It appears to be increasingly common that terrorist attacks not of the lone-wolf variety involve members of the same family.
Some of them, like the San Bernardino attack last December, are committed by married couples or romantic partners.
But quite a few recent terrorist atrocities – the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Boston Marathon bombings and now Tuesday’s Brussels attacks – have been perpetrated by siblings. So is there a link between within-family radicalisation and acts of terrorism? And is terrorism different from any other crime in this respect?
Both genetics and environment are known to influence criminal behaviour. But the exact nature of these influences and their relative importance are still being debated.
It can be expected, therefore, that genes contribute to terrorist behaviour. But it is wrong to conclude that just because two individuals have a common genetic make-up, one will follow the other if the other becomes a terrorist. Instances of only one family member displaying criminal behaviour are very common.
Nevertheless, there may be environmental factors that contribute to and interact with genetics to cause terrorist behaviour. If so, one would expect to find more terrorist acts than other kinds of criminal acts committed by members of the same family. Family members share both genetics and environment to a greater extent than people in general.
Studies of the militant extremist mindset provide clues to why we can expect to find more siblings among terrorist cells. From the three components of this mindset, only one – “nastiness” – is directly linked to other varieties of criminal behaviour.
Violent criminals of any kind tend to strongly advocate harsh punishment of their enemies. For example, they are more likely than most people to approve of physical punishment for insulting one’s honour.
While both genetics and environment may be implicated in “nastiness”, the other two components of the militant mindset – “grudge” and “excuse” – represent environmental influences to a greater extent. These are usually the focus of recruiters.
An important component of radicalisation is a strong feeling that the group one belongs to is under threat from some other group – that is, the person feels a “grudge” of some kind. A common example is the feeling that the West has exploited and hurt “my” people, and this needs to be avenged.
Sometimes grudge is more general and not oriented towards a particular group. The person simply feels that this world is unfair and full of injustices.
“Excuse” is a dressing-up part of extremism. It relies on religious and ideological “higher moral principles” to justify the feelings of nastiness and grudge.
It follows from the nature of the militant extremist mindset that we can expect to find more siblings among terrorists. This is because such attacks tend to be carried out by people who are more ready for action and are prepared to be vicious in dealing with their enemies. This tends to be a shared characteristic of criminal family members.
Being raised together – and therefore being exposed to the same set of stories about the enemies and the same set of moral, ideological and religious reasons justifying their feeling of hate – is likely to contribute significantly to the same tendency.
And then there is a feeling of trust, due to a common upbringing and feelings stronger than typical camaraderie when you are doing something together with somebody who is close to you. Overall, it is likely that there will be more instances of siblings committing terrorist attacks.
From a security point of view, it may be reasonable to ask whether this tendency calls for a different approach to detection. There is currently an emphasis on internet-based radicalisation, rather than on person-to-person contacts. Family interactions diminish the role of the former and point to the need to maintain traditional policing methods.
The deadly terror attack in Brussels has again raised the issue of safety and security at airports. But expanding the “security bubble” around airports might not be the best response.
Europe barely had the time to recover from the horror of the Paris attacks last November before another of its capital cities was hit at its heart, presumably by ISIS terrorists.
In a devastated Brussels, investigations are running at full speed and authorities are already flooded with questions about the vulnerability of their critical infrastructure.
Unfortunately, this refrain seems to resurface every time a terrorist attack achieves its goals.
Traditionally, governments respond to these events by setting higher security standards. In this sense, modern airports epitomise the significant improvements that have been achieved in security over the past decades, especially after the September 11 attacks in the US in 2001.
Security screening has proved to be an effective deterrent against acts of terror such as hijacking and bombing. Following a procedure that is typical of security risk management, the security bubble around the vulnerable element – in this case, the airplane – has been progressively expanded in order to keep malicious individuals out.
The sterile area in a modern airport is among the most secure places on Earth. However, the terminal buildings can still be threatened, such as when the Glasgow airport was hit by a vehicle ramming attack in 2007.
In the aftermath, more stringent regulations were put into place to prevent vehicles from getting too close to the terminal buildings. Thus the security bubble was further expanded.
Even so, in 2011 two suicide bombers managed to kill more than 30 people at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport by walking into the baggage claim area and activating their Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). This was an act strikingly similar to what just happened in Brussels.
