Terrorist Brothers: A Common Bond in Extremist Circles
By Erik Kleinsmith, American Military University
The terrorist attacks in Paris, France on November 13 were shocking in their brutality, and yet contained many of the same, even predictable patterns of what has become the face of modern terror today. Of the many similarities that are being talked about in the media, one of the most interesting is the fact that once again, a pair of brothers was involved in a terrorist attack. As noted by Jason Burke in the Guardian on Tuesday, Brahim Abdeslam blew himself up outside the Comptoir Voltaire Café while his brother, Salah Abdeslam remains at large and is tied to a rental car found outside the Bataclan concert hall.
For the intelligence analyst, understanding family connections in a terror group is critical. Counterterror analysts go to great lengths to understand the organization of terrorist and extremist groups in an effort to profile and predict their operations. Unlike the more doctrinal and therefore stable organizations used by formalized military forces, the organizational structures of terror groups tend to rely on social, informal, and ad-hoc networks.
[Related Article: Sisters of Battle: Analyzing Female Terrorists]
Mapping out these groups involves collecting information about suspected members and learning about their relationships to other members. This is the heart of what link and social network analysis is all about. Analysts work to identify friends, family, romantic partners, superiors, underlings, supporters, sympathizers, classmates, or colleagues as part of an endless search for connections between terror group members. Using these links to map out an organization gives the analyst a better understanding on how the group operates.
[Related Article: U.S. Strategy Against ISIL in Light of Paris Attacks]
While many terrorists will refer to their fellow members as brothers, there is a distinctly different relationship when actual brothers are involved. While the Paris attacks are the most recent example, brothers have appeared in several recent terrorist attacks:
- January’s attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo involved Cherif (age 32) and Said Kouachi (age 34), both children of Algerian immigrants.
- 2013 Boston Marathon bombers were Tamerlan (age 26) and Dzhokar Tsarnaev (age 19), two Chechen-Avar brothers who had immigrated to the U.S.
- September 11th attacks—both airplanes, American Airlines Flight 11 piloted by Mohammed Atta into the World Trade Center and Flight 77 piloted by Hani Hanjour into the Pentagon, involved sets of brothers. Wail and Waleed al-Shehi and Nawaf and Salem al-Hazmi served as the muscle needed to take over the aircraft, respectively.
The appearance of brothers and other family members within an organization can provide counterterrorism analysts with potential patterns and trends for further analysis. Below are some analytical tips to look for when analysts identify siblings in a terrorist or extremist group:
- Look for the Ties that Bind: Often, radical behavior or hardening into an extremist mindset is more acceptable to a new recruit if they have a family member already involved or currently going through the process. In many cases, extremists will have to remove themselves from their current surroundings, both physically and socially, in order to complete the hardening process. This can be tough on someone in their mid-20s and having fraternal support makes it much easier.
- Identify Shared Demographics: Finding brothers within a group will also help to profile other aspects of the group because of their multiple similarities – surnames, parental ties, geographic origins, languages, and environmental influences such as famine, war, luxury, etc. Even similar genetic features or possible medical conditions can be tied to sets of brothers. Other potential similarities could be found in their common religion, ideology, travel patterns, or hobbies and interests. They will also likely be close in age.
- Map within Close Proximity: A terrorist organization containing brothers (or sisters) will not normally place them apart from each other. If you see one brother in a certain part of your organizational chart, the other will likely not be far away either geographically or operationally. Their familial bond is an advantage to the covert and clandestine nature of the group because of the inherent trust that siblings bring with them.
- Look at their Ages: Just as any group relies on a social hierarchy, brothers often have an inherent rank structure. One of the two, usually the older sibling, will take on a more senior role, possibly even taking on an additional role of protecting or watching out for the younger sibling. For the older sibling, this could also translate to a position of more authority and decision-making power within the larger group.
- Weigh your Links Accordingly: One pitfall analysts need to watch out for is related to close proximity. The strength of the links between brothers in a network may not be related to the operations of the group. They have likely had these ties before joining the group. As an analyst, you may see a heavy amount of message traffic between two siblings, but not all of it will be directly related to operations.
- Look for Sisters as well: While terrorism is a male-dominated calling, analysts will often find women involved in the group. This will vary according to a woman’s place in their society. Finding a woman in a group usually means there is a close male tied to them; he may be a sibling, spouse, or romantic interest. In any case, if you’ve found a woman in your group look for the related male as a majority of females are recruited through a male relation and not the other way around.
- Parent Relations are Rare: While you can’t completely discount both a parent and off-spring presence in a terror group, it is rarer than finding siblings. In order for this to happen, the group has to have made a generational jump, appealing to both generations. Very few terror groups are able to survive over multiple generations. If you do find this in an organization, they will most likely have different roles – the younger tending toward “running and gunning” with the parent in a supporting or supervisory role.
These are some general rules to keep in mind when analysts are dealing with siblings in a terrorist or some other form of extremist group, they are meant to guide analysis, not give answers outright. Finding siblings and other family relations should immediately cue an analyst to start conducting further analysis while keeping in mind there are always exceptions to the rules.
About the Author: Erik Kleinsmith is the Associate Vice President for Strategic Relationships in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. Erik is one of the subjects of a book entitled The Watchers by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger tracking Al Qaeda prior to 9/11. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife and two children.