x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

'Jihad Jane' was tracked by amateur internet sleuths

Plot to kill Swedish cartoonist was apparently conceived, planned - and brought down - purely through the internet.

LONDON // The chosen tools of Colleen LaRose, the green-eyed blonde American accused of plotting to kill a Swedish cartoonist, were primarily YouTube and her MySpace page, the latter featuring pictures of her in both a hijab and burqa - items her neighbours in Pennsylvania never saw her wear. And now, police and intelligence services in 10 countries in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa are investigating a plot apparently conceived, planned - and brought down - purely through the internet.

It was in June 2008 - a "couple of months", she claimed in one e-mail, after she had "reverted" to Islam - that she made her first, significant internet move when she posted a video on YouTube using the pseudonym 'Jihad Jane', saying she was "desperate to do something somehow to help" ease the suffering of Muslims. A collection of people then began to e-mail her via YouTube and, later, her MySpace page, where she listed "Sheikh OBL [Osama bin Laden] and the brothers in jihad" among her heroes.

In December 2008, Ms LaRose, 46, is alleged to have received an e-mail from an unnamed male admirer in South Asia saying he wanted to become a "shaheed" or martyr. She replied the following day that she, too, wanted to die in holy war. Over the course of the following months, Ms LaRose is said to have been in internet contact with at least five would-be terrorists in Asia, North America and Europe, including at least one in Ireland.

By March, another correspondent in the Subcontinent had proposed killing Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoonist who enraged Muslims worldwide in 2007 with one of his drawings. He e-mailed Ms LaRose that Mr Vilks should be killed "in a way that the whole kufar [sic] world would get frightened". She replied: "I will make this my goal or die trying." He also told Ms LaRose that, as a blonde, green-eyed American, she "could get access to many places", so he suggested that she should "marry me to get me inside Europe". According to the US indictment, she agreed and began making plans to go to Sweden.

It is believed that much correspondence was conducted through a single e-mail account - a so-called "blind drop" where multiple users share one password, leaving messages in the drafts folder, so that key information never gets transmitted or caught up in web filters. In August, Ms LaRose removed the hard drive from her computer, stole her boyfriend's passport and flew to Europe. She was arrested when she returned to the United States in mid-October.

Her online activities, however, had long been the subject of interest to a band of amateur internet sleuths who dedicate their online time to tracking down potential terrorists, child abusers and other criminals. Members of two such groups, the Jawa Report and the YouTube Smackdown Corps, claim to have been tracking Ms LaRose's online postings as early as 2007. Originally, they regarded her online, anti-American, anti-Zionist rants as something of a joke, but last year, when she is said to have appealed for funds to support terrorist activity through her postings on Twitter, one Jawa contributor reported her to the FBI.

Agents interviewed her shortly before her abrupt departure for Europe, but she denied any knowledge of Jihad Jane and they did not arrest her. She was by then on the US security services' radar. The US man who reported Ms LaRose to the authorities last July, does not want to be identified but said he had been tracking her for about a year and a half. He first encountered her after watching a YouTube channel dedicated to Middle Eastern performing arts. He found that some people were violently critical of the featured female performers, threatening to rape and kill them.

"One thing led to another and the next thing I knew, I was dealing with fanatics such as Jihad Jane/Fatima LaRose whose real identity was later revealed as Colleen LaRose." He said Ms LaRose "recklessly" posted information about herself on websites. "Her previous internet activity was easy to track. In it she listed her real name, birth date, location and even online pictures of herself," he added.

"Although YouTube Smackdown was responsible for removing most of her terrorist accounts, she remained determined to create more accounts on YouTube promoting terrorism against the US. "She got more of a following of real terrorists as time went on, joining online terrorist websites and promoting them on her YouTube channels. When she finally made an account which actively solicited funds for the Pakistan Mujaheddin - which I knew she had acquired the contacts for - I knew she had become a real threat for our safety." He reported her to the FBI in Philadelphia, marking the beginning of the end for her online venture. dsapsted@thenational.ae