November 20, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Family Ties of Terror

• Several members of the terrorist cell that attacked Paris on November 13 were related to each other—the latest in a long line of family terror ties

• Small terror cells made up of mostly relatives or close friends are the greatest challenge for intelligence services seeking to infiltrate with human sources

• Smaller and more family-based cells provide an intense feedback loop of radicalization and reinforcement, resulting in plots of intense commitment, as well as intense disagreements when they occur

• The younger the relative in a terror cell, the more likely he or she is under the sway of an older sibling, adding a level of familial obligation and fear to the radicalization process.


The interpersonal dynamics of any terror cell are bound to be intense; those containing family members and close friends are even more so. The cell that perpetrated the November 13 attacks in Paris that killed 129 people had several relatives as members. This is in no way unusual, and presents unique challenges in the disruption and deterrence of such cells. The family ties of terror run deep, and have for many years, across countless attacks.

Ibrahim and Salah Abdeslam were brothers directly involved in the Paris attacks. Ibrahim blew himself up outside of the Comptoir Voltaire café, while Salah escaped to Belgium after apparently backing out of his unknown role. Salah is the focus of an intense manhunt involving security agencies across the EU. A third brother, Muhammad Abdeslam, was arrested and then released without charge. He reportedly told authorities he had no idea his two other brothers had gone down the path of terrorism. Ibrahim and Salah worked together on several failed businesses, and both had minor brushes with law enforcement. It is likely the radicalizing influence of a charismatic leader, such as the now-deceased Abdelhamid Abaaoud—who spent time in a Belgian prison with Salah—played a role in the brothers’ decisions.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud also had a relative in the cell. As police closed in on the Paris apartment in which Abaaoud was hiding, his cousin, Hasna Aitboulahcen, detonated a suicide vest. This level of extremism, honed after extensive exposure to either a charismatic voice or a compelling and incessant narrative, is intensified when influenced by family ties or a sense of honor or duty.

The January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, also in Paris, was another family affair. Brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi killed civilians together after a years-long path of radicalizing towards violent extremism. In the April 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings, it was again a pair of brothers responsible for the carnage. 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev died during a shoot-out and chase by police, but not before he and his 19-year-old brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev killed four people and brought a major U.S. city to a halt. The younger brother was reportedly highly influenced and somewhat fearful of his older and more extreme brother. Again, the family dynamics intensify what is already an intense path to terrorism.

It is not just blood ties that bind terror cells together; marriage is often another way to further fuse a group. Amedy Coulibaly, the other attacker in the Charlie Hebdo cell, involved his wife/partner Hayat Boumeddiene in the escalating extremism. She ended up fleeing to Syria. In November 2005, Sajida al-Rishawi attempted to kill herself and many more in a husband-and-wife attack on a hotel in Amman, Jordan. Sajida's husband’s vest detonated while hers malfunctioned, leaving her as the only living perpetrator of the attacks that killed 60 people at three hotels. Sajida had another family connection to terror besides her husband; her brother Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi was a close aide to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the precursor to the Islamic State. Even the most infamous terrorist in history, Osama bin Ladin, used marriage as a way to tie elements of his terrorist group closer together. He arranged for his son Muhammad to marry a daughter of his most capable aide, Abu Hafs al-Masri AKA Muhammad Atef.

Terror cells composed of family members present tremendous challenges for intelligence and security agencies to infiltrate with human sources. Such tight-knit groups are loathe to bring in new people, since the trust is so tight among the existing members. The sense of loyalty stemming from familial or matrimonial bonds makes it less likely that one of the members would inform on the others; the betrayal of the group is made much worse by obligations to the family.


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