The black flag, Jihad Jane and Ireland


Damache allegedly sent a message to Khalid, asking him to recruit online ‘some brothers that can travel freely . . . with EU passports’

THE KNOCK ON THE DOOR of Ali Charaf Damache’s Waterford home came on the morning of March 9th last year. Within hours, news of the arrests of Damache and six others detained during searches of 10 addresses in Waterford and Cork had rippled across the world. The four men and three women were held in relation to an alleged plot to kill Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who had depicted the prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that two female converts from the US, including one Colleen R LaRose, who used the internet pseudonym Jihad Jane, were being linked to the alleged plot.

Nineteen months on, Damache, who was subsequently charged with the unrelated offence of sending a menacing message to a lawyer in the US, remains in custody in Ireland. Last week, in an indictment announced in a Pennsylvania court, he was charged, along with Muhammad Hassan Khalid, a Pakistani teenager resident in the US, with conspiracy to materially support terrorists. Damache was also charged with one count of attempted identity theft to facilitate an act of international terrorism.

If convicted, Damache, a naturalised Irish citizen from Algeria, could face up to 45 years in prison. The US justice department has told The Irish Timesthat it intends to seek his extradition from Ireland to stand trial in Pennsylvania.

The case against Damache, the result of investigations by the FBI’s joint terrorism task force in Philadelphia and FBI field divisions in New York, Denver, Washington DC and Baltimore, with assistance from the Irish authorities, is outlined in court papers lodged in Pennsylvania last week. The 14-page indictment, obtained by The Irish Times, details 55 “overt acts” in relation to the conspiracy. Most of them were e-mails exchanged between Damache, Khalid, LaRose and Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, a Muslim convert from Colorado who married Damache in an Islamic ceremony shortly after she arrived in Ireland in September 2009.

The indictment alleges that, from about 2008 to July 2011, Damache and Khalid conspired with LaRose, Paulin-Ramirez and others to provide material support and resources, including logistical support, recruitment services, funds, identification documents and personnel, to a conspiracy to kill overseas.

In a Pennsylvania courtroom in February, LaRose pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, making false statements, and attempted identity theft. Paulin-Ramirez, who was one of the seven arrested in Ireland last year, pleaded guilty this March to conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. The two women await sentencing.

According to last week’s indictment, Damache, Khalid and others “devised and co-ordinated a violent jihad organisation consisting of men and women from Europe and the US divided into a planning team, a research team, an action team, a recruitment team and a finance team; some of whom would travel to south Asia for explosives training and return to Europe to wage violent jihad”.

The indictment alleges that Damache, Khalid, LaRose and others recruited men online to “wage violent jihad” in south Asia and Europe. In addition, Damache, Khalid, LaRose and others allegedly recruited women who had passports and the ability to travel to and around Europe in support of such activity. The indictment further alleges that LaRose, Paulin-Ramirez and others travelled to and around Europe to “participate in and support violent jihad”, and that Khalid and LaRose and others solicited funds online for terrorists.

In electronic communications in early 2009, Damache is alleged to have written to LaRose of his desire to become a martyr in the name of Allah, stating: “I tried twice but I wasn’t successful. I will . . . try until Allah will make it easy for me.”

LaRose replied that she also wished to become a martyr in the name of Allah. A month later she e-mailed another person, advising that her physical appearance as a blond, blue-eyed westerner would allow her to “blend in with many people”, which “may be a way to achieve what is in my heart”.

That July, Damache allegedly sent an electronic message under the username “Theblackflag” to Khalid, asking him to recruit online “some brothers that can travel freely . . . with EU passports . . . I need some sisters too.”

In the same correspondence Damache allegedly claimed that the group would train “either with AQIM or ISI”, apparent references to an al-Qaeda offshoot in north Africa, known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Pakistani spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. The group would be a “professional organised team”, he is said to have written.

The indictment further alleges that Paulin-Ramirez married Damache on the day she arrived with her seven-year-old son in Ireland “to live and train with jihadists”, even though she had never met Damache in person. It alleges also that while the couple were living together in Ireland, they began training Paulin-Ramirez’s son “in the ways of violent jihad”.

