The tale of two American women who went looking for love online and became the 'new face in the war on terror.'The tale of two American women who went looking for love online and became the 'new face in the war on terror.'The tale of two American women who went looking for love online and became the 'new face in the war on terror.'
In 2012, LaRose and her boyfriend Kurt took a trip to Amsterdam, where she met a Muslim man in an elevator, subsequently having a brief sexual relationship with him. Returning home to Colorado, where she and Kurt lived with her mother and his father, she started to spend more and more time watching YouTube videos of Israeli air raids on the Gaza Strip. In the comments, she would often converse with a user known as Black Flag, who invited her to join a jihadi chatroom. An Algerian whose real name was Ali Charaf Damache, Black Flag soon revealed (in unencrypted conversations) that he was the leader of an al-Qaeda cell based in County Waterford in the Republic of Ireland, convincing both LaRose and Ramirez to join him, and tasking them with killing Lars Vilk, a Swedish artist who had published a series of drawings depicting Muhammad as a roundabout dog.
Although this overview suggests a heavily political film, Jihad Jane isn't really about Islamic extremism, al-Qaeda, or even terrorism in general. Rather, it's about how radicals target damaged individuals and how easily such people can become radicalised, turning their backs on everything and everyone they've ever known. In this respect, perhaps the film's most insightful line comes from LaRose's mother, who says, "they came into my home through the computer and stole my daughter" - it was nothing less than a kidnapping, albeit ideological rather than literal.
The film also looks, rather too briefly, at the sensationalism of the American news media, with clips of anchors on both sides of the political divide speculating that LaRose and Ramirez represent the "new face of terrorism". Presenting an absurd scenario wherein white Americans would suddenly start to join al-Qaeda en masse, no one, it seems, ever stopped to ask why LaRose and Ramirez were specifically targeted - what was it in their lives that left them vulnerable to radicalisation. Rather than suggesting that maybe that's where the real story is, the media instead just went with the worst-case scenario, that these two women were merely the first in an oncoming tsunami that would change the face of global terrorism forever (spoiler alert: the tsunami turned out to be a very minor splash).
On the subject of LaRose and Ramirez's vulnerability, Cassidy paints a picture of abuse, neglect, and a complete absence of any self-worth - both women are depicted as yearning for an identity, a place where they could learn who they are and maybe even start to feel good about themselves. That it was Islamic extremists that got to them is almost arbitrary; they could just as easily have been indoctrinated into a book club - they were vulnerable to any group that offered them a sense of belonging. Indeed, one gets the impression that neither woman fully understood what they were getting themselves into, focusing only on the validation that Black Flag's cell seemed to offer - a validation of which they had been stripped by the abuse each had suffered. LaRose, in particular, endured horrifying abuse at the hands of her father, who began raping her when she was seven, leading to her running away at age 13, working as a prostitute at age 15, marrying one of her clients, who then proved physically abusive, and attempting suicide in 2005. Ramirez, for her part, had three failed marriages in her past, the first of which had been physically abusive.
However, despite the incredible story and fascinating main players, Jihad Jane didn't really work for me. Apart from looking at LaRose and Ramirez's vulnerability, perhaps the most interesting theme in their story is the culpability of the media in fanning the fires of paranoia and promulgating a mistaken belief that the "War of Terror" is an absolute necessity, because without it, an army of white American al-Qaeda soldiers would storm the White House and establish a jihadi state in Washington, DC (spoiler alert: this never happened). Instead, the film reveals the cell in Waterford to be comically inefficient. Nevertheless, the media would have people believe that this disorganised group of individuals who met online were, in fact, a highly-trained and lethal assassination squad (spoiler alert: they weren't). However, Cassidy disappointingly glosses over all of this, and although he does show some clips of news anchors prophesying doom, he doesn't go anywhere with it, which is a real shame, as the LaRose and Ramirez stories are tailor-made to expose the illogical grip that Islamophobia has in the US.
There are other problems as well. For example, Cassidy fails to draw much of a distinction between ordinary Muslims and Islamic fundamentalists, which is unforgivable in a documentary of this nature. Instead, the film suggests, by way of omission, that if you convert to Islam, you immediately become a terrorist. Which is obviously not the case. Cassidy also lets Vilks off the hook during his interview. Vilks is a narcissist, an empty provocateur who seems to enjoy aggravating Muslims, but Cassidy never pushes him on why. Finally, and this is a small aesthetic thing - Cassidy leaves almost every interview hanging for a good 1-3 seconds too long; after the interviewee is finished speaking, Cassidy waits to cut away, leaving an awkward 'dead air' that really started to get on my nerves as the film progressed.
All in all, Jihad Jane will tell you little you can't find on Wikipedia or in the four-part Reuters article about LaRose. It's one of those documentaries that has no business being shown in the cinema, as it's visually bland and relies far too heavily on talking heads. I didn't hate it, and I suppose it is a decent starting point if you're interested in looking into the case in more detail, but it offers nothing beyond cursory introductory material.
- Feb 25, 2020