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Kin terrorism: A new weapon for the Islamic State

The trend of kin or familial terrorism first gained momentum in 2015 and since then, it has been Islamic State’s weapon of choice for overseas recruitment and terrorist operations.

Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels in Negombo, Sri Lanka on April 22.

Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels in Negombo, Sri Lanka on April 22.

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An educated and rich family was involved in the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka.

Two of the eight suicide bombers, Ilham Ibrahim and Ishaf Ibrahim were brothers, and sons of a wealthy spice merchant, Muhammad Ibrahim. Ilham’s wife, Fatima Fazla, who was also part of the terror network, blew herself up when police raided her house, killing her unborn child and two sons.

In March this year, a similar trend was seen in Indonesia when  counter-terror police detained pro-Islamic State (IS) bomb-maker Abu Hamzah. When police raided his house to arrest his wife, Solimah, who assisted him in the bomb-making, she blew herself up along with her two-year-old son.   

The trend of kin or familial terrorism first gained momentum in 2015 and since then, it has been IS’ weapon of choice for overseas recruitment and terrorist operations. Take for instance the Paris attacks in November 2015 involving Salah Abdeslam and his brother Brahim.  

Or the 2018 Surabaya bombings in Indonesia targeting churches and a police headquarters that were carried out by three families, including children.

As kin terrorism gains currency among aspiring jihadists, it has posed new security challenges for governments as they try to detect and deter such attacks.

Hence, understanding the characteristics of familial terrorist networks and how they function is essential.

Kin terrorism is qualitatively different from traditional forms of terrorist tradecraft.

However, it is not a new phenomenon, and has been prevalent across a diverse array of terrorist groups since the 1970s. These groups have been variously based on religious, nationalistic, ethnic and hate-based ideologies.

For instance, the Italian Red Brigade in the 1970s and 1980s used kin terrorism — usually involving husband and wife or brother and sister — for terrorist attacks. Likewise, six of the 19 9/11 hijackers were brothers.

What is different with IS-inspired instances of kin terrorism is the involvement of entire families in attacks, unlike past cases where only a few family members were involved.

IS employs pre-existing kinship networks to recruit family units using a host of personal and psychological factors, such as the quest for a sense of belonging, self-worth and the desire to serve a higher purpose.  

For instance, a father who is already an IS member could encourage or coerce his family to carry out attacks on behalf of the group.

Following territorial losses, IS recruiters are less keen or more careful while recruiting from traditional platforms such as worship places, cyber space, educational and community institutions.

Familial terrorism is hard to detect since it takes place in an atmosphere of trust, confidence and secrecy. Moreover, the stigma attached to abandoning or dishonouring the family creates a psychological barrier to deter ambivalent family members from disclosing any potential terrorist plots to the security agencies.

Since a bond of trust already exists, family networks lower the entry barriers into terrorism.

In kin terrorism, members of the same family can perform multiple roles in a terrorist attack. For instance, one member may serve as the bomb-maker while the others may carry out the bombing. A case in point is the abortive suicide attack on Saudi Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef in 2009 which he escaped unhurt.

A Yemen-based militant Abdullah Al-Asiri carried out the bombing while his brother Ibrahim Asiri, who was Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s key explosives expert, made the bomb.

Generally, when wives join their husbands in combat roles, the children tend to get dragged in as well. The junior family members tend to become part of the network out of obedience and love, or pressure from their elders.

Likewise, siblings within a familial terror network participate out of compassion, competition and peer pressure. They do not want to be seen as less capable, uninterested or insincere. Values like loyalty and trust also play a critical part in pushing or pulling family members towards kin terrorism.

Its exploitation now by IS represents a dangerous new phase in the group’s organisational evolution. Given its elusive nature, kin terrorism will complicate existing counter-radicalisation strategies.

While governments and security agencies, with the help of social media companies, have been able to weaken terrorist propaganda in the cyber sphere, kin terrorism necessitates deeper community engagement at the grassroots level.

Familial terrorism tends to involve those who perceive they are victims of social alienation and systematic discrimination. Hence, the social integration of such families by strengthening shared values of peaceful co-existence and creating equal education and employment opportunities is crucial.

Also, kin terrorism is directly linked to parenting. The way parents bring up their children, the social values they impart and the religious norms they inculcate play a pivotal role in shaping their children’s worldview.

For married couples trying to start a family, parenting courses should be encouraged by the state. Communal institutions involved in marriage counselling could conduct these courses.

Participation in these courses could be incentivised with the provision of stipends for parents or scholarship for the child’s primary education.

Isolated families in segregated neighbourhoods could be potential signs of familial radicalisation. Hence, ghettoisation of faith and ethnic communities should be discouraged by creating mixed neighbourhoods.

This will not only help foster communal bonds cutting across religious and ethnic lines but will also go some way in creating a shared national and communal identity among diverse groups of people.

Tackling kin terrorism will be easier said than done. It will require multi-sectoral efforts from social institutions, security agencies and the government to detect, counter and prevent this trend.

Given its cost-effective nature and high success ratio, IS is expected to continue radicalising family units for future terrorist attacks, particularly in urban metropolises.     



Abdul Basit is an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Related topics

terrorism Islamic State family

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