Judging 'JihadJane'

Colleen LaRose is expected to plead not guilty when she’s arraigned in court today—even though she’s been cooperating with the FBI. Richard Miniter on the rising female jihadis.

03.17.10 10:44 PM ET

Colleen LaRose is pleaded not guilty in court Thursday—even though she’s been cooperating with the FBI. Richard Miniter on the rising female jihadis.

"Jihad Jane"—nee Colleen LaRose—will be arraigned in Philadelphia today, charged with conspiring to kill a Swedish cartoonist whose portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed offended radical Muslims (she has not yet entered a plea). She isn’t the only blond American woman alleged to espouse violent jihad: Jamie Paulin-Ramirez—a medical assistant who goes by the nom de guerre “Jihad Jamie”—was also apprehended, then released, as part of the plot to kill the same cartoonist.

So, should we expect a wave of Jihad Jills and Jennifers? The signs suggest that we should. These two women stand at the confluence of three disturbing trends: Terrorists are recruiting more converts, more Americans, and more women.

Among the documents seized in a mid-February 2010 raid of a jihadist cell in the U.K. was a speech that included the line: “I have received so many emails from ladies, they want to be the bomb themselves and do jihad.”

"Jihad Jane" and "Jihad Jamie" are both recent converts to Islam. Al Qaeda seeks out Muslims who know little about their faith: The zeal of a convert can be a useful tool.

Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer who now consults with the federal government on counterterrorism, wrote a study on the backgrounds of al Qaeda members. He found that two-thirds grew up in secular Muslim households and 10 percent were converts from Christianity. The vast majority became religious after they joined al Qaeda, getting religion from comrades and self-study. Virtually none attended madrassas.

"Jihad Jane" and "Jihad Jamie" fit the al Qaeda pattern in other ways. Three-quarters of the terrorists in Sageman's sample either are, or were, married. The newer waves of al Qaeda's terrorists do not tend to be married at the time they join and often marry other members of al Qaeda. Both of the women fit that profile, forging relationships with Muslim men who appear to be active terrorists.

Converts tend to seek information on Islam online. They begin with open forums. Over time, they are invited to password-protected forums where they receive instructions requiring them to wage jihad. These forums immerse converts in a universe that continually reinforces a deadly interpretation of Islam.

Some 30 American citizens were charged with terror-related crimes in the past year. Americans make perfect terrorists: hard to detain, they know America’s weaknesses.

Intelligence officials point to Aafia Siddiqui, a woman who earned a Ph.D. in neurological science from Brandeis. The longtime U.S. resident is the mother of two U.S. citizens and can count Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, as the uncle of her husband. Siddiqui has a wealth of American family connections. Her brother, an architect, lives in Texas, and her sister studied neurology at Harvard and taught at Johns Hopkins.

Siddiqui is suspected of dealing with $19 million worth of black-market diamonds to pay for al Qaeda attacks. After she was questioned by the FBI in 2002 for a purchase of night-vision goggles, body armor, and bomb-making books, she disappeared. The FBI later learned of her connection to a KSM-inspired plot to bomb fuel storage tanks in Washington D.C.

She was arrested by Afghan National Police in 2008, carrying documents describing chemical weapons, the Ebola virus and radioactive isotopes. In her bag, police found chemicals that were sealed in jars. Siddiqui was convicted in New York in February and will be sentenced on May 6.

Terrorist leaders increasingly choose women to carry out attacks because they attract less suspicion and generate massive media coverage.

While small numbers of women have been detonating themselves since the Anarchist movements of the 19th century, until recently women terrorists were largely confined to secular nationalist and communist movements such as the FLN in Algeria, the Baader-Meinhofs, and the Red Brigades.

Muslim women bombers are a newer phenomenon. The first was Sana Mekhaidali, who killed herself and five Israeli soldiers in Lebanon in 1985 and was hailed as the "bride of the south." But copycats were slow in coming.

Lately, women have appeared as suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan: At least 24 times in 2008, women killed themselves and others in Iraq; last year, the Taliban debuted a woman suicide bomber.

"Jihad Jane's" thwarted plot means that women terrorists are now moving to Europe and perhaps America.

Who are these women? Israeli scholar Yoram Schweitzer studied Palestinian female suicide bombers from 2002 through 2006. Of the 67 bombers, only three were married. In contrast to their male counterparts, female martyrs are not promised virgins, but reunification with earthly husbands. Unmarried women may well spend eternity in paradise alone. This suggests their motivation is very different from males.

The women surveyed by Schweitzer are comparatively well-educated. More than half had graduated from high school and 22 percent had university-level education. Compared to the general Palestinian population, these women martyrs were among the best and brightest.

That fact has not escaped the attention of Fatah, who were the first to use women suicide bombers. Nasser Shawish was the Fatah commander who ordered Dareen Abu Aisha to carry out one of the first female suicide attacks. Shawish told Israeli investigators that he didn't like the idea of using women—especially ones with bright futures: "I felt that she was a pretty and successful girl studying at the university, a future mother, who should marry and bear children, and help her people in other ways. But she wouldn't stop pressuring me."

Shawish's view is standard among male terrorist leaders, who consistently tell Israeli and American investigators that it's neither necessary nor desirable to use women. Osama bin Laden, in his 1996 declaration of war against America, stresses that women should stick to "motivating and encouraging their sons, brothers, and husbands to fight for the cause of Allah," not fight themselves.

What's changing is that women themselves, like Dareen Abu Aisha and "Jihad Jane," insist on taking part in jihad. Terror leaders might want to take the world back to the 7th century, but they have to contend with a feminist revolution.

Feeling the heat, al Qaeda leaders are changing their minds. The wife of al Qaeda's No. 2, Dr. Ayman Zawahiri, wrote a "letter to the Muslim sisters" in December 2009, which reinterprets jihad to include a woman’s share in the collective responsibility to carry "martyrdom operations.”

This follows a 2006 fatwa issued by Muslim Brotherhood scholar Yusuf al Qaradawi, which said, "I believe a woman can participate in this form of jihad [suicide bombing] according to her own means and condition. Also the organizers of these martyr operations can benefit from some believing women as they may do, in some cases, what is impossible for men to do." (Qaradawi helpfully adds that women involved in suicide bombings do not need a male chaperone.)

Women suicide bombers seem to volunteer for personal reasons. Thouria Khamour was arrested in 2002 just before she was able to carry out a suicide attack in Jerusalem. After her capture, she explained her motives to Schweitzer: "Sometimes a person is subject to such great pressure and mental distress that it leads to an explosion…. I was 25 years old, unmarried, and my situation at home wasn't good. At age 17, I already tried to harm myself twice but they stopped me."

Like Thouria, Jihad Jane was lonely and unhappy, easy prey for recruiters who promise to give life meaning—and provide the intimacy of a terrorist cell.

It would be foolish to deny the appeal of an extremism we cannot understand. Center for Social Cohesion scholar Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens writes about a mid-February 2010 raid of a jihadist cell in the U.K. Among the documents seized was a speech that included the line: "I have received so many emails from ladies, they want to be the bomb themselves and do jihad."

Isn't it time we learned why women find jihad so attractive?

Richard Miniter, the author of Losing bin Laden and Shadow War, is writing a biography of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.