What should be our response to the latest attack? In the next few days we will probably hear more requests for strengthened airport security. Some might argue for a further expansion of the security bubble in order to cover the check-in area or entrance of the terminal buildings.
Would that be an effective solution? I don’t think so, for three main reasons.
First, the costs associated with the implementation of such a security system would largely outweigh the benefits; the bigger the area, the more expensive its protection.
Second, the associated operational disruptions would require some time (and a lot of patience) to be contained. When the perceived threats are low, people tend to consider security measures as an annoyance rather than a safeguard. Most of time, security awareness is not an ingrained mindset.
Third, and most important, the effectiveness of this new security system would still be questionable. Expanding the bubble would just move its boundaries outwards, with no guarantee that a new attack won’t happen on its edge.
For example, if security were increased before reaching the check-in at the airport, that might cause crowds to gather outside the main doors, and this would present a new target for terrorist attack.
So expanding the bubble would be just another symmetric response to an issue that has proven highly asymmetric.
This last point, in particular, emphasises that the Brussels’ airport attacks are not just a matter of airport security. They involve the need to reconsider our perception of modern security risks.
Airport security works very well these days. The problem is that, especially in some countries, any gathering involving more or less large crowds is a vulnerable target for terrorist attack.
Sport events, public transport, concerts, and even the queue in front of a museum, constitute a potential target for malicious individuals.
This requires governments to adopt a different approach to security. Security management needs to be performed at an asymmetric level, penetrating our societies and engaging terrorists at the individual level.
Random security checkpoints, enhanced intelligence networks and additional investments in street-level security technologies are some examples of asymmetric countermeasures that should be strengthened.
Technology, in particular, seems to be a powerful ally in our fight against terrorism. Especially when technological development is associated with the reduction of security costs.
With attacks like these, the group is seeking to sow fear among its enemies, maintain itself as the forerunner in the global jihadi brand war with al-Qaeda, and maintain the veneer of organisational vigour and vitalism it established with its stunning victories in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
But while the Brussels bombings may have wreaked carnage, they have failed to replicate IS’s triumphalism of 2014. Although not an intuitive conclusion, the attacks are in reality indicative of the group’s growing decline and desperation.
Motivations behind the bombings are likely to be found in the tactical and strategic strains currently being exerted on IS and its wider global network.
The recent arrest of Paris terror attack suspect Salah Abdeslam in Brussels was likely seen as an existential threat to IS-linked cells inside Belgium. The perception of a breach may have driven planners to accelerate operations, for fear that the European authorities could employ critical intelligence gained from Abdeslam to disrupt future attacks.
Such a ticking clock may explain why the terrorists opted for a crude dual-bombing in place of a more sophisticated and co-ordinated hybrid assault similar to that undertaken in Paris in late 2015.
At a broader level, the attacks may also be linked to the immense pressures placed on IS by an array of local, regional and international actors. Collectively, the actions of Russia, the US, Iran, Turkey and many other players have translated into a loss of around one-quarter of the group’s territory over the last year.
Kurdish and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias have, in many cases, actively routed the group from its territorial holdings over the last year. Thanks to Iranian and Russian backing, the Syrian army is also exerting increasing pressure on IS. The Syrian army has made recent advances in areas such as Tabqa and Palmyra, signalling a significant shift in the regime’s willingness and capacity to combat IS.
All this has served to dispel much of IS’s mystique and the viability of its mission. In 2014, the group’s emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could point to IS’s many and exceptional successes to make the case that it was clearly on track to establishing its Islamist utopian ideal. Such apparent evidence in turn allowed the group to garner legitimacy, support, and recruit new members.
Today, such successes are few and far between. Some are now questioning whether IS will even be a significant insurgent player in the Syrian conflict by 2017.
As IS stunned the world with its blitzkrieg across eastern Iraq in 2014, there was little need for it to conduct attacks outside the Middle East. Its apparent success and superiority over its local rivals was more than enough to draw large amounts of external support and recruits for its cause.
But as IS has weakened over the past two years, its popularity and freedom of action have become increasingly constrained within its immediacy. In such circumstances, insurgent groups often seek to strike outside their own borders as both a punitive measure and a demonstration of strength to potential supporters.
This was precisely Somalian terrorist group al-Shabaab’s logic when it assaulted Kenya’s Westgate mall in 2013. This story echoes much of what IS is experiencing now.
