Death by Association: Family Terror Networks
It is dangerous to be related to a terrorist, let alone a senior terror operative. Such an association can lead to one’s imminent death while participating in an attack encouraged by a family member, being vanquished by a state action, demise arising from a premature explosion, or at the hands of their kin. The latest example of death of family members due to their kin’s participation in terrorism is the passing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s two children. They died in October 2019 when their father detonated his suicide belt as he was pursued by US forces at his hideout in Barisha, Syria. Also, two of al-Baghdadi’s wives died during the raid of his compound.
Similarly, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s son Saad was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in 2009. Khalid, another son, was vanquished along with bin Laden in Pakistan during the US Navy Seal raid in May 2011. In January 2016, another bin Laden child, Hamza, called to avenge his father’s death: “If you think that your sinful crime that you committed in Abbottabad has passed without punishment, then you thought wrong.” In September 2019, President Donald Trump announced that Hamza was killed in a US counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan-Pakistan region during the previous two years. Anwar al-Awlaki was a senior al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operative before he perished in a US drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. Al-Awlaki’s teenage son Abdulrahman died that same month in another drone strike, either purposely or as collateral damage.
In May 2018, Tri Murtiono, a member of terror group Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) aligned with the Islamic State, his wife Ernawti, and three children blew themselves up while on two motorbikes at the Surabaya, Indonesia, police headquarters. Within a day, Dita Oepriarto, reportedly the Surabaya cell leader, drove a car bomb into the Surabaya Centre Pentecostal Church. His wife, Pui Kuswati, along with their two daughters, aged 9 and 12, detonated a bomb at the Indonesian Diponegoro Church in Surabaya. Their two sons, aged 16 and 18, rode a motorcycle to the Santa Maria Church and blew themselves up in the third strike in the same city.
In April 2019, a series of bombings perpetrated by an Islamic State-linked cabal, rocked several cities in Sri Lanka, killing over 250 people and injuring hundreds of others. Among the perpetrators were brothers Ilham Ahmed and Insaf Ahmed Ibrahim who blew themselves up at the Shangri-La and Cinnamon Grand hotels, respectively. As Sri Lankan authorities came to investigate Inshaf’s home, his wife Fatima, detonated a suicide vest, killing herself, their unborn child, and their three sons. The ringleader of the attacks in Sri Lanka, Zahran Hashim, detonated his suicide belt while doing a joint attack with Insaf Ahmed Ibrahim. While investigating the terror incidents, police killed Zahran’s father, two brothers, and multiple children in the clan.
Several family members engaged in carrying out high-profile terror attacks worldwide: the Brussels suicide bombings (Ibrahim and Khalid el 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.. In April 2007, two brothers, Mohamed and Omar Maha, conducted suicide bombings near the US consulate in Casablanca, Morocco.
In August 2009, Yemen-based Saudi Abdullah al-Asiri blew himself up while attempting 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 eliminated in an American drone strike in Yemen in late 2017. Family members of terrorist leaders have participated in terror attacks, including martyrdom operations. In July 2017, the eldest son of Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, Khalid, perished while conducting a suicide bombing against Afghan security forces in Helmand province.
A family member’s mistake in assembling an explosive has led to the death of multiple family members. 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. In May 2018, four members of a family terror network—Anton Febrianto, his wife Puspitasari, and two of their children (aged 17 and 15)—died when a bomb the father was assembling detonated prematurely. This cabal was part of the Surabaya terror cell that bombed churches and police headquarters that same month.
An ISIS fighter, Ali Saqr al-Qasem, informed his superiors that his mother, Lena al-Qasem, planned to leave Raqqa and hadnasked Ali to join her. In January 2016, Ali shot and killed his mother in a public execution in Raqqa, Syria, for the crime of apostasy. In June 2016, twenty-year-old twin brothers, Khaled and Saleh al-Oraini stabbed their father, mother, and twenty-two-year-old brother in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Their mother died of her injuries. She had objected to the twins’ plans to travel to Syria and fight on behalf of the Islamic State. Saudi authorities captured the twin brothers as they tried to escape along the Saudi-Yemeni border.
The expiration of al-Baghdadi at his own hands brought to the forefront another element of family terror networks: the often unpleasant fate of the kin of terrorists. As exhibited in the examples above, the perils of being related to a terrorist are manifold: being assassinated by a government, one’s imminent death while conducting an incident elicited by a family member, fatality stemming from an untimely explosion, or at the hands of their kindred should discord among them take hold. Besides inflicting untold horrors on unsuspecting victims worldwide, family terror networks may precipitate the wittingly and unwittingly death of their kin.
Dean C. Alexander is professor/director of the Homeland Security Research Program at Western Illinois University (WIU) and author of the book Family Terror Networks. In 2019, Kevin Harrington earned a B.S. degree from the School of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at WIU.