Why the West is obsessed with Jihad Jane

The arrests of two blonde women received feverish coverage in the US tabloids. But is the threat from home-grown jihadis real or simply artificially created hysteria?

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LOS ANGELES // The First World War had Mata Hari, the Second World War had Tokyo Rose, and now, at least to believe the breathless accounts on cable television news and in the tabloid newspapers, the United States is dealing with a new kind of treacherous woman in its protracted struggle against al Qa'eda.

First came the news that a 46-year-old woman from Pennsylvania calling herself "Jihad Jane" had been arrested and indicted for fomenting violent attacks in south Asia and Europe. The woman, whose real name is Colleen LaRose, did not appear to have strayed far from her computer in the Philadelphia suburbs, establishing ties with other radicals via the internet and agreeing, for example, to marry a co-conspirator to ease his entry into Europe.

Among the plots she encouraged, according to the indictment, unsealed last week, was the murder - never carried out - of a Swedish cartoonist called Lars Vilk who had published a blasphemous image of the Prophet Mohammed. She even travelled to Sweden last year to further her goal, her prosecutors allege. A few days after the Jihad Jane story broke, seven alleged accomplices in the Vilk plot were detained in Ireland for questioning, among them a Colorado woman called Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, who quickly earned herself the moniker Jihad Jamie.

She was released almost immediately, but that did not deter the US media from plastering her image all over the airwaves and the front pages of newspapers and websites. The latest poster children in America's "war on terror" could not embody anything further from the stereotypical Middle Eastern fanatic. Not only are they female, they have blonde hair and blue eyes - the sort of features more commonly associated with cheerleading at ball games and fresh-baked apple pie than guerrilla fighting against the United States and its allies.

It is unclear what degree of danger they pose. Paulin-Ramirez is no longer under arrest, while LaRose is scheduled to go on trial in early May, when we will no doubt learn a lot more about her. But the broader phenomenon of "home-grown" jihadis - Americans who take up the cause of radical anti-American activism on behalf of al Qa'eda or similar organisations - seems to be here to stay. At least up to a point.

Ever since the "war on terror" began in 2001, the names of radicalised Americans have popped up again and again. First came John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban" from Washington DC, who found himself on the wrong side of the battle lines in Afghanistan and is now serving a 20-year sentence for a variety of terrorism-related crimes. Then there was Jose Padilla, who once ran with street gangs in Chicago and was initially accused of wanting to detonate a dirty bomb but later jailed for 17 years for supporting violent jihad in Afghanistan. He was followed by Adam Gadahn, a Californian of Jewish origin who changed his name to Azzam al Amriki ("The American") and became a media consultant to al Qa'eda, appearing in a string of anti-American videos.

Even assuming every one of these people has perpetrated the acts of which they are accused, their numbers are undeniably tiny - just a handful, out of a national population of close to 300 million people. It is far from clear whether they represent any kind of organised force. There has been little or no talk of US-based al Qa'eda cells, much less of ones made up of American citizens. In some American academic quarters, the issue of home-grown al Qa'eda operatives tends to be shrugged off as an instance of artificially created hysteria over a group of individuals more notable for their psychological problems than for posing any kind of paramilitary threat.

Marc Sageman, a former intelligence officer whose book Understanding Terror Networks studied the psychological make-up of al Qa'eda recruits, said: "The media plays an extremely important role. "We now have some sexy superstars - and some bozos - playing at being terrorists. Sometimes I wonder whether they're not just a creation of Rupert Murdoch to increase his Fox News audience." The two women in the news certainly seem to be beset by personal difficulties of one kind or another. LaRose turned to radical Islam after surviving a suicide attempt, while Paulin-Ramirez - according to her mother - had to deal with bullying in her childhood and an abusive first marriage. Her interest in radical Islam began when she married her fourth husband, an Algerian who was one of the people arrested in Ireland in connection with the Vilk plot.

