Coleen LaRose is a white American woman who converted to Islam and was radicalised online, giving herself the moniker Jihad Jane. She became part of and recruited another convert, Jamie Paulin Ramirez, to a plot to murder a Swedish artist, Lars Vilks, for his perceived insults to the prophet Muhammad. Her story was tailor made for the age of sensationalist journalism. Thanks to her online handle, the headlines wrote themselves, but Ciaran Cassidy’s film takes a look at the story that is both deeper and wider than that coverage.
LaRose is centre around which the film turns, but in telling her story it looks at the context of not just her life but Paulin Ramirez’ life as well. We discover that both of them grew up in abusive circumstances and it seems that they were both conditioned, from an early age, to expect to be controlled by men. That comes through strongly in the deference they express when talking about their ‘brothers’ in Islam and in how they were both sucked in by Ali Charaf Damache, who called himself The Black Flag and was apparently the instigator of the plot to kill Vilk. The film doesn’t beat the point over the head, but it allows the facts of their lives and the way these women speak to make a powerful point about how indoctrinated power relationships played a part in their radicalisation.
The film never sympathises with the women or excuses them, but it at least attempts empathy. Interviews with their lawyers, especially LaRose’s, lay out some of their naivete. After going to Ireland to meet The Black Flag, we discover that LaRose was unimpressed, having been sold a line about how high up he was and that he operated terrorist training. She left a few days later and apparently expected gratitude on turning herself in to the FBI, rather than the several serious felony charges she ended up with. In both women’s cases, Cassidy seems to suggest they were looking for larger meaning in their lives. Though the film is not named for her Jamie Paulin Ramirez has equal or more screen time, and it’s in that story that we see the wider impact of radicalisation, particularly on her young son, who appeared in videos with her and Damache, being given a toy gun and told to “attack the kuffar”. He appears a quiet boy now, but says he has little memory of his time in Ireland, he is though clearly impacted by not having had his mother in his life for some time.
The third act of the film focuses on the media reaction to Jihad Jane and ‘Jihad Jamie’ (the latter not a self-applied moniker), and demonstrates amply how reductive, and how uninterested in context, the telling of the story was. It’s more powerful for the fact that Cassidy has already spent an hour laying out that context, and there’s probably a full film in that idea alone, especially if it’s expanded beyond these subjects.
The structure of the film is largely a static series of talking heads. Happily, there are no dramatic recreations and the period in Ireland is suggested by evocative images of what we are given to assume are the empty locations where it took place. The images also capture some telling moments of silence, especially from Paulin Ramirez’ son and reveal that both of the women are still very much in the faith, with La Rose wearing a face and head covering throughout and only blue eyes visible through Paulin Ramirez’ full black niquab. It’s not a visual feast, but enough information and mood is imparted to make the argument that this story is worth telling visually, rather than through a podcast.
As with many documentaries, Jihad Jane tells a story that many of us remember, and probably think we know, but Cassidy’s deeper dive manages to make the telling clearer and, probably, our feelings more complex.