Director Ciarán Cassidy’s fascinating documentary Jihad Jane investigates how a vulnerable American woman ended up sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder.
Following a row with her boyfriend Kurt on holiday in Amsterdam, Colleen LaRose hooked up with a Muslim man staying in the same hotel. Her interest in Islam was piqued by this brief encounter, and once home in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, LaRose signed up to a Muslim dating site. From there, she began spending hours each week delving into videos depicting Western attacks on Muslims and started posting comments on YouTube as ‘JihadJane’ in June 2008.
By the time of her arrest in October 2009, LaRose, along with five other conspirators, was planning to murder Swedish artist Lars Vilks after a fatwa had been placed on him for drawing the Islamic prophet Muhammad with a dog’s head. Cassidy’s film shows a clip of an Al Qaida video offering $150,000 for Vilks’ life. Among LaRose’s accomplices was Pakistani immigrant Mohammad Hassan Khalid, who at 15 became the youngest person ever to be prosecuted for terrorism offences in the US, and Jamie Paulin Ramirez – so-called Jihad Jamie – another American woman from a troubled background.
Over a tight 94 minutes, we hear from key players in the conspiracy, with LaRose herself first heard by phone from Tallahassee prison in Florida – and later seen upon her release in November 2018. Relatives of the conspirators, attorneys and FBI agents involved in the case fill in details – and we hear horrific accounts of LaRose’s upbringing, including that she was repeatedly raped by her father as a young child. It is no surprise that every subsequent romantic relationship LaRose enters into seems destined for disaster. There is also a heartbreaking scene in which LaRose phones her son Christian, only for him to be uninterested with her attempts to rekindle a maternal connection.
It’s not a perfect doc and there are avenues of inquiry that could have been explored which aren’t. It remains a mystery who Eagle Eye, a conspirator seemingly named after a Shia LaBeouf action film about terrorism, actually was. That aside, it would be interesting to know exactly what LaRose did in mainland Europe after she left Paulin Ramirez in Ireland and immediately before she returned to the US and her arrest.
Regardless of such holes, Cassidy’s film is a harrowing one that avoids sensationalism. LaRose and her co-conspirators aren’t excused for their murderous intent but neither are they demonised. Interviews with protagonists are fair and sensitive, while archive news reports of the case are used sparingly. By the conclusion of Jihad Jane, we’re left in no doubt of the long-term and far-reaching emotional consequences of embracing extremism. We can also begin to understand why hideous life experiences might push people to pursue actions most of us consider unthinkable.
- Director: Ciaran Cassidy
- Starring: Colleen LaRose, Jamie Paulin Ramirez, Lars Vilks
- Released: May 11 (VOD)