In an alleged correspondence between LaRose and Paulin-Ramirez in August 2009, LaRose allegedly wrote: “when our brother[s] defend our faith [and] their homes, they are terrorist. fine, then I am a terrorist and proud to be this.”

Paulin-Ramirez, a former medical assistant, allegedly responded: “That’s right. if that’s how they call it then so be it I am what I am.”

Paulin-Ramirez’s lawyer, Jeremy Ibrahim, has described her as a sincere convert who married “for the love of Islam, not for the love of her husband”. He says his client, who had been married three times before, was “impressionable and susceptible” when she left Colorado to wed Damache, whom she had met online. He argues that she did anything she may have done afterwards because she feared Damache.

“You’re dealing with a 32-year-old single mom from a small town in Colorado,” Ibrahim says. “She ended up being part of something that was much larger, much more complex than she ever knew.”

Paulin-Ramirez’s family have portrayed her as a troubled woman who began wearing the full-face veil and retreated into an online world soon after she converted. Her stepfather says he confronted her at one point, asking: “What are you going to do, strap a bomb on and blow up something?” He says that she replied: “If necessary, yes.”

“She never liked who she was,” her mother told the Wall Street Journallast year. “She was always looking for something.”

The indictment issued last week also alleges that, in summer 2009, Muhammad Hassan Khalid, now an 18-year-old high-school student, posted or caused to be posted an online solicitation for funds to support terrorism on behalf of LaRose. It is further alleged that, after LaRose was questioned by the FBI, Khalid sent electronic communications to online forums requesting the deletion of all posts by LaRose.

In August 2009, Khalid allegedly sent a questionnaire to LaRose in which he asked another potential female recruit about her beliefs with regard to violent jihad. In addition, Khalid allegedly received from LaRose, and concealed the whereabouts of, a US passport that she had stolen. Khalid, who was arrested in Maryland in July, pleaded not guilty in court this week.

“The reed-thin, serious-looking young man appeared older than his years,” a news report stated. “He had no family or friends in the Philadelphia courtroom. His parents, legal US residents from Pakistan who had pushed their four children to excel in school, were working, a defence lawyer said.”

Since his arrest in March last year, Damache has sought to highlight his case in several ways, including through legal action. During a bail hearing, the High Court heard that investigators were unsure of Damache’s true identity as he had travelled to Ireland on false documents in 2000, had previously used other names and had Algerian and Irish passports. Soon after his arrest Damache went on a hunger strike that lasted at least 10 days.

Three months after he was taken into custody, Damache wrote to Cageprisoners, a London-based organisation founded by a former Guantánamo Bay detainee, Moazzam Begg, which describes its work as helping “those detained or killed unlawfully as part of the global war on terror”.

In the letter, which has been seen by The Irish Times, Damache claims he was “wrongly arrested and incarcerated”. Referring to himself and Paulin-Ramirez, he writes: “We are being wrongly accused of planning to kill the Swedish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet of Islam in the form of a dog. We are innocent. We never had such a plan or any intention to make such a plan. The only reason my wife came from America to Ireland was to get married and either stay in Ireland or go to Dublin or Saudi Arabia. I would like Cageprisoners to publicise our case to the world so that it may know about our innocence and to help us return to our families.”

In April this year Damache claimed in the High Court that his right to practise his religion as a Muslim had been breached because of conditions in Cork Prison, where he was being held. His solicitor told the court that Damache has been verbally abused by inmates and prison staff. She said an insulting cartoon of the prophet Muhammad was left in his cell. The following month Damache lost his attempt in the High Court to quash the warrant used to search his home in March last year.

In his judicial review Damache had claimed it was unconstitutional for a senior garda involved in the inquiry to issue the search warrant.

It is understood that no official approach has yet been made to the Irish authorities about Damache’s extradition to the US. But the statements from senior US officials that followed his indictment point to the seriousness with which the case is being viewed.

“This investigation highlights the diverse-threat environment we face today,” said the FBI executive assistant director, Mark Giuliano. “As revealed in this case, individuals used the internet to further their radicalisation and contribute to the radicalisation of others.”

US assistant attorney general Lisa Monaco agreed. “[This] indictment, which alleges a terrorist conspiracy involving individuals around the globe who connected via the Internet – including a teenager and two women living in America – underscores the evolving nature of violent extremism,” she said.