Understanding Family Terror Networks
There are many schemes by which to analyze the prevalence of terrorists in family units, aptly designated as family terror networks or family affiliated terrorism. This deviancy, occurring within the rubric of social networks, is not new. Terrorism within family units is a fact that has occurred throughout history. Family frameworks enable higher instances of conversion to radical beliefs, given the credibility and trust that attach as opposed to that in unaffiliated networks. Such radicalization has materialized across diverse ideologies: from religiously motivated precepts to national liberation and from hate-based ideologies to other right-wing perspectives.
The full spectrum of familial relations has participated in kin connected terrorism. For instance, three Canadian cousins of Somali descent (Mahad, Hamsa, and Hersi Kariye; the latter two were brothers) from Edmonton, along with another cousin, Hanad Abdullahi Mohallim, from Minnesota, were killed in Syria in November 2014. The family members died fighting for the Islamic State. The three Canadians left their home country in October 2013 for Syria. Also, a fifth cousin, Abdullahi Ahmed Abdullahi, was arrested in Canada in September 2017 following a US indictment accusing him of providing material support to terrorists by conducting a jewelry store robbery in Canada to fund his four cousins and another person to travel to Syria to join ISIS.
Even those outside the nuclear family can have significant effects on others to spur participation in terrorism. In November 2016, Ohio-based Munir Abdulkader was sentenced to twenty years in prison for providing material support to ISIS and trying to kill a returning US soldier, among other crimes. Abdulkader claimed he wanted to fight with ISIS. His cousin died fighting with the group. Authorities noticed Abdulkader through his tweets supporting ISIS. Abdulkader interacted with a government informant and a now-deceased ISIS operative, Junaid Hussain. Hussain had recommended several plots for Abdulkader to consider.
Besides recruiting family members to abet a terrorist group, a terrorist may decide to take his family—whether wife, children, siblings, or parents—to war zones and fight on behalf of the group. With the onset of the Islamic State in 2014, families traveled to Iraq and Syria with the goal of residing in the caliphate. The family member who instigates this travel believes that it is in the best interest of his family to live in the ISIS interpretation of the Islamic law. The Islamic State purposely portrayed the “family-friendly” lifestyle in the caliphate to attract new immigrants to Iraq and Syria.
Familial-linked operatives have been found in state-directed, state-sponsored, and non-state-supported organizations. Family participation in extremism is represented throughout the array of group participation. Some members serve as leaders of groups; others take operational roles.
Kin may also give assistance in radicalization and recruitment activities. They may offer funding, documents, and housing for the terror cell. Family members have provided their kin funding to train as terrorists. Likewise, they have misrepresented to law enforcement the culpability of their family members. The extremist efforts of family members can be unobserved until after a strike takes place.
Terror attacks have been carried out by family linked terrorists, including bombings, suicide bombings, and gunfire, with variances in operational stage (e.g., the attempt, the conspiracy, undertaking the attack, and concealing one’s participation in it). On occasion, multiples family members are involved in launching the incident. While one sibling may serve as a bomb maker, another may take part in placing or wearing the bomb in a future attack. In August 2009, Yemen-based Saudi Abdullah al-Asiri blew himself up carrying a hidden explosive in an attempt to kill Saudi Arabia’s deputy interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Abdullah’s brother, Ibrahim, who also served with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a key bomb maker, made that explosive. In August 2018, U.S. authorities disclosed that Ibrahim was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen.
Several family members engaged in carrying out some of the high-profile terror attacks worldwide: the Brussels suicide bombings (Bakraoui brothers, March 2016), and the San Bernardino attack (couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, December 2015). Likewise, kin have participated in terror attacks that were less noteworthy. For example, in July 2016, Saudi brothers Abdulrahman and Ibrahim Saleh Muhammad al-Imir, along with Pakistani Abdullah Gulzar Khan, conducted suicide bombings at a Shia mosque in al Qatif, Saudi Arabia. The perpetrators were the only ones killed in the incident.
Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi is the sister of the former right-hand man of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the one-time head of al Qaeda in Iraq. In November 2005, Sajida attempted to detonate her suicide bomb belt at the Radisson SAS hotel in Amman, Jordan. Her husband, Ali Hussein Ali al-Shamari, with whom she arrived in Jordan from Iraq, told her to leave the hotel. He then blew himself up at that site. Besides al-Shamari, two other operatives conducted suicide bombings at other Amman hotels at the same time. Both of Sajida’s brothers were killed fighting US forces in Iraq.
