How to Protect against Terrorism: Eliminate the Valuable Terrorist Technology, the Nuclear Family

In addition to catching the third Brussels airport bomber,Najim Laachraoui, a known Salah Abdelslam associate, authorities in Europe have also revealed that the other two airport bombers were brothers, Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui.

 

Police sources earlier told NBC News that Khalid El Bakraoui, 27, and 30-year-old sibling Ibrahim blew themselves up. Both had been convicted of violent crimes in the past and had links to one of the Paris attackers.

The El Bakraouis join an increasingly long list of recent terrorists who partner within their nuclear family (the Boston Marathon attack, Charlie Hebdo attack, and Paris attack were all carried out by brothers, and the San Bernardino attack was carried out by spouses). As New America noted in November (that is before several more family launched attacks), 30% of the fighters they’ve identified had family ties to jihad.

One-third of Western fighters have a familial connection to jihad, whether through relatives currently fighting in Syria or Iraq, marriage, or some other link to jihadists from prior conflicts or attacks. Of those with a familial link, almost two-thirds have a relative fighting in this conflict and almost one-third are connected through marriage, many of them new marriages conducted after arriving in Syria.

There has been less attention (though there has been some) about the operational advantages organizing attacks among family members offers. Not only would there be far more face-to-face conversations in any case (which you’d need a physical bug to collect), but even electronic communications metadata might not attract any attention, except insofar as helping to geolocate the parties. It’d be hard to distinguish, from metadata, between brothers or spouses discussing taking care of their kids from the same family members plotting to blow something up.

Family ties then, along with a reportedly difficult Moroccan dialect, may function to provide as much security as any (limited, given the reports) use of encryption. And all that’s on top of the cell’s extensive use of burner phones.

Using Jim Comey, um, logic, we might consider eliminating this threat by eliminating the nuclear family. Sure, the overwhelming majority of people who use it are law-abiding people obtaining valuable benefit from nuclear family. Sure, for the most vulnerable, family ties provide the most valuable kind of support to keep someone healthy. But bad guys exploit it too, and we can’t have that.

I mean, perhaps there should be an honest public discussion about the proportional value the nuclear family gives to terrorists and to others. But why would we have that discussion for the nuclear family and not for encryption?

Update: as soon as I posted this I saw notice that Belgian press (and with them NBC, apparently) got the identity of the third hijacker wrong, so I’ve crossed out and/or taken out those references.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

22 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    or, as i have commented, about couples, “pillow talk, the last frontier for the national security administration” .

    walking hand-in-hand chatting in an arrondisement is really just not playing fair forvthe panopticon.

  2. orionATL says:

    electronic surveillance – better for spying on prime ministers and secretaries of state, than terroristas living among the multitudes making garage bombs.

    now there is a non-spying option that makes a lot of sense in a situation like western europe at the present – arbitrary detention and interrogation of possible tertorists. “arbitrary” means suspicion only and would sweep up innocents too. “interrogation” means sophisticated, non-torture interrogation techniques using knowledge of human psychology (“the ali soufan way”) . there would have to be a time limit, maybe six months max.

  3. allan says:

    Brilliant. Although a counterargument would be that the only way to stop bad guys with a marriage is good guys with a marriage.

    One should also point out that the participation rate of same sex couples in jihadist attacks is very low.

  4. lefty665 says:

    Families make operational security a lot easier. There aren’t many “new guys” who turn out to be plants, and as you note normal familial chatter makes traffic analysis a lot less useful. Maybe that tells us something about the effectiveness of the methods being used against unrelated groups.
    .
    It also makes a scary argument about collecting content and turning more phones into bugs. If we just had more haystacks surely we’d find the needles…

  5. What Constitution? says:

    Hmmm. What of all those nuclear families with suitcases? Suitcase nukes? Sounds pretty dangerous. Better stop them at the border, or track purchases of suitcases and cross-index them to nuclear families, with stop-and-frisk authority at all family hotels and destinations and luggage racks.

