The Boston Marathon terror suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, are another example of the phenomenon of family-affiliated extremist and terrorist activities globally. The following findings have emerged as a result of my analysis over sixty such kin-connected cases of extremism and terrorism worldwide. There are numerous frameworks by which to analyze the prevalence of extremist/terrorists in family units. This type of deviancy, occurring within the rubric of social networks, is not new. Extremism within family units is a manifestation that has occurred throughout the world. Family frameworks enable higher instances of conversion to radical beliefs given the imprimatur of credibility and trust that attach there versus 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—spouses, parents, children, siblings, cousins, aunts/uncles, brothers/sisters-in-law, among others—have been witnessed in this sphere of political extremism.
In some instances, existing terror ties within the family network expanded through incorporating additional family members through marriage. Such a coupling of interests and family arose in the case of the nuptials of one set of the children of former al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, and his late military chief, Mohammed Atef. Through marriage, a broad array of additional recruits or sympathizers may arise as networks of expanding families can be tapped. Still, family affiliated terror groups may involve membership outside of the family setting as well.
Radicalization and recruitment of family members may occur at a very young age, either from within or outside family rubric. An example of this circumstance includes Moroccan sisters Imane and Sanne al Ghariss, who planned to undertake simultaneous suicide bomings in September 2003 in Rabat. Similarly, 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Muhammad Salim al-Hamzi and his brother, Muhammad Salim, were radicalized in their youth, and intricately participated in their joint operation on September 11th.
Patriarchs tend to have a strong influence on the level of radicalization and recruitment of family members as in the case of Osama bin Laden and Ku Klux Klan leader Raymond C. Foster. Noteworthy, too, are the roles of widows and other female survivors in their struggles against perceived state oppression. These survivors may participate in terror incidents to avenge the deaths of their fallen kin, often husbands and brothers. Likewise, widows in this predicament may marry again to an individual with extremist precepts, and, concurrently, follow their paths. Ultimately, the aggrieved spouse can accelerate the embracement of extremism, and lead to operational activities.
Occasionally, family members may accede to some facets of the cause without fully enveloping other dogmas. Invariably, one may find disparate levels of participation and dedication to the group’s violent activities. Analogously, there are gradations in knowledge of extremist activity of family members by the rest of the clan.
A broad variance has been observed regarding the backgrounds of the family members, including such factors as: education, occupation, socio-economic, race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, and foreign-affinity-links. Family participation in terrorism pervades all types of group structures—hierarchical and networked—as well as unaffiliated cabals. Additionally, familial-linked operatives have been found in state directed, state sponsored, or non-state supported organizations.
Family participation in extremism is also exemplified throughout the array of group participation: leaders, operational cadre, active supporters, and passive supporters. Family members have provided their kin funding to train as a terrorist. Likewise, they may have lied to law enforcement in order to hide the culpability of their family members. In some cases, the extremist activities are unknown to all the family members until after the terrorist act takes place.
Family networks that include international dimensions enable ideas, training, and resources to infiltrate from abroad to family units nationally. So too, these international family networks may encourage overseas travel to the base of family radicalism. Such overseas trips may facilitate the participation in terrorist training camps abroad, which may include ideological and operational instruction.
Various types of terror attacks have been undertaken by family-linked terrorists including: bombings, suicide bombings, and gunfire, among others, with variances in operational stage (e.g., the attempt, conspiracy, undertaking the attack, and concealing it). In that vein, there are incidents when more than one family member is involved in the plot, including even undertaking the incident itself.
The full array of targets—government, industry, non-governmental organizations, and civilians—both at home and abroad have been attacked by family-linked extremists. Family-affiliated terrorism has included disparate levels of participation in traditional and organized criminal activities. Upon capture by law enforcement, some family members claimed they were forced or manipulated into participation in the group. Brothers Zak and Dylan Boyd successfully alleged such manipulation by North Carolina-based convicted terrorist father Daniel. In so doing, the judge sentenced the brothers to a more lenient prison sentence than their father.
Family networked terrorism may leverage varied institutions with which they are affiliated, such as religious and educational institutions, to attract adherents outside kinship. Likewise, family affiliation can expedite the introduction of a family member to a known extremist based outside the family rubric, as in the case of the uncle of Ayman al Zawahiri, who served as the lawyer of Islamist ideologue and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood member Sayid Qutb. Children who are exposed to extremist ideologies and activities at home may have, at some level, participated in the organization’s activities, including establishing affiliates that will partially attract adherents from the youth milieu.
Terrorists who become martyrs for their cause are sometimes emulated by current and subsequent generations in that same family. The prosecution of family-affiliated terrorist group members may result in them being convicted or pleading guilty to similar or the same charges. Likewise, civil suits against family-linked extremists may result in civil liability against multiple family members. The aforementioned underscore the existence and threats arising from family-connected extremism and terrorism.
Dean C. Alexander is director of the Homeland Security Research Program and Associate Professor of Homeland Security at Western Illinois University.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org