Are Terrorists Often Brothers?

A shocking number of attacks have been planned or executed by siblings.

Suspects wanted for questioning in relation to the Boston Marathon bombing April 15 are revealed in this handout photo during an FBI news conference in Boston, April 18, 2013.
Counterterrorism experts suggest that many terrorist groups feature an “older brother figure” who converts others

Photo provided by FBI/Reuters

Boston was in lockdown Friday as authorities searched for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The other suspect, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev—who was killed in a shootout with police overnight—was Dzhokhar’s older brother. Have there been other cases of brothers working together to commit terrorist attacks?

Yes. According to the 9/11 Commission report, six of the 19 hijackers who took part in the Sept. 11 attacks were brothers. Each of the sibling teams worked together. Brothers Hamza and Ahmed al-Ghamdi were among the hijackers on United Flight 175, sitting together in seats 9C and 9D. American Airlines Flight 11 was hijacked by brothers Waleed and Wail al-Shehri, who sat together in first class. On American Airlines Flight 77, brothers Nawaf al Hazmi and Salem al Hazmi also sat together before that plane crashed into the Pentagon. Many other attacks, both at home and abroad, have been planned by teams of brothers. In the 2007 plot on Fort Dix, three of the conspirators—Shain Duka, Dritan Duka, and Eljvir Duka—were brothers. A fourth man, Agron Abdullahu, who was sentenced for weapons charges related to the plot, was Eljvir Duka’s brother-in-law. A few months ago, two South Florida brothers, 30-year-old Sheheryar Alam Qazi and 20-year-old Raees Alam Qazi, were charged with plotting to use a weapon of mass destruction within the United States.

Counterterrorism experts suggest that many terrorist groups feature an “older brother figure” who converts others and leads the planning. This is not always literally an older brother, though often it has been. In the case of the 2002 Bali bombings, which left 202 dead, three of the perpetrators were brothers: Ali Imron, Amrozi Nurhasyim, and Ali Ghufron. The oldest brother, Ali Ghufron, recruited his younger brothers and was executed for being the chief organizer of the attack. Two members of the so-called Portland Seven, who were convicted for trying to enter Afghanistan and fight for the Taliban after Sept. 11, were brothers. They both pleaded guilty in 2003, though the younger brother’s lawyer argued that he was just following his older brother’s lead. The lawyer for Shujah Mahmood, the youngest defendant accused in a 2004 bombing plot in Britain, similarly argued that his client was only “used as a gofer” and was “completely overshadowed” by his older brother, Omar Khyam. Mahmood was just 16 when the plot began, and he was eventually cleared of charges.

Counterterrorism experts suggest that the more significant point isn’t that terrorists often conspire with their brothers, but rather that they tend, in most cases, to band together with a small group of their peers, whether they’re siblings or friends or neighbors. Clustering tightly together, the men begin to talk one another into more and more extremist action, with the group dynamic being crucial to their radicalization. This is true not only of politically motivated violence: In cases such as the mass murder at Columbine, the shooters fell into a similar dynamic, coming together in a closed circle in which they invented their own world. The lone wolf terrorist, on the other hand, is relatively rare.

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Explainer thanks Philip Mudd of SouthernSun Asset Management and Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation.

Read more on Slate about the Boston Marathon bombing.