PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A troubled Pennsylvania woman who called herself “Jihad Jane” online and plotted to kill a Swedish artist was sentenced Monday to 10 years in prison after telling a judge she had been consumed by thoughts of a Muslim holy war.
Colleen LaRose, 50, faced a potential life term. But Chief U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker gave her credit for her guilty plea and her help in the indictment of two others. Prosecutors asked for decades in prison, fearing she remains highly vulnerable to manipulation. But LaRose told the judge, “I don’t want to be into jihad no more.”
LaRose became obsessed with the cause after meeting a Muslim man on vacation in Amsterdam, when she was out one night after a fight with her boyfriend, her lawyer said. She pursued it online when she returned to her home in rural Pennsburg, Pa., where she cared for the boyfriend’s elderly father at home nearly full time.
“That’s all I would think about is jihad, jihad, jihad,” LaRose said Monday, telling her story for the first time in court. “I was in a trance.” With her blond hair, blue eyes and U.S. passport, she forever changed the face of terrorism in the United States, prosecutors said.
“It was scary for many people to think that Ms. LaRose could be radicalized, just online, in the United States. She was lonely. She was vulnerable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said. “There are other people like that out there in the country, and in the world.”
Prosecutors said LaRose sought excitement through her shadow life and was flattered to be told to kill a foe of Islam. “He honored me,” LaRose said of her online handler in Pakistan. “I’m a sister. Sisters don’t get these assignments. But later on, I realized that he may have taken advantage of me.”
Defense lawyers called her the perfect target after a childhood marked by rape, incest, hunger and alcoholism at home. She was raped from the time she was 8, became a prostitute at 14 and lied about her age to marry a customer. Her marriages were marked by abuse, and she came to use crystal meth and other drugs, public defender Mark Wilson said.
He attributed her radicalization to “carrying around the demons that she did, and wanting to feel good about herself.” LaRose, who said she is now medicated, could leave prison in a little over four years, given the more than four years she has already served and the potential for time off for good behavior. She also was ordered to spend five years on supervised release after prison.
U.S. investigators say LaRose participated in a 2009 conspiracy to target artist Lars Vilks over his series of drawings depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad as a dog. Muslim extremists in Iraq had offered a $100,000 reward for anyone who killed Vilks, who was never attacked.
The Justice Department has said that Ali Charaf Damache, who was living in Ireland, recruited LaRose and another U.S. woman via jihadist websites. Damache married the other woman, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, in a Muslim ceremony on the day she arrived in Ireland from Colorado.
LaRose left the terror cell in Ireland after about six weeks, frustrated that her co-conspirators weren’t ready to act, prosecutors said. Judge Tucker said she had no doubt LaRose, who stalked Vilks online, would have killed him had she had the chance.
“The fact that out of boredom, or out of being housebound, she took to the computer and communicated with the people she communicated with, and hatched this mission, is just unbelievable,” Tucker said.
Vilks called the 10-year term too harsh, although he said he understands the need for deterrence. He remains under threat but has around-the-clock protection and said he feels safe. “To lock her up for so many years seems like overkill to me,” Vilks told The Associated Press. “This is a person who has been through a lot of difficulties in her life and needs mental care more than anything else.”
Paulin-Ramirez and another co-defendant, Maryland teen Mohammad Hassan Khalid, are scheduled to be sentenced this week in Philadelphia.
Associated Press writer Malin Rising in Stockholm contributed to this report.