  6. scribe says:

    Point is, the CT guys are coming up against the same problem the FBI had when they finally (in the 70s, after Hoover was gone and therefore could no longer be blackmailed) got around to trying to break up the Mafia, particularly in NYC. The Mafiosi, even though their identities were largely known, (a) stuck to their close family groups, (b) enforced a code of silence (only recently broken by the prospect of stiff prison terms destroying family life), (c) started carrying on their discussions in obscure Sicilian dialect and slang, (d) avoided easily-intercepted electronic communications and locations and (e) cloaked themselves in legitimate businesses or sources of money (e.g., that time Whitey Bulger and friend became “partners he couldn’t live without” to a Boston guy who hit the lottery big, providing a very legitimate source for all their cash).
    .
    To be really fair about it, while the FBI was able to largely break up the Italian Mafia in the US, it took about 40 years. Even so, they are facing largely the same problems when it comes to the Russian Mafia, said being exacerbated by an even greater language gulf and an even more-stringent Code of Silence and enforcement even more ruthless than that of the Italians. While the Italians generally didn’t take out revenge/enforcement against family members, the Russians are reputed to not recognize that limit.
    .
    And now the law enforcers purport to be able to get into familial networks hidden behind an even most vastly different culture, an entirely different language family and writing system, where different agencies can’t even agree on how to transliterate someone’s name?
    .
    For all the dubiety I have about law enforcement in general, the fact of the relative paucity of terrist attacks speaks highly of several things.
    1. Despite vilification in ‘murca, particularly by Rethug candidates, which is approaching the level of right-wing Germans hating on Jews circa 1930, the American Islamic communities have been remarkably tolerant and helpful.
    2. Despite wanton killings overseas by the USG, the vast majority of Islam adherents have not taken up arms against the US or its allies.
    3. The American Islamic communities would probably be even more helpful – it’s in their own self-interest to get rid of the terrists – if politicians and the cops they boss around would treat them a little better.
    4. The antipathy of Islamic communities in Europe to the local societies is far greater than it is here because they are treated even worse than we treat Islamic adherents here. the discrimination against them over there approaches the levels of abuse we inflicted on blacks under Jim Crow in the south and the discrimination, more subtle but no less pervasive, that existed in the North. There is up to 60% youth unemployment in the ghettoes of Islamic adherents in countries like France and Belgium and, as is true in any society, when young men are left with time on their hands, little to no money nor legitimate ways to earn it, and a society that’s indifferent or even hostile to their condition, they’re going to find trouble and make it. Stomping on them harder, as is the Rethug prescription, guarantees more, not less, violence.

  7. Les says:

    I’ve read recently that US LE may start to pick up terrorist types on unrelated offenses to shake them up. The stings aren’t effective in breaking through these individuals’ suspicions.

  8. orionATL says:

    i’d like to emphasize again the value in the european situation especially of controlled temporary detention and interrogation. it maybe more effective, prevent more harm, with less loss of freedom to uninvolved others than measures such as additional suspension of civil rights, martial law, increased (ineffective) electronic spying on a populace, and increased (ineffective) airport, port, and chunnel surveillance. there are ways to manage temporary detention and interrogation that avoid even a hint of torture and that protect andvcompensate those found to have been detained without good cause. in such a situation, politicians must not wipe their hands clean and throw away the keys, nor must they turn an indifferent face to false confessions and prosecutions done on flimsy evidence.

    electronics is not going to get the job done, but then it never had that capacity in the first place, despite all the political and micmplx p. r.

    police tracking is ex post facto. so what prospective anti-violence techniques can effectively protect multinational populations?

  9. bloopie2 says:

    I don’t get it. What makes anyone think that we can stop unhappy people, and bad guys, from doing bad things? Every part of the world, and every civilization, has always had its share of unhappy people and bad guys doing bad things. The difference today seems to arise from two factors. First, weapons of mass destruction and automatic guns are more easily obtained, and so the types of violence that can be perpetrated are more shaking. Second, omnipresent global communication more easily brings together unhappy people, creating units of more than one attacker, which units are capable of larger acts of violence.
    .
    You’re not going to change either of those factors. Not all the intelligence, or spying, or interrogations, or preemptive this and that, will do that. Only a take-no-prisoners, lock-down police state would accomplish that (I’ll bet ISIS doesn’t experience much dissidence, for example). Instead, you have to stop people from wanting to do these bad things. Of course, that’s 10,000% easier said than done. But the causes of unhappiness among young men (and that seems to be the bulk of the terrorists these days) are well known. Address those causes. Don’t for one minute think you will ever be able to stop someone smart, who can communicate with like kinds who are knowledgeable and experienced, from building a bomb. We have built us a society that just so happens to embrace the Internet, and social media, and weapons, all at the same time. Think about that, and then don’t be shocked at the unintended consequences.

    • orionATL says:

      one of the characteristics of the recent european terrorists is that, according to media reports, they were know to (presumably security) police. they crossed borders, wers stopped, and then allowed to proceed on. temporary detention and interrogation on suspicion might have prevented violence and saved a lot of grief. if you can detain what you think might be a 25 person network; isolate them from each other; and interrogate them, again, following “the ali soufan way”. thatmight be as effective and humane way to tackle this problem of group hypnosis for violence as any.

