PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Monday sentenced an American woman who called herself Jihad Jane to 10 years in prison - at least a decade less than prosecutors had sought for her role in a failed plot to kill a Swedish artist who had depicted the head of the Muslim Prophet Mohammad on a dog.
Colleen R. LaRose, 50, who converted to Islam online and has maintained her faith, was given credit for the four years she has already served. LaRose, who pleaded guilty to following orders in 2009 from alleged al Qaeda operatives, could have received a life sentence.
“It’s a just and reasonable sentence,” her attorney, Mark Wilson, told reporters after the hearing. “She’s pleased. Ten years is about what we were hoping for all along.”
U.S. District Judge Petrese Tucker called LaRose’s crimes “gravely serious,” adding: “The court has no doubt that, given the opportunity, Ms. LaRose would have completed the mission.”
Tucker also cited the significant cooperation LaRose has given the Federal Bureau of Investigation in other terrorism cases since her 2009 arrest, as well as the sexual and other abuse she suffered as a child. That abuse was chronicled in a 2011 Reuters investigative series.
LaRose, who used the name Jihad Jane as she became involved in the Muslim online community, travelled to Europe in 2009 intending to participate in a militant plot to shoot artist Lars Vilks in the chest six times. But LaRose became impatient with the men who lured her to Europe and she gave up after six weeks and returned to Philadelphia, where she was arrested.
At Monday’s hearing, LaRose apologized for blindly following the instructions of her handlers.
“I was in a trance and I couldn’t see anything else,” she said. “I don’t want to be in jihad no more.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams had sought “decades behind bars” for LaRose, arguing that despite her extensive cooperation, she still was a danger to society. Prosecutors also had pointed out that LaRose - a blond, green-eyed, white American - did not fit the stereotype of an Islamic militant.
“This is a sentencing that people are watching,” Williams said on Monday. “Ms. LaRose had such a big impact in the public and press because she really did change the face of what the world thought of as a violent jihadist. It was scary for people to hear that Ms. LaRose could have been radicalized simply online in the U.S.”
Wilson told the court that the plot to kill Vilks was “more aspirational than operational” and that LaRose had never even fired a gun.
He had described LaRose as a lonely and vulnerable woman easily manipulated by others online. Her behaviour, while not excusable, can be explained in part by deep psychological scars from her childhood, he said.
LaRose’s biological father repeatedly raped her from about age 7 to 13, when she ran away and became a prostitute, according to court documents. At age 16, LaRose married a man twice her age and later became a heavy drug user.
“I survived a lot of things that should have rightfully have killed me,” LaRose told Reuters in a 2012 interview.
While LaRose was in contact with an al Qaeda operative in Pakistan, her conspirators repeatedly bungled a plot that never moved much past the planning stages. Vilks, the artist, had told Reuters that he believes LaRose has spent enough time in prison and should be freed.
“That’s a pretty tough sentence,” Vilks told the Swedish news agency TT on Monday.
Under U.S. sentencing rules, LaRose likely will serve 90 percent of her sentence, which means she will be eligible for release around 2020. She has requested imprisonment near her sister, Pam LaRose, in the Fort Worth, Texas, area, but a final decision will be up to the Bureau of Prisons.
LaRose was in solitary confinement for four years but recently moved to the general population at a Philadelphia jail.
Ali Damache, LaRose’s alleged handler in Ireland, remains jailed there, fighting extradition to the United States on terrorism charges. Jamie Paulin Ramirez, who flew from Colorado to marry Damache in Ireland, has pleaded guilty to related terrorism charges and is scheduled to be sentenced on Wednesday.
The sentencing for another co-conspirator who has pleaded guilty, Mohammad Hassan Khalid, has delayed in order to complete psychological evaluations. Khalid, who grew up in Pakistan and was an honour student in suburban Baltimore, committed his crimes when he was 15 and 16. He is the youngest person ever charged with terrorism inside the United States.
According to a November report in the Guardian newspaper, documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, to the British newspaper show that the FBI became involved in the Jihad Jane case after the NSA intercepted communications.
Reporting by John Shiffman; Editing by Bill Trott, Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Oatis