Multiple family members have been killed during a kin’s mistake in assembling an explosive. In January 2017, a Taliban commander in northern Afghanistan, Kamal Khan, accidentally killed himself and his four sons while building bombs in his home. The children died upstairs while Khan was constructing the explosives for use as roadside bombs. Family members of terrorist leaders are participants in terror attacks, including martyrdom operations. In July 2017, the eldest son of Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, Khalid, was killed while conducting a suicide bombing against Afghan security forces in Helmand province.
Family-linked extremists have targeted government, industry, nongovernmental organizations, and civilians, both in the United States and abroad. The targets of family affiliated participants have been diverse, including segments of the population (e.g., police) or the public at large. Family terror networks exist in all corners of the world, from the Americas to Europe, Africa, Asia, and beyond.
In 2008, two brothers, Ahmed and Ezzit Raad, were convicted of membership in a Melbourne, Australia, jihadi terror cell and making funds available to that cabal. The cell intended to kill thousands of people at railway stations and public places in Melbourne. In 2009, Ahmed and Ezzit were sentenced to ninety and sixty-nine months, respectively. Abdul Nacer Benbrika, who led the cell, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Fellow Australians Mustafa and Khaled Cheikho, uncle and nephew respectively, both trained with the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Back in Australia, the pair continued their participation in terrorism. Ultimately, they were convicted of participation in a Sydney terror cell.
Sometimes, family members may plot to attack one target, while another family member is involved with others to attack different targets. Such was the case with the Alaska-based Vernons. The husband (Lonnie) was in a militia group planning to kill federal employees. Also, Lonnie and his wife, Karen, sought to murder a judge and an Internal Revenue Agency employee.
Family-networked terrorism may leverage institutions (e.g., religious, educational) with which they are connected to draw adherents outside the family itself. Likewise, family affiliation facilitates introducing kin to a known extremist based outside the family unit. This arose with Mahfouz Azzam, the uncle of Ayman al-Zawahiri. Azzam served as the lawyer for Islamist ideologue and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood member Sayyid Qutb.
Children can be exposed to radical views and activities at home. Subsequently, they may participate in a group’s activities, including establishing affiliates that may appeal to young operatives. Some youths mesmerized by terrorism ultimately quit the group or condemn extremism. Family members may agree with facets of the cause without fully supporting other dogma.
Family members may not know of the extremist activities of other family members. Alternatively, family members may share extremist precepts. Others may support their kin emotionally and financially. Those who are more dedicated to the cause will take part in an actual attack or travel abroad to get terrorism training.
Siblings, along with friends, may pursue travel to failing nations so they can take part in transnational terrorism. In October 2014, the Colorado-based Farah sisters, aged fifteen and seventeen, along with a sixteen-year-old female friend, were detained in Germany and returned to the United States. Their intention to migrate to the Islamic State was undermined.
Pennsylvania-based Emerson Begolly was an active administrator in the Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum (AMEF), an Islamic extremist internet forum. He solicited jihadists to undertake violent attacks on various US targets, including police, day-care centers, and Jewish schools. During summer 2010 and beyond, Begolly called for individuals to carry out attacks as Allah would reward them in the afterlife. In December 2010, he solicited the AMEF audience to pursue attacks at once. Begolly also uploaded a bomb-making manual.
In January 2011, Begolly was arrested. In a superseding indictment (July 2011), he was charged with solicitation to commit a crime of violence (ten years) and distribution of information relating to explosive destruction devices and weapons of mass destruction (twenty years). In August 2011, Begolly pleaded guilty to soliciting others to commit acts of terrorism in the United States and using a firearm during an assault on FBI agents. In 2013, he was sentenced to nearly nine years in prison. Begolly’s path toward criminality may have started through exposure to a variant of extremism, Nazism, as a youth. Investigation into Begolly’s youth revealed his father, Shawn, exposed him to Nazism at age 11.
In September 2012, Amine el Khalifi was sentenced to thirty years in prison for attempting to conduct a suicide bombing at the US Capitol. Unbeknownst to El Khalifi, he was interacting with an FBI confidential informant and undercover agents. El Khalifi asked his government handlers to provide his Morocco-based parents $500 a month in support if he conducted the suicide attack.
Insights concerning the manifestations and characteristics of family terror networks are instructive as they enhance understanding of this form of political violence, and in doing so, aid in its discovery by family members and beyond.