Why are there “terrorist families”?

The bombings of three churches in Surabaya on Sunday, May 13, 2018, shocked the public. The perpetrators were one family of six: a father, a mother, two sons (18 and 16 years old), and two daughters (12 and 9 years old). How could this be happening?

The history of terrorist movements shows that what we might call “terrorist families” are not a new phenomenon. Donatella della Porta’s 1995 study of the Italian Red Brigades, for example, shows that 298 out of the 1,214 Brigades militants had either husband-wife or brother-sister relationships. The US Commission on 9/11 reported that six of the hijackers had a sibling in the group. We had the Tsarnaev brothers in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the Kouachi brothers in the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting, and the Abdeslam brothers in the November 2015 Paris attacks. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which later became the embryo organization for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/ISIS, managed to convince his father-in-law Yassin Jarrad to carry out the suicide bombing that killed the Iraqi Shii leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim in 2003. In Indonesia the three perpetrators of the first Bali bombing in 2002, namely Ali Ghufron, Amrozi, and Ali Imron, were brothers.

Why families?

In building networks, utilizing family and marriage ties is an easy method with great impact. Members of terrorist groups try to get their relatives to join and marry off their siblings or daughters with their fellow terrorists.

Among the past examples: Abdullah Azzam, the ideologue and founder of al-Qaeda, married his daughter to his protégé, Abdullah Anas, an Algerian; Abu Muzab al-Zarqawi married the sister of his close friend, Khaled al-Aruri; Osama bin Laden was believed to have married Amal al-Sadah, a daughter of a tribe leader in Yemen, to ease recruitment process of al-Qaeda members there. In Indonesia, Ali Ghufron married Paridah Abas, sister of Nasir Abas, a fellow Afghan alumnus. Baridin or Baharuddin Latif also married off his daughter, Arina Rahma, to Noordin M Top. There are other many examples.

Kinship and marriage-based strategies are an effective method to establish networks as there are psychological influences that strongly bind and reinforce each another: those brought in in this way not only become members of a terrorist group, but members of a family. The mutual reinforcement here applies affectively and cognitively. Affectively, because they feel close as parts of the family. Cognitively, because it can be used for peer pressure and greater guarantees of loyalty. The combination of these factors creates a strong bond.

In terms of recruitment, kinship and marriage bonds make the process of trust building easier and less risky, compared to appealing to strangers, especially in the context of highly restricted space for the movement due to strong surveillance by the state anti-terrorism apparatus. These are necessary for the existence, secrecy, and sustainability of the group movement.

One of the effects of this strategy is that some people from the terrorists’ family who had never been exposed to terrorist ideologies may eventually become prospective terrorists by being recruited by family members. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may count as an example of this: he participated in the Boston Marathon plot under the influence of his older brother. In Indonesia, Ali Imron can be said to belong to some degree in this category as well; it was his brother Ali Ghufron who recruited him.

What about the involvement of children?

This is not new either. The mastermind of the 2015 Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, for example, took his 12-year-old brother Younes to Syria to join ISIS. He also involved his teenage female cousin Hasna Ait Boulahcen to maintain his apartment in Saint-Denis, Paris—she died during a police raid on his flat. It has been widely known that during the period of 2013-2016 there were many extremists from all over the world, including from Indonesia, who went to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, bringing their family and relatives, including children and adolescents, with them. 

Now what?

In this era of social media, with the increasing potential for the emergence of “lone fighters” (those who do not have a structural position in a terrorist organization and act on their own initiative, inspired by a call from the terrorist organization’s leaders), the possibility of the emergence of “terrorist families” is also increasing. Doing deradicalization at the family level is not an easy job, but for every adult or young adult drawn into these terrorist organizations, it is necessary to trace the exposure to these extremist ideologies reaching husbands, wives and children as well as siblings and cousins, all of whom have the potential to come together as future “terrorist families.”


Header image: hundreds of people from various religious backgrounds gathered at Tugu Monument in Yogyakarta on Sunday evening, May 13, 2018, to pray and show their solidarity following the bombings in Surabaya. Courtesy: Greg Vanderbilt.

This piece is a translation by Azis Anwar of its original version in Indonesian: “Keluarga Teroris” Bukanlah Fenomena Baru



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