      • bloopie2 says:

        Yes, I see that is a possibility. One question it raises for me, is, what percentage of them travel, and to what extent is travel really necessary? We know that electronic monitoring of phone calls has changed phone usage activities, and made the surveillance much less effective. Will border stops and detentions, change travel activities? And would that significantly improve things? Finally,I can’t see Europe (broke as it is) investing the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars needed to build huge detention camps, interrogation facilities, etc. at border crossings.

  10. bloopie2 says:

    As to the possible “detention” system. Here’s what the Guardian says about the one fellow. Are you suggesting a series of Guantanamo-style prisons, where people like him, known to be “bad guys” but having done nothing criminally chargeable, are held indefinitely without charges? Or “interrogated” until they break?
    .
    “El-Bakraoui arrived in Antalya, a popular tourist destination, in June 2015. He was detained a week later in Gaziantep by Turkish security forces, who flagged him after he had entered the country as a potential foreign fighter that Turkey believed intended to travel to Syria. Belgium was informed of his arrest by Turkey on 14 July, and the Belgian authorities replied on 20 July, saying they had detained el-Bakraoui before but had released him because they were unable to find any terror links. Turkey wrote back to Belgium warning them that he was considered a foreign fighter with links to Syria.”

    • orionATL says:

      i am NOT talking about “preventive detention”. i am NOT talking about guantanamo, which was detention solely for the purpose of hiding u. s. misconduct under republican leadership in nabbing those detained and then torturing them, rather than for any meaningful national security purpose.

      i am talking about temporary detention with verbal-only interragation of individuals who could be suspected of being would-be terrorists when terrorism is active. papers checks at roadblocks aren’t adequate. detention and questioning for several weeks might be useful. it might not.

      obviously there has to be a reliable “triage system” to quickly distinguish those detained without merit from those metiting more interrogation.

      where are the other new ideas for new ways to deal with this problem? greater (and greater) electronic surveillance and greater airport security have been around for a while. the former, at least, just does notwork.

      the whole idea is to disrupt cells that have formed and disrupt the formation of others thru short-term detention and interregation.

      • orionATL says:

        oh, and you do not under any circumstance turn this over to your police or your military without substantial, perpetual external oversight, otherwise you WILL end up with a guantanamo or a homans’ square.

  11. Evangelista says:

    Now with this information, that the nuclear family is instrumental in producing terror, out it is a sure bet that some of the more brighter and more “git ‘er done” focused in our Congresses will start putting forward bills, proposing amendments,attaching riders, etc. to force divorce on Muslim families who have, or have had, members involved in Terror, suspected of such involvement, named on no-fly lists, or having names similar to ones found on such lists, etc.

    And then, divorce being the magnificently effective way of blowing up nuclear families that it is, we can look to seeing forced-divorce becoming, especially since it is such a sweet little sound-bite, a ‘positive’ response to Terror. An American response, equivalent to the Israeli response of blowing up Palestinian families’ houses when a member has engaged in Terror, or has been suspected, or was seen carrying a rock, or a sling, or something that could be used as such (for example a belt) within a stone’s throw or more of a Settlement, or anythbing else, etc.

    A drawback to the information coming out is its coming out now, in a bitter primaries campaign in an election year. Especially with mainstream Republicans already under savage assault, in imminent danger of being Trumped, taking shelter behind Ted Cruz, a Family Values candidate.

    Trump is a divorcé, of course, and a capitalist, sure to capitalize on his divorcé status and record. Look for him to accuse Cruz of sponsoring Terror, and dismissing Utah as a pro-terror enclave, and to capitalize on the hawks hawking the force-divorce idea. Look for him to throw up ads suggesting that the closer the voters move him to nomination, and then the Presidency, the more terrified and terrorized the Terrorists will be.

    Not only that, the way the forces of rationality and seriousness continue to dominate in politics, the force-divorce idea, taken seriously, undoubtedly, may give Trump a way out from the dilemma his advocacy for “worse” torture and torture violating Geneva Conventions has put him in: Being a beneficiary of divorce “Make ’em stay married!” will seem a natural, and a nasty, way of torturing to Donald. That that torture, the forcing to maintain nuclearity in family, will produce more Terror (according to this latest wisdom) will not be recognized, since that all torturing produces that result has always and will always will go over torture advocates’ heads.

  12. P J Evans says:

    Family members would have family references as code words that outsiders wouldn’t understand.

Comments are closed.