When Brothers Murder: Siblings as Terrorists











Why are so many terrorists brothers?

That’s what investigators and counterterrorism experts are trying to understand.

As the author of The Sibling Connection: How Siblings Shape Our Lives, it never dawned on me to explore this phenomenon.  I wrote the first edition of the book in 1991, long before Sept. 11, 2001, the Boston massacre, the recent suicide bombings in Belgium carried out by Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakroui.

In a March 23 article in The New York Times, journalists Jim Yardley, Rukmini Callimach, and Scott Shane talked to authors, counterterrorism experts, and psychologists to get some answers. 

Here are five potential reasons why so many brothers are terrorists:

  1. Brothers often radicalize each other.  One new study suggests that up to 30 percent of members of terrorist groups share family ties.  Siblings who live in the same house can discuss ideology and plans without using cellphones which can be easily tapped.
  2. J. M. Berger, a terrorism analyst and co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror,” said in the New York Times article that often siblings can talk to each other about things they can’t discuss with others.
  3. When we talk about siblings, there is often, but not always, a dynamic in which younger brothers tend to look up to and follow in their older brother’s footsteps.  However, when terrorist brothers blow themselves up or are killed by law enforcement, the only way to verify this dynamic is to talk to family and friends, many of whom are unwilling to cooperate.
  4. If siblings are sent to different locations, chances are that the brothers will each carry out their mission, said Mia Bloom, co-author of “All in the Family: A Primer on Terrorist Siblings.”  ” . . . they don’t want to disappoint their siblings and cannot face the idea of going on without them.”
  5. Psychologists who study terrorism and interviewed by the New York Times, say that the two-person cell may be a recent adaptation to increased security measures — whether they are brothers, as in Brussels, Paris and Boston, or husband and wife, as in the San Bernardino, Calif., attacks in December that killed 14.

What may be even more disturbing than siblings as terrorists is the possibility that, in the future, a parent and child may work together in yet another evolution in jihadism.








Experts are still examining how often uninvolved family members may be aware of terrorist’ plotting. A 2014 study in The Journal of Forensic Sciences analyzed the behaviors of 119 “lone-wolf” terrorists and found that in nearly two thirds of the cases, family and friends knew the person wanted to commit an act of violence. But in some cases, relatives are strongly opposed: The American terrorist known as the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, for instance, was finally caught and convicted because his brother, David, alerted the authorities to his suspicions.

Little is yet known about the relationship between the Bakraouis, who are of Moroccan origin and grew up in Laeken, a working-class neighborhood in Brussels, not far from the Royal Palace. Their father, Jamal el-Bakraoui, is an observant Muslim and a retired butcher, according to Marcelline Mertens, a neighbor.

Ms. Mertens recalled the brothers as ordinary teenagers, not especially religious, who then disappeared from the neighborhood about five or six years ago. During this period, they were separately convicted of crimes including carjacking and engaging in a shootout with the police.

Ms. Bloom, the author who estimated that up to 30 percent of members of terror groups share family ties, warned that extremists were now trying to recruit entire families in Europe, portending the possibility of “Right now, we are seeing a lot of siblings carrying out these attacks,” she said. “The trend we are anticipating is parent and child.”





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When Siblings Are Friends: The Sibling Effect

When Siblings Are Friends: The Sibling Effect

In her New York Times Ties article, “When Friends Are ‘Like Family'”, Deborah Tannen explores friendship for a book in progress.


As the author of The Sibling Connection: How Siblings Shape Our Lives, I read Tannen’s piece with great interest.  I guess you might say that I’m a sibophile (I just made that up.  You won’t find it in the dictionary.)  I believe in the sibling relationship with all of its twists and turns and the many ways siblings help us understand why, how, and the way we are .

Of course, it’s not an either/or between siblings and friends.  Tannen points out that comments by the people she interviewed “shed light on the nature of friendship, the nature of family, and something that lies at the heart of both: what it means to be close.”

  • “Her friends are more precious than her sisters because they remember things from her past that her sister don’t and can’t, since they weren’t there.”  Our siblings have been there since the beginning.  How many of us have a best friend from childhood?  Sure, some of us.  But not many.  From high school?  Perhaps.  College?  Probably.  But these friends have no memory of us as kids, possibly not when we were adolescents.  Unlike our sisters (siblings of both genders), the majority of our friends were not part of our lives in our most formative years.  While it’s true that our siblings don’t always remember the same events in the same way we do, they were there and can offer their take which can be eye opening.  And as older adults when our parents have died, siblings are the only ones who can reminisce about our immediate and extended families.
  • “Many grown children continue to wish that their parents or siblings could see them for who they really are, not who they wish them to be. This goal can be realized in friendship. “She gets me,” a woman said of a friend. “When I’m with her I can be myself.”  According to one large study, two-thirds of people said a brother or sister was one of their best friends.  Jill Suitor, a sociologist at Purdue University, and her colleagues polled 274 families with 708 adult children (ages twenty-three to sixty-eight) and found that the majority had good feelings toward their siblings.  And when you ask older siblings to name their closest relative, they say they feel closer to siblings than to any other relatives except their children.
  • ” . . . family conjures longevity, love, support.”  Precisely.  Siblings often provide, not just conjure, “longevity, love, support.”  For example, I have known my sister since the day she was born.  (She is six years younger.)  Can’t say that about any of my friends.  Sure, we’ve had our issues over the years (No relationship is perfect.) but have worked through snafus and are as close as two humans can be.  Though she lives in another state, we talk and email often.  When the second-to-last of our surviving aunts died recently, she represented our immediate family at the funeral.  I was in Mexico and could not travel back to the U.S.  When I need information about, say, our grandparents and want to compare notes, I call my sister. When I have concerns about my adult son, I often call my sister.  When my parents were dying, my sister and I worked together as a supportive team.  None of my friends could have fulfilled that role.
  • “When a friend dies, a part of you dies, too, as you lose forever the experiences, the jokes, the references that you shared.”  True.  But what about the death of a sibling?  For adult surviving siblings, there is the sadness of the loss of family history.  One sibling I interviewed for The Sibling Connection said, “Our parents were both born in Europe. As a younger person, I was never concerned with the details of my roots.  In the last few years, I’ve been very concerned because my kids have been asking me.  I always depended on my brother, but he’s no here.  My historical roots . . . my local historian is gone.”   Verifying the past, resolving long-standing conflicts from childhood, and pulling up family roots are tasks cut short when an adult sibling dies.  Who are our checkpoints?  Not parents who are old or dead, nor spouses who entered into our adult lives.  And rarely friends because the majority don’t “go all the way back.”  Our siblings can be the only verification of our previous lives.
  • “Just as with literal families, friends who are like family can bring not only happiness but also pain, because the comfort of a close bond can sometimes morph into the restraints of bondage. The closer the bond, the greater the power to hurt – by disappointing, letting you down . . . ”  To be fair, this applies to siblings, too.  Siblings who are close—and brothers and sisters whose connections are frayed, sometimes for good—have hurt one another during childhood and beyond.  We may have said something hurtful in the heat of the moment or competed for parents’ attention or forgotten an important event.  My sister let me down by not consulting me before she suggested that my parents move to her town.  My brother let me down by not supporting my desire to give my mother a proper funeral. And then there were the issues around our inheritance.  (The illness and/or death of parent can be a dicey affair.)

We all have friends who are “like family.”  Eighty per cent of us have at least one sibling.  Both relationships can be loving, supportive, fun.  But unlike friends, our siblings are the only ones who go all the way back and can help us understand where we came from and where we’ve gone.



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