Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Some stories are so bizarre, striking readers from such a radically unconventional angle, that they must, it seems, reveal something new. Such is the story of Colleen “Jihad Jane” LaRose, a story that tells us a little bit about international terrorism, globalization, radical Islam, artistic freedom, and the strange phenomenon of “micronations,” among other things.
The story begins on October 15th of last year at the Philadelphia International Airport, about 20 minutes from Swarthmore. Colleen LaRose, 46, a resident of Pennsburg, Pennsylvania (a little south of Allentown, for those who know the state), was returning from a trip to Europe when she was arrested by the FBI. She was arraigned two weeks ago in Philadelphia and charged with conspiring to murder a Swedish citizen, artist Lars Vilks. Though she had no known exposure to formal Islamic teachings, it is believed that Ms. LaRose came to sympathize with the “plight” of Muslims based on information she read on the internet and signed on for the assassination to prove her dedication to the Islamic cause.
From what I can tell from reading various reports about the scheme, Ms. LaRose and her co-conspirators were woefully naive in going about their mission. For example, Ms. LaRose posted incriminating messages on YouTube and other websites under the pseudonyms “JihadJane” and “Fatima LaRose,” and had previously attempted to raise money for Pakistani militants through a Twitter account. Still, it is the homegrown nature of the threat that has undoubtedly roused the attention of the American defense community, as well as the ease with which Ms. LaRose was able to connect with other similar-minded people in diverse parts of the world, from Ireland to Southeast Asia. Territorial boundaries do not necessarily match up with ideological ones, and now, because of the internet, terrorists have the opportunity to reach beyond their village, region, or nation and engage like-minded ideologues anywhere.
Moreover, LaRose’s case highlights the decentralization of power that makes international gangs, drug cartels, and terrorist cells so difficult to pin down and defeat. The decision to kill Mr. Vilks wasn’t issued from any central authority or passed down a chain of command. In 2007, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq offered up to $150,000 for the murder of Mr. Vilks, but it doesn’t appear that LaRose had any direct communication with the terrorist organization. In signing up for a murder plot that was openly disseminated via cyberspace, LaRose, described as a kooky but innocuous suburban housewife, essentially became an international mercenary.
But why did the Islamic State of Iraq develop an interest in an eccentric Swedish artist in the first place? The nature of Islam’s quarrel with Mr. Vilks requires a bit of backstory. Most readers will remember the 2005 Danish cartoons controversy, in which caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad ignited protests throughout Europe and the Middle East. At the time, the Danish Prime Minister characterized the event as Denmark’s worst international crisis since WWII. In 2007, a similar controversy swept Sweden after a number of its largest newspapers published sketches by Mr. Vilks showing the head of Muhammad on the body of a dog. Ironically, some of the images were printed to accompany editorials on freedom of speech, since Mr. Vilks’ drawings had been banned by an art show due to their expected fallout.
Ms. LaRose left the U.S. for Europe in August of 2009, intent on connecting with her co-conspirators and finding and murdering Mr. Vilks. She seems to have abandoned her plan before actually reaching Sweden, leading one to question whether she was really as dedicated to the cause as she claimed. However, the curious way in which Ms. LaRose sought to catch up with Mr. Vilks is a story in itself, one that lends a final touch of the bizarre to this international odyssey.
If you Wikipedia search Lars Vilks, you will find, alongside a lengthy entry on the Muhammad drawings controversy, a brief paragraph about Mr. Vilks’ projects Nimis and Arx. These are important works because they form the basis for Mr. Vilks’ claim to a small portion of land off the Southwestern tip of Sweden, where, over the past 30 years, he has sought to establish a tiny country called Ladonia. In fact, Ladonia is one of the worlds longest-lasting and most prominent micronations, which are exactly what their name suggests—tiny islands, strips of enclosed land, oddly shaped houses, permanently anchored ships, or even internet constructs which purport to be free, independent, sovereign states.
So why do we care about Ladonia? Well, Ladonia might be a bit of a joke in terms of its claims to territorial sovereignty, but the internet is another thing—Ladonia has an expansive, if grammatically-challenged, website that lists, among other things, postal addresses where its citizens can receive mail. And so, in order to find Vilks, Ms. Larose signed up for Ladonian citizenship!
Nothing I’ve read indicates that she actually found him. But in a story stranger than fiction, a lady from the Philadelphia suburbs discovered radical Islam online, was recruited and connected with other conspirators in Ireland and Southeast Asia online, and potentially located her Swedish target using the postal addresses of an entity claiming to be a sovereign state, which in fact exists primarily online.
On March 18th in Philadelphia, Ms. LaRose pled “not guilty” to conspiring to aid terrorists, conspiring to kill someone overseas, lying to the FBI, and stealing her ex-boyfriend’s passport. Due to complications arising from her dual citizenship, however, it remains to be seen whether Ms. LaRose will indeed face trial in the United States, or whether the Ladonian government will resist her unlawful extradition and request that the trial be held in Nimis and Arx, Ladonia’s twin capital cities.