Colleen LaRose has explained how a troubled childhood led her on the path to Islam in the first interview since her arrest
A white woman from suburban Philadelphia who became a Muslim jihadist and has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder a Swedish cartoonist under the codename “Jihad Jane” has revealed that she was drawn to Islam because it gave her a sense of belonging after a troubled childhood in which she was raped over many years by her biological father.
The revelation from Colleen LaRose, 49, comes in the first media interview she has granted since her arrest in October 2009 for plotting to kill Lars Vilks, the cartoonist who drew an image of the prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog.
Talking to the Reuters journalist John Shiffman from the Philadelphia federal detention center where she awaits sentencing on 17 May, LaRose relates how she became radicalised through online chats with an al-Qaida operative calling himself “Eagle Eye” and other Muslim extremists.
Asked by Shiffman what she was thinking when she converted to Islam, taking the name Fatima, having spent a wholly non-religious previous life in Michigan, Texas and Pennsylvania, LaRose replied: “That I was finally going to be some place where I belonged. I’ve survived through a lot of things that rightfully should have killed me.
“I always thought there was a purpose for me to be alive. And when I found out about Islam I thought this is what I have to do, this is why I’ve lived so long.”
She also said that she had become distressed by watching live coverage of Israeli Defence Force actions in Gaza. “The Zionists started bombing the Palestinians and I became more radical then. I started thinking more about Jihad.”
She recalled sitting on her couch in Philadelphia and watching the fighting on al-Jazeera. “I was crying. I could hear the kids outside playing and laughing, and I remember thinking to myself how unfair that all those children were dying and no one around here knows or cares.”
Over the months, she became deeply attached to her jihadist handlers. “I talked to them so much online I just felt they were strong brothers and they were very religious. I felt love for them. I loved my brothers so much, when they told me something I would listen to them no matter what.”
“Jihad Jane” has become a cause celebre of so-called “home-grown” terrorism. She was held up by the US authorities as an example of the threat of domestic jihadists where individuals with no background in extreme Islam are groomed on the internet and prepared for violent acts.
In her case, she was eventually persuaded to travel to Sweden in August 2009 as the first step towards killing Vilks, but was arrested by the FBI on her return to Philadelphia before carrying out her plan.
Shiffman spent six months investigating the LaRose story and concludes that contrary to the image of the dangerous terrorist portrayed in much of the media at the time of her arrest, what happened “proved more farcical than frightful, more absurd than ominous”. The chance that she would have ever carried out her violent instructions was negligible as the FBI had her under surveillance for 15 months before she was picked up.
Reuters’ interviews with LaRose, her sister Pam and a counselor who helped Colleen when she was 17, give an insight into the terrible events in her childhood that left her so vulnerable to emotional exploitation. At the age of about seven or eight she was raped by her biological father, Richard LaRose, who continued to sexually abuse her until she ran away from home in Detroit, Michigan, when she was 13.
She took to living on the streets and working as a prostitute, and fell into addiction to heroin and cocaine. When the counselor, Ollie Mannino, telephoned the father, he admitted with no remorse: “Yeah, I raped her.” He was never prosecuted for the crimes and died in 2010.
LaRose, who faces possible life in prison, said the abuse of her father had destroyed her life. “I have done all kinds of bad things. I was rebelling because of what he did and because my mother did nothing to help us.”