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Jihad Jane: How the 'new face of terrorism' wound up in Waterford

A new Irish-made documentary tells Colleen LaRose’s, Jamie Ramirez and Ali Damache’s story.

Source: CBS News/YouTube

“IT WAS GIVING an idea of how a teenager, or how somebody very isolated with maybe not the greatest mental health in rural Pennsylvania, or how somebody in Colorado – how they all began to start communicating with each other and radicalising. And it was just [by] sitting in front of a screen.”

Irish director Ciarán Cassidy’s documentary Jihad Jane, which is out now, explores the curious story of how two radicalised American women ended up living in Waterford as part of a plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist.

It’s a strange tale. In the documentary, we meet Colleen LaRose, a Philadelphia woman in her 40s who has had an extremely difficult life, and who starts to – during a tough time in her relationship – seek solace in jihadist videos online. This leads to her spending time in forums for those interested in jihadism, where she calls herself Jihad Jane. She also converts to Islam.

At the same time, in another part of the country, a second woman – Jamie Paul Ramirez – is another vulnerable woman who gets mired in the world of jihadi chatrooms. She too converts to Islam.

In Maryland, a teenager who has Asperger’s, Mohammed Hassan Khalid, is also on the forums, and starts chatting to LaRose.

Meanwhile, over in Ireland, an Algerian man named Ali Damache is spending his time in these same forums claiming to be the leader of a jihadist group. 

The documentary explores how their lives collided and led to their arrests, charged with conspiracy to kill Lars Vilks. Though they did not get anywhere near the Swede, all four spent time in custody. American news outlets proclaimed the case as ‘the new face of terrorism’.

Building up trust

Cassidy first encountered the story in 2010, and made a documentary for RTÉ Radio One about it. After the group’s convictions in 2014, he realised that it would make a great feature documentary.

Jihad Jane is not just a look at how easily some people can be converted to the jihadist cause. It examines the reasons why people find themselves drawn to the forums – particularly at a time when jihadist material was far more accessible on popular mainstream video sites than it is now. 

Cassidy found getting in touch with the documentary participants (he spoke to both women, as well as LaRose’s sister and Ramirez’s son, mother and stepfather) not too difficult, chiefly because his radio documentary could serve as proof of how he intended to approach their story.

Jihad Jane is not sensationalist. It is calm and low-key in tone, making the most of quiet moments. 

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“With Colleen the approach was quite straightforward – it was building up trust,” says Cassidy. 

Some of the interviews Cassidy did with LaRose took place when she was in prison (she served an eight-year term). “She wasn’t very shy. So I think she liked the idea that there was a film being made about her,” says Cassidy. That need for approval, for being seen as somebody, is a theme that stands out in the documentary. 

One of the trickier elements of putting Jihad Jane together was that it was impossible to have one person become the throughline for the narrative. “You can talk to Colleen, but she has a particular view of it. So then you go to Jamie, and then you go to her family because they give a perspective on her. And then you’re looking at Mohammed [and] he was actually probably more accurate about all of the inter-communications within the chat rooms,” says Cassidy.

“And then you’ve got the FBI, and then you’ve got Kurt [Colleen's ex-boyfriend]. And you start lining everybody up like dominoes. And I think then they will roll into each other, and you build somewhat a picture of what it was like.”

It’s a complicated story, but Cassidy and his team have stripped it down to its barest parts. “I think you just have to end up going around talking to all the different people and getting all these different vantage points,” he says.

What struck him about LaRose’s attitude to the crime was her unexpected take on it. “I think one of the things was that, she had no regret about what had happened,” he says. “She saw it as a success. So that struck me as something, you know – most people will be turning around and going ‘I spent eight years in jail, this was a disaster’.”

‘Online, she was a hero’

While on the phone to her in prison, he asked LaRose how she felt when she was part of the conspiracy group. “She said, ‘Oh, I felt important’,” says Cassidy. “And then I [asked her] just an incidental question that stayed with you. Which was: when else did you feel important? And then she said, ‘Oh’. She just was like, silent. And she said ‘Oh, I can’t remember. I don’t know’.”

