The bizarre story of two US women who came to Ireland on a terror mission has been brought to screen by an Irish director, writes Esther McCarthy.
It's the astonishing story of two American women who joined a jihadist terror cell in Waterford, a tale so strange and bizarre that you couldn’t make it up.
In 2009, after becoming radicalised on the internet, Colleen LaRose travelled to Ireland’s south east to fulfil a long-held mission — to plot jihadist attacks in Europe. Primarily, she had one main target: Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who had caused a furore with a controversial cartoon of the Islam’s prophet Muhammad.
During her time in Ireland, LaRose briefly stayed in Cork but spent most of her time in Waterford city in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with organiser Ali Charaf Damache and his new wife, another radicalised American woman, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, and her young son.
According to the film, Damache had worked briefly in the auctioneering business in Cork before moving to Waterford.
Frustrated at a lack of concrete plans from Damache, LaRose eventually returned to America, where she was arrested by the FBI.
The bizarre story is being brought to the big screen by filmmakerCiaran Cassidy, who had unprecedented access to both women and various other players in the entireaffair. To this day, he says, LaRose feels she was committed to going through with the attack.
“She says she would have. And I imagine she would,” says Cassidy, adding that LaRose liked being known to the world as Jihad Jane, the moniker which she used online.
“She achieved such notoriety, she had this name. She was all over the newspapers.
“She just got this huge, massive exposure. And I think then for her, I think she was kind of happy with that.”
Ramirez, who also takes part in the film, is a very different character, adds the filmmaker. “It’s very hard to tell the story without telling the story of the two women who ended up in Waterford, because I think if you were hearing either side of the story, you’d be very confused and you would have questions.
“The thing about it was that we felt Jamie was a completely different side of a coin. Colleen was proactive. She was on the internet and making plans, instigating and then travelling. And she was very open about what her intentions were.
“I think Jamie was just the opposite. I think she would have been very introverted and she would be very quiet. She didn’t communicate with a lot of people. And I think she had a very isolated life.”
The documentary shows how both women, damaged and vulnerable,became radicalised online after watching YouTube videos. In LaRose’s case, this came about after she became more tied to her apartment while caring for relatives.
She started to spend a lot more time online and became intrigued by Islam. Both she and Ramirez were contacted by Damache, an Algerian/Irishman based in Waterford, via the site’s private messaging system. In one moving account in the film, Ramirez’s mother breaks down as she says:
“They came into my home through my computer and stole my daughter from me.”
LaRose was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was released in 2018; Ramirez got eight years and is also now free again.
As Cassidy travelled around the US and Ireland to speak with people connected with the case, it struck him how few people in Waterford remembered the protagonists in this bizarre cell.
“What I find really astounding when we went through the records is that when we went to try and interview people about Waterford, asking: ‘Do you remember them? Who remembers what went on here?’ We asked neighbours and we would have knocked on doors. Nobody remembers them.
“What I find really haunting is when Jamie was in the house in Waterford, I think in total she left four times. It was a small little apartment there in the centre of town. You can see the town move around you.
Cassidy feels that the case became so notorious partly because of the way it was revealed to the media through authorities.
“I think that’s where she got all the coverage and where all of a sudden she was on the main news item. It was only how many years on after 9/11? So the case became like it was trying to reassure people. ‘Look: there’s people out there, but we can get them’.
“I think obviously law enforcement have to look into this. People have to go and investigate who these people are and what was going on. But how it was billed afterwards ... I think a lot of people when you see the news archive you always felt like she was just seconds away from Lars Vilks, that she would’ve been around the corner.
"It was never really like that. It petered out so limply. But that’s not the way it came across if you were just sitting down that night to watch the news.”
Jihad Jane is Cassidy’s debut documentary feature and he previously explored the story through his background in radio as a Doc on One for RTÉ. He is highly respected in this field — other radio documentaries include The Diary of Leanne Wolfe and The Runners, the story of a man who helped children escaped from an Irish industrial school.
He moved into making short films, and after his short The Last Days of Peter Bergmann was screened at Sundance and dozens of other major festivals, started to think about returning to the bizarre tale of these women for his first feature.
“I just felt there were still a lot of questions concerning who these people are and what they were doing. It was just step by step because you’re looking at Demache, Jamie, Colleen, the FBI, the Irish side and prosecutors.
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Only two more sleeps until the first screening of Jihad Jane, here at #TriskelCinema. This documentary follows the story of two American women, specifically one woman who called herself 'Jihad Jane.' These two were arrested in Waterford for terrorism-related charges, due to their plans to murder a Swedish cartoonist.⠀ ⠀ For the first time ever and with unprecedented access, the documentary "Jihad Jane" tells this story of the most absurd terror cell to ever come together. ⠀ ⠀ Screenings from:⠀ Fri 14 Feb 6.30pm⠀ Sat 15 Feb 6.30pm⠀ Sun 16 Feb 2pm / 6.30pm⠀ Mon 17 Feb 6.30pm⠀ ⠀ #cinema #cork #corkcinema #arthousecinema #film
"It’s like a line of dominoes. You need to kind of almost get a little perspective of each person for the whole story to make sense.”
A seasoned radio documentarian, he had been thinking about moving into film for a while.
“I enjoyed being on the road with a team, I enjoyed being in a studio, working with an editor, I enjoyed working with a composer. So I just felt like it was going to be a natural progression.
"I still like doing audio documentaries, but I just felt that I’d been doing it for a long time and it was also a little isolating. When you see something on a screen, it’s a different way of telling stories, but also very exciting to be part of.”
Jihad Jane is at selected cinemas from Friday, including Triskel in Cork.