"Any man that came along in my sister's life, she kind of followed like a lost puppy," her brother, Mike Holcomb, told a local television news station in Texas where he lives. Both women, Jihad Jane and Jihad Jamie, spent large amounts of time online and, and while LaRose has a 13-year-old outstanding warrant for bouncing a cheque in Texas, neither appears to have any serious prior criminal record.

Some experts see the "home-grown" phenomenon almost exclusively in psychological terms. Park Dietz, a prominent criminal profiler, pointed out that it was very common for young people to rebel against the values with which they were raised, at least for a while. "It is also the case that people with certain character deficits - borderline personality traits - will be permanently inclined to flirt with unconventional or different ideas," he said. "It's not clear if they do it for the attention it brings, or the sense of belonging, or some combination of those. It becomes part of their character. Whether they align themselves with a right-wing extremist group, or a jihadist group, or a vampire sect, it's all the same."

All the same, the issue of home-grown jihadis - or "homegrowns", as they are known for short in official Washington - is being taken seriously by the national security establishment, if only because they are a relatively new, unstudied and unknown phenomenon. Tim Naftali, a historian and counter-terrorism expert who has advised the US government on national security issues, said: "I'm not sure how worried I would be, but it is serious."

The experts agree that the most serious instance of home-made Islamist radicalism to date was the shooting spree at the Fort Hood military base in Texas last November, in which 13 soldiers were killed and another 30 wounded. The man accused of carrying out the killings, Nidal Malik Hasan, born in Virginia but with Palestinian parents, was an army major at the base in regular touch with a jihadist imam called Anwar al Awlaki.

Al Awlaki, who has been described as the "bin Laden of the internet" and is now in hiding in Yemen, is himself a "homegrown" - he was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents and has spent extensive time in San Diego, suburban Washington and London. He knew two of the September 11 hijackers and is believed to be a key recruiter and organiser for the new generation of al Qa'eda radicals. Dr Sageman described him as "the real thing".

It is not just the "homegrowns" who are regarded as a poorly understood phenomenon. The very concept of internet recruitment is something that counter-terrorism experts argue over. Has the propagandising power of the net made it possible for newly radicalised converts to act as lone operators, without any kind of support network? Or does the net allow a terrorist cell to exist in purely virtual space, in which individuals or small groups - such as the bombers who attacked London in 2007 - can receive funding and other support without necessarily meeting their comrades-in-arms? The debate is still raging in US national security circles.

Two things about the "home-grown" phenomenon, and the way the media and the public react to it, are very striking. The first is a stark difference in the way Americans who threaten or perpetrate political acts of violence are treated, depending on whether or not they are Muslims or have a Muslim connection. While the airwaves have exploded over Jihad Jane, few public officials have even used the "terrorism" label to describe a Texas businessman who flew himself and his private plane into an Internal Revenue Service building in Austin last month, killing one tax inspector and causing millions of dollars in damage. One right-wing Congressman, Steven King of Iowa, went so far as to empathise with the tax-protesting pilot, saying all Americans should learn to "implode" their local IRS office.

A similar lack of concern greeted a shooting incident at the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US defence establishment, in which a heavily armed Californian man opened fire and killed a police officer earlier this month. "What we see is immensely corrosive rhetoric against Islamists," said Dr Naftali. "Why not the same rhetoric against people who threaten to attack the US government?" The other striking thing is the relative dearth of home-grown jihadis, at least so far. It wouldn't be hard to imagine that a city like Detroit, the one-time proud capital of the US car industry now floundering in a deep economic depression, would spawn a generation of urban radicals. Given that the Detroit suburbs are also home to a large, predominantly Muslim Arab American population, one could easily imagine the city as a fertile recruiting ground for al Qa'eda.

Except that has not happened. "The point is, the dog is not barking," Dr Naftali said. "The Muslim American community has, in fact, been wonderful. That says something about the essential health of this country." * The National