All in The Family: A Primer on Terrorist Siblings

The fact that Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were ‘brothers in arms’ has given rise to several commentaries in the last 24 hours.

The fact that Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were ‘brothers in arms’ has given rise to several commentaries in the last 24 hours. In one of the more detailed pieces, Forrest Wickman, writing for Slate highlights the fact that three pairs of siblings comprised 6 of the 19 hijackers responsible for executing the 9/11 attacks. Wickman notes that each of the sibling teams in that case worked together.

If anything, the history of terrorism is replete with pairs of brothers and sisters operating together. In some cases, it has even become a standard modus operandi for certain groups that terror stays within the family. In addition to the 9/11 hijackers, Chechen and Irish groups have been especially prolific at using pairs of siblings.

Khava Berayeva, considered the first female suicide bomber in Chechnya, was sister to warlord Arbi Berayev. She perpetrated her suicide attack for personal reasons, killing the man responsible for her husband’s death, but in the process making the Barayevs the most infamous terrorist family in Chechnya.

Furthermore, Khava’s aunt was one of the suicide bombers killed at the Dubrovka Theater siege in 2002. In Bloom’s Bombshell: Women and Terrorism, she describes how the Dubrovka theater attacks comprised, ‘sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, husbands cousins and wives’ (p.65).  Three pairs of sisters: the Ganiyevas, Khadiyevas, and Kurbanovas all intended to explode together at the theater.

In other Chechen attacks against Russian targets, Amanat Nagayeva detonated herself onboard Aviaexpress TU134 flight from Moscow to Volgograd in 2004, killing everyone in the process. Her sister Rosa killed herself and ten people outside the Rishkaya subway station in Moscow later that year.

Sibling involvement was equally widespread in European terrorist groups. In Ireland, family involvement served to reinforce the idea that involvement was little more than a rite of passage.

Though militant Irish Republican history is full of examples of sibling engagement (e.g. Willie and Padraig Pearse*), some of the best-known contemporary examples include the Sands family.

IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands died in 1981, becoming an Irish Republican icon in the process. His sister Bernadette Sands-McKevitt became a leading figure in the 32-County Sovereignty Movement, a small movement allied with an extreme dissident splinter group. In the late 1990s, Sands-McKevitt frequently invoked the memory of her brother to denounce the direction of the Northern Irish peace process.

Famous other Irish Republican siblings include Dolours and Marian Price (involved in bombings), as well as Michael and Liam Campbell. The Campbells were members of the ‘Real’ IRA (RIRA), a breakaway group dissatisfied with the Adams-McGuinness leadership of the Provisional IRA/Sinn Fein.

Another pair of RIRA brothers, described in Horgan’s Divided We Stand: The Strategy and Psychology of Ireland’s Dissident Terrorists, Robert and Aidan Hulme played a critical role in that movement’s 2001 bombing campaign in England. Their targets included the offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The brothers were convicted of engaging in criminal activity to help fund the organization. Robert was 21 and Aidan 24 years old at the time of their conviction.

Brothers Vincent (14) and Stephen Kelley (18) were remanded in custody in 1999 after being arrested at a Real IRA training camp in the Republic of Ireland. In 2006, Vincent, then aged 21, was sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment for membership of an illegal organization and weapons possession.

Why siblings?

In groups bound by ethnic or nationalist ties, it is quite common for members of the same family to become involved.

If we accept that involvement in terrorist organization might be at least in part a result of some grievances, it is likely that siblings experience those grievances equally. Israeli counter terrorism policies that included the demolition of houses or long-term arrest of fathers would have impacted all children in that household. It should hardly be a surprise that members of the same family join together and may even be deployed for the same mission.

From the perspective of the terrorist organization, engaging family members can help sustain both the commitment of participants as well as heighten operational security.

In cases of sibling suicide bombers, each sibling ensures that the other is less likely to change their mind at the last minute, or worse, inform on the group to the authorities.

Terrorist organizations constantly fear infiltration. In interviews we conducted in Northern Ireland, former members of both Republican and Loyalist terrorist groups told us that they spent almost as much time looking for potential spies as they did planning operations. Engaging siblings decreases the possibility of police or security services infiltration.

In the coming days, attention will naturally turn to whether the Tsarnaev brothers had some kind of ‘master and apprentice’ relationship. The assumption here is that the older brother, 26-year old Tamerlan, groomed the younger Dzhokar. Given the FBI’s extraordinary feat of helping bring Dzhokar in alive, we may one day have actual evidence to suggest that was the case, but until then, we should not necessarily assume that the older brother always controls the younger.

A good example of where this isn’t always so clear-cut is that of Real IRA siblings, Kenneth and Alan Patterson. In 2001, the brothers were convicted of running RIRA bomb factories in Dundalk, in the Republic of Ireland.

What was significant about the Patterson brothers was that they are twins. They were 31 at the time of their conviction, but it was implied at sentencing that they had been involved in bomb-making for several years.

Plausible though it may seem, clear evidence has yet to emerge of this older-younger brother dynamic.

It may not necessarily be any more powerful a controlling mechanism than the basic terrorist group psychology, a point echoed by Wickman’s interviewees. But the involvement of family members will remain a risk factor the involvement of siblings, and terrorist groups themselves will continue to exploit family ties where possible.

We must quickly move to understand this dynamic. It poses new challenges both for the prevention of involvement as well as the resolution of unfolding crises.

* Thanks to Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid for this example.

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