The abrupt transformation of Colleen R. LaRose from bored middle-aged matron to “JihadJane,” her Internet alias, was unique in many ways, but a common thread ties the alleged Islamic militant to other recent cases of homegrown terrorism: the Internet.
From charismatic clerics who spout hate online, to thousands of extremist websites, chat rooms and social networking pages that raise money and spread radical propaganda, the Internet has become a crucial front in the ever-shifting war on terrorism.
“LaRose showed that you can become a terrorist in the comfort of your own bedroom,” said Bruce Hoffman, professor of security studies at Georgetown University. “You couldn’t do that 10 years ago.”
“The new militancy is driven by the Web,” agreed Fawaz A. Gerges, a terrorism expert at the London School of Economics. “The terror training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan are being replaced by virtual camps on the Web.”
From their side, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are scrambling to monitor the Internet and penetrate radical websites to track suspects, set up sting operations or unravel plots before they are carried out.
The FBI arrested LaRose in October after she had spent months using e-mail, YouTube, MySpace and electronic message boards to recruit radicals in Europe and South Asia to “wage violent jihad,” according to a federal indictment unsealed this week.
That put the strawberry-haired Pennsylvania resident in league with many of the 12 domestic terrorism cases involving Muslims that the FBI disclosed last year, the most in any year since 2001. The Internet was cited as a recruiting or radicalizing tool in nearly every case.
“Basically, Al Qaeda isn’t coming to them,” Gerges said. “They are using the Web to go to Al Qaeda.”
In December, for example, five young men from northern Virginia were arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of seeking to join anti-American militants in Afghanistan.
A Taliban recruiter made contact with the group after one of the five, Ahmed Abdullah Minni, posted comments on YouTube praising videos of attacks on U.S. troops, officials said. To avoid detection, they communicated by leaving draft e-mail messages at a shared Yahoo e-mail address.
Hosam Smadi, a Jordanian, was arrested in September and accused of trying to use a weapon of mass destruction after he allegedly tried to blow up a 60-story office tower in downtown Dallas. The FBI began surveillance of Smadi after seeing his anti-American postings on an extremist website.
And Ehsanul Islam Sadequee and Syed Haris Ahmed, two middle-class kids barely out of high school near Atlanta, secretly took up violent jihad after meeting at a mosque.
“They started spending hours online -- chatting with each other, watching terrorist recruitment videos, and meeting like-minded extremists,” the FBI said in a statement after the pair were convicted of terrorism charges in December.
Prosecutors alleged that the pair traveled to Washington and made more than 60 short surveillance videos of the Capitol, the Pentagon and other sensitive facilities, and e-mailed them to an Al Qaeda webmaster and propagandist.
U.S. authorities also closely monitor several fiery Internet imans who use English to preach jihad and, in some cases, to help funnel recruits to Al Qaeda and other radical causes.
The best known is Anwar al Awlaki, an American-born imam who is believed to be living in Yemen. U.S. officials say more than 10% of visitors to his website are in the U.S.
Among those who traded e-mails with Awlaki were Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged with shooting and killing 13 people in November at Ft. Hood, Texas, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day.
Mahdi Bray, executive director of the MAS Freedom Foundation, part of the Muslim American Society, noted that many extremist websites featured fiery images, loud music and fast-moving videos of violence and death.
“They use video games and hip-hop to bring young people in, sometimes in very benign ways,” he said. “Then they make this transition by showing all the horrific things” and by then, some would-be recruits are hooked.
Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said his group had struggled to compete with the instant attention that grisly videos of beheadings, roadside bombs or masked men with weapons draw on the Internet.
“They get the backdrop of the Afghani mountains or the battlefields of Somalia,” he said. “We’re speaking from conference centers and quiet halls. Somehow, we have to figure out a way to make our message more newsworthy. We’ve issued YouTube videos, and it barely gets a couple of hundred hits.”