To Cassidy, that moment was very telling, indicating how much LaRose’s experiences of sexual abuse, prostitution and drug abuse had affected her sense of self.

Online, “she was loved and she was a hero”, says Cassidy. “So all of the people who were egging her on … she felt like this kind of affirmation. So she really connected with her online identity. And she got a lot of affirmation out of it, and she’s not that much more unusual that anybody else.”

How much of the conspiracy was real and how much was fantasy is a question that the documentary brings up.

“If people are online and they’re talking about murdering somebody, then obviously somebody like the FBI [is] going to be interested in it. And they’re going to be keeping an eye on what’s coming, if Damache is talking about training camps,” says Cassidy. “But then on the other hand, a lot of what was happening in the real world completely discounted what they were saying. And so it’s really difficult just to say where that line is.”

Source: CBS News/YouTube

Despite all the discussions and planning, “in reality the whole thing fell apart once they met up with each other”, says Cassidy of Ramirez and LaRose’s move to Waterford.

Ramirez ended up marrying Damache, but claims she was only let out of the house in Waterford a handful of times. 

Though the women were online discussing jihad, Cassidy points out that there was more to their forum obsession than that. “They’re all looking for partners. A lot of stuff they would write online was about this but a lot of stuff was like partners and meeting brothers. It was about being part of the group, being important within that group I think for Colleen. I think Jamie was definitely just looking or felt that she was looking for a husband.

“I think on the surface there was a myriad of different factors that were propelling them. Some that were criminal, then some were just more human. Other desires or needs that they were chasing.”

Life in Waterford

Cassidy travelled to Waterford but few people there could remember the women. LaRose herself got so frustrated there that she tried to contact the FBI – and went to the local Garda station to ask for its FBI department. 

“It’s possibly one of the biggest international stories ever in Waterford. But I don’t think that there’s maybe a handful of people who may have met the people [involved],” says Cassidy. “I think for Jamie, that was one of the things that I found very upsetting and strange about that time down there, that she really had no kind of interaction [with people].”

LaRose, on the other hand, talked about how “she was excited about the idea of this camp and her disappointment when she arrived”. Damache, says Cassidy “just really couldn’t control Coleen”.

Another person in the documentary is Ramirez’s son Christian. He travelled to Waterford with his mother and his memories of the time are bleak.

“Christian, he was by far the person people were struck by – he didn’t do anything,” says Cassidy. The boy was not directly interviewed about his mother’s activities in Waterford, but shared some of what it was like for him.

“The thing that struck him about Waterford was that he only had one toy to play with,” says Cassidy. 

The film also looks at the prominence that the story was given in the US media, which was no doubt helped in great part by LaRose’s Jihad Jane moniker.

“[We're] questioning why did people give it this prominence in the first place, what got people so excited about it,” says Cassidy.

“It was like a real example of how sensationalist it was. But also I think, it was very dangerously fear mongering in the sense of it was represented basically as an all-out assault on American women – that they’re trying to convert American women.”

He adds: “Colleen was watching videos and she did radicalise. But I think if you were watching the news that night, you really feel that Colleen was like, just outside Lars Vilks’ house with a knife in her back pocket when she was pulled away from it.

“It’s only really when [we] started digging into the story that we’re starting to get an insight about how far away all of that was, and how quickly the whole plot had fallen apart. But that’s not the impression you got when you watched the news.”

With Jihad Jane, says Cassidy, “our idea was to move beyond the headlines”.

He hopes that if someone sees a media report on a similar story, “they may just think about it a little bit differently.”

But regardless of whether LaRose and her compatriots’ plot succeeded, it still had an impact: today, while LaRose and Ramirez are free, Lars Vilks lives under 24-hour guard.

Jihad Jane is out now in selected Irish cinemas.

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