Human Rights

Was "Jihad Jane" a Real Terrorist Threat? Or a Mentally Unstable Loner?

No one knows quite what to make of Colleen LaRose. But get ready to hear a lot more about "homegrown terrorism" -- and why we need more surveillance to stop it.

No one knows quite what to make of the woman who called herself "Jihad Jane," otherwise known as Colleen (sometimes "Fatima") LaRose of Pennsburg, PA. And why should they? Only a couple of days have passed since the unsealing of the indictment against her, which accuses LaRose of "recruiting" terrorists to kill a Swedish artist who drew an offensive picture of the Prophet Mohammed. And while the media have provided an avalanche of details since (some of dubious relevance to the case), the only thing that seems pretty clear thus far is that she was a mentally unstable woman with serious delusions of grandeur.

But the press loves colorful characters and, as an unlikely terrorist, LaRose does not disappoint. Not only is she blond and blue-eyed -- "like the Midwest farmer's daughter the Beach Boys sang about," writes one columnist -- The Washington Post tells us that she is "4 feet 11 inches tall" (the Philadelphia Inquirer says 5'2) and weighs "barely more than 100 pounds." She's been married "at least twice" (once at the tender age of 16) and has a criminal record that includes bouncing checks at Pizza Hit in Texas as well as drunk driving.

She is described as a sad and solitary woman -- she tried to overdose on pills in 2005 -- who more recently, according to neighbors, had a live-in "companion," who could sometimes be seen retrieving her from the street outside their home, where she would take occasional drunken walks.

Other press reports tell us she talked to her cats (a damning revelation, for sure).

Yes, LaRose made contacts and traveled overseas in the name of her plot. Seven people were arrested in Ireland on Tuesday in connection with it. ("Of these," reports the Christian Science Monitor, "one is reported to be an American woman married to an Algerian, who was also arrested.") The allegations against her are serious enough. But how close she came to carrying out her plot is unclear.

"From what's known about her so far, Colleen Renee LaRose is not coming off as the sharpest jihadist in the suburbs," quipped Philadelphia Inquirer staff writers on Thursday, quoting "a person close to the investigation" as saying, "She's had a hard life, so tough that her life story is like a country music song."

Indeed, given some of her internet outpourings, she seemed as much in search of romance as she was of jihad. According to federal indictment, LaRose agreed to live in Europe and marry one her terror recruits to give him residency.

It's too early to draw any real conclusions about this case. But some of its implications are becoming clear.

For example, the case ought to give serious pause to those continued, unabashed fans of racial profiling -- particularly those who were so vocal after the Ft. Hood shootings and the foiling of the Christmas day bomb plot. As ThinkProgress reminded us yesterday, "Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's (R) response to the Ft. Hood shooting was 'profile away'" and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said that while he knows "it's not politically correct to say it, I believe in racial and ethnic profiling."

It's not just right wing rhetoric. In January, the Obama administration made it official policy to add extra screening -- including full body pat-downs -- of citizens traveling from 14 mostly Muslim nations.

Politically, the fact that LaRose does not fit the description of those most commonly suspected of being terrorists is unlikely to change these policies. Instead, politicians are more likely to use it to serve another meme that is growing in popularity: the rise of the homegrown terrorist.

"I'll tell you, the threat of homegrown terrorism is real," Republican Congressman Charlie Dent told MSNBC host David Shuster on Thursday. Dent represents the community where LaRose lived. His sister lives there; he describes it as a "lovely" place.

For Rep. Dent, LaRose is proof that radical Islamist ideology is coming to American shores.

"We're finding that Americans are more susceptible to radicalization," he warned.

This is a potent idea, one that has been relentlessly promoted by the likes of Sen. Joe Lieberman, and that has inspired such legislative efforts in recent years as the dangerously sweeping Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act.

For all the unanswered questions about the LaRose case, it's already becoming pretty clear how it will play out politically. On Thursday, Time magazine posted a highly speculative story titled "Why the Jihad Jane Case Is a Win for the Patriot Act."

The article starts with a disclaimer: "The Justice Department won't say whether Colleen LaRose was investigated and charged with help from provisions of the Patriot Act."

But the FBI and U.S. prosecutors who charged the 46-year-old woman from Pennsburg, Pa., on Tuesday with conspiring with terrorists and pledging to commit murder in the name of jihad could well have used the Patriot Act's fast access to her cell-phone records, hotel bills and rental-car contracts as they tracked her movements and contacts last year. But even if the law's provisions weren't directly used against her, the arrest of the woman who allegedly used the moniker "Jihad Jane" is a boost for the Patriot Act, Administration officials and Capitol Hill Democrats say.

No word on who these officials and Democrats are, of course. But the important part follows:

That's because revelations of her alleged plot may give credibility to calls for even greater investigative powers for the FBI and law enforcement, including Republican proposals to expand certain surveillance techniques that are currently limited to targeting foreigners.

Emphasis mine.

What's more, aside from the "credibility" LaRose's indictment already lends to calls for more surveillance on U.S. citizens, according to Time magazine, "LaRose, if guilty, fits the profile of what terrorism experts have come to call the 'lone wolf' -- an individual acting largely out of his or her own motivation without long-standing or direct connections to terrorist organizations or networks."

Putting aside the fact that the "lone wolf" provision is one of the Patriot Act's least credible (and least effective) provisions, by that definition, Joseph Stack, the man who crashed his plane into the IRS building in Texas, would, too, be a "lone wolf."

Of course, no one seems eager to make that point, at least not in the context of terrorism. In an interview with Diane Rehm, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano dismissed the label "terorist" to describe Stack, saying "To our belief, he was a lone wolf. He used a terrorist tactic, but an individual who uses a terrorist tactic doesn't necessarily mean they are part of an organized group attempting an attack on the United States."

There doesn't appear to be any evidence that LaRose was plotting an attack on the United States, either. But of course, she was a self-described Muslim. Stack wasn't.

Luckily, no one seems to be calling for LaRose to be tried by military commission. (She was, after all, going after a Swede.) She will appear in court on March 18. In the meantime, expect to hear much more about homegrown terrorism and all the new security measures we need to keep us safe.

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. Follow her on Twitter.
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