Lonely-heart terrorists

Irish authorities recently arrested Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, a 31-year-old white, American female, in connection with a plot to kill Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a dog in 2007. Mrs. Paulin-Ramirez, quickly dubbed “Jihad Jamie,” was arrested less than a week after authorities named Colleen LaRose, the self-described “Jihad Jane,” in an indictment on similar charges. Ms. LaRose, a 46-year-old white woman with whom Mrs. Paulin-Ramirez allegedly corresponded, was charged with plotting to kill the same cartoonist and with recruiting jihadists over the Internet.

Of the threads connecting these two cases, similarities in name, demographic and choice of target are perhaps the most readily apparent. However, Jane and Jamie have more in common than simply being blond-haired, blue-eyed would-be jihadists with a severe distaste for Swedish cartoonists. Both women led hard lives full of sadness and disappointment and were searching for a sense of purpose, validation and belonging. Their search brought them to the global jihadist community, which offered a chance to fill an emotional void.

Though viewed as a new trend, the down-on-her-luck, lonely-heart-turned-radical phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Consider Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the Manson Family commune member who attempted to assassinate President Ford in 1975. Before entering the public spotlight, Fromme was a troubled teen with a history of alcohol and drug abuse. After breaking with her parents, Fromme, who suffered from depression, became homeless. Cult leader Charles Manson approached Fromme on the streets of Venice Beach, Calif., and persuaded her to drop out of junior college and join him.

Fromme acknowledged that her reasons for joining the Manson Family and staying fiercely loyal to its charismatic leader stemmed from her desire to be loved by a strong father figure, a longing of which Manson took full advantage. Fromme’s attack on Ford grew out of this devotion and the desire to fill an emotional void through a meaningful act of violence.

Sarah Jane Moore, who attempted to kill Ford a few weeks later, also led a life of isolation and disappointment. Divorced five times and a mother of four, Moore was forced to leave her home after failing to meet mortgage payments. Moore became obsessed with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and their hostage turned convert Patty Hearst. Unable to hold a job, Moore became a volunteer bookkeeper for the charity organization that Hearst’s parents established in response to the SLA’s ransom demands.

Eventually forced out of that position, Moore finagled a role as an intermediary between the United Prisoners Union, which had contacts with the SLA, and Patty Hearst’s father. The FBI subsequently hired Moore as an informant, giving her contact with other radical groups and with clandestine police work that she found thrilling. She began playing a double agent, leading to her being shunned by both the radical groups and the FBI.

Moore’s attack on Ford took place at this moment of extreme vulnerability. She had felt increasingly alone and distraught, and had believed that if she did not attack Ford, isolation and paranoia would cause her to “come apart” and lose control entirely.

This isolation-radicalization phenomenon is manifested in much the same manner, and within much the same demographic, as it was 35 years ago. Before allegedly turning toward jihadism, Colleen “Jihad Jane” LaRose, a high school dropout, had been arrested for several misdemeanors including trespassing, drunken driving and passing bad checks. She was twice divorced, once in her teens from a physically abusive man twice her age and again from a man who made his living gambling on card games. By 2005, Ms. LaRose was addicted to alcohol and had attempted suicide by overdosing on muscle relaxers. While in counseling for depression and alcohol addiction, Ms. LaRose converted to Islam and later found meaning and purpose in the jihadist cause.

Jihad Jamie’s story follows a similarly tragic trajectory. Married three times by age 31, Jamie met her fourth husband, an Algerian Muslim, online. Quickly after getting married, Jamie converted to Islam, moved to Ireland with her 6-year-old son and joined jihadists planning to collect al Qaeda’s $100,000 bounty on Lars Vilks. Jamie’s mother claims that Jamie’s husband brainwashed her, that Jamie did not know what she was getting herself into, and that Jamie was “lonely and wanted to get someone to love her.”

Jane and Jamie’s stories differ in some respects from their 1970s counterparts, but they share an important commonality: These women, whose race, ethnicity, gender and background do not place them into any established profile for radicalism, turned to violent extremism to fill an emotional void. Having experienced hardship and emotional isolation, these “lonely-heart terrorists” searched for the meaning, love and acceptance that their lives were lacking, and found it: through violent activism.

Germain Difo, a policy analyst for counterterrorism at the American Security Project.