Under increasing pressure from an African Union occupation force that included large contingents from the Kenyan army, al-Shabaab found itself pushed from its seat of power in Mogadishu into Somalia’s south. Unable to mount a serious offensive on the occupiers, the group opted to strike in Kenya itself. This sent a message that Kenya could not expect to safeguard its own territory as long as it engaged in such perilous dalliances abroad.
We can only expect more such attacks as IS continues to decline and lash out. Some will invariably foil the various security establishments arrayed against them.
But, it is crucial to remember that this type of terrorism is aimed at sowing discord, chaos, suspicion and divisiveness among the multicultural societies it targets. In doing so, IS is seeking to create the conditions in which its message finds more willing supporters among those disenfranchised by such division.
What goes on in the mind of a suicide bomber? What motivates someone to spend their last day on the planet blowing up complete strangers? Bad enough, perhaps, if the strangers in question are soldiers, police, or other representatives of the state. But holidaymakers and commuters?
It takes a special sort of alienation, radicalisation and dehumanisation to think that the people standing next to you in the check-in queue merit being randomly dismembered.
One assumes that the growing number of people who volunteer for these sorts of missions are confident that they are off to paradise. Given that they won’t live to see the results of their zealotry, the logic must be in some way transcendental, and not one available to rational scrutiny or dissuasion by the rest of us.
Either way, if paradise is going to be full of ex-jihadists I’m rather glad I’m not going.
In the meantime, back on earth, the effectiveness of this suicidal strategy is all too clear and painful, especially for those directly affected. Even for the rest of us, the net result is to add yet another level of depressing tedium to our day-to-day existence, as security is increased to ever-higher levels.
No doubt we ought to be grateful to have the opportunity to travel around Europe or spend a long lunch enjoying a bit of intellectual chit-chat in a Parisian café, as I did today. I am – very.
This is, as they say, just about as good as it gets. And that is rather the point of the attacks on the symbolic heartland of Europe as a civilisation and – in today’s case – as an institution.
The freedom of association, expression and thought that is such a distinctive feature of European intellectual and social life is clearly resented by an alarmingly large group of people. Such hitherto taken for granted freedoms are directly threatened by the randomness of terrorism. Last week, for example, I had to queue to have my passport checked on re-entering France – despite arriving from another Schengen area country.
Yes, I realise this is an especially privileged sort of problem and one that evokes little sympathy. But it is another very real manifestation of Europe’s steadily shrinking public space. One doesn’t need to be a starry-eyed cosmopolitan to recognise that passport-free travel is one of Europe’s greatest practical and symbolic achievements.
It takes a particular sort of confidence in one’s neighbours to make such an idea feasible. The Schengen agreement was unlikely to survive the migration crisis; terrorist outrages may seal its fate.
What this suggests is that noble ideas, admirable principles and feelings of human solidarity may only be possible under particular, possibly unique and historically unrepeatable circumstances.
The European project emerged from the greatest trauma that continent has ever known. It ought to be remembered that today’s problems pale into insignificance beside them. Europeans have made remarkable progress over the last 50 years or so – in every sense of the term. It is no wonder so many people want to live there.
And yet it is also painfully apparent that such achievements are being steadily eroded and undermined. EU President Donald Tusk’s suggestion that European solidarity will be a vital part of the response to these events looks like well-intentioned wishful thinking.
The reality seems to be that there are sufficiently large numbers of people in Europe who are prepared to die and slaughter others in an effort to undermine Europe’s greatest achievements. There is, it seems, very little that can be done to stop them.
Depressingly, there is also no basis for negation with zealots who think they are on a mission from God. It’s not even clear – to me, at least – quite what the suicide bombers hope their deaths will actually achieve or what the big plan is.
It’s hard not to think that some of the animus directed toward European civilisation is fuelled by a resentment of just how agreeable and successful it has been for those fortunate enough to be part of it.
No doubt some will consider such views as naïve and Eurocentric. Yes, the French did dreadful things in Algeria, and the Belgians did worse in the Congo.
But even if this is construed as some sort of post-imperial blowback, it looks a bit late, ludicrously out of proportion, and unlikely to do anything other than to make life in Europe miserable, too. But perhaps that’s ultimately the point.