in a telephone interview: "What do I remember about her? Nothing. Wasn't nothing to remember."40.39439 -75.49554
The Pennsylvania woman who allegedly used the Internet alias JihadJane to recruit people for violent jihad had dropped out before high school and was married at age 16, the start of a bumpy life that might have left her vulnerable to radical beliefs, according to federal sources and public records.