Why killers’ families always seem to be the last to know

November 23, 2015

Updated Dec. 7, 2015

Weapons and other evidence are shown on a tarp near a SUV involved in the Wednesdays attack is shown in San Bernardino, California December 3, 2015. Authorities on Thursday were working to determine why a man and a woman opened fire at a holiday party of his co-workers in Southern California, killing 14 people and wounding 17 in an attack that appeared to have been planned. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX1X3FC

Weapons and other evidence are shown on a tarp near an SUV involved in Wednesday’s attack in San Bernardino, California, December 3, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

When law enforcement officials entered the Redlands, California, home of Tashfeen Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, both suspected of killing 14 and wounding 21 in the deadliest Islamic militant attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001, they discovered a veritable weapons factory.

The stockpile included 12 completed pipe bombs, thousands of rounds of ammunition and miniature Christmas tree lamps, recommended by Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine as cover for concealed bombs. It seems incomprehensible that the manufacture of such an arsenal would go undetected by family and friends. Yet they staunchly denied any knowledge remotely connected to this matter. Farook’s mother, who lived in the same townhouse as the couple, disavowed any inkling of the goings-on. Lawyers representing the relatives of the assailants described them as “in complete shock” over the shooting. Saira Khan, Farrok’s sister, expressed utter dismay at the quickly unfolding revelations. “It’s just mind boggling why they would do something like this,” she said in an interview with CBS News.

The professed ignorance of attackers’ friends and family is the rule rather than the exception in recent assaults that have jolted the world. Mohamed Abdeslam, the brother of Salah and Brahim, who actively participated in the Nov. 13 Paris massacre, claimed that their “family is in shock” and in a state of “frustration that (it) lived together without noticing what was going on.” An astonished friend of Salah Abdeslam similarly exclaimed that, “If Salah could do this, then any of my mates could do it.”

The June 26, 2015, attack that killed 38 tourists near the city of Sousse in Tunisia was carried out by Seifeddine Rezgui, whose family afterward expressed deep shock and dismay. Khalil, the father of Mouhand al-Okbi, who was killed while carrying out an attack in Israel in October, was stunned by the news of what his son had done. “I never believed such a thing could happen,” he told reporters, “nor did I see any evidence [for it].” The rest of the family found the event equally surprising. “The look of shock on their faces was still fresh one day after [the attack].” Hasan Edmonds faces federal terrorism charges in the United States for plotting to attack a military base in Illinois. His stepmother was jolted by the news. “Is it a dream?” she asked. “I don’t even know what to believe. … I talked to him three weeks ago and he sounded like his usual self. I’m still … shook up.”

Are we to believe such disclaimers? Is it not possible that family and friends were actually part of the network that assisted the attackers in their preparations? Given the grave implications of such a prospect, the possibility shouldn’t be ruled out without a thorough investigation.

Nonetheless, it is also quite likely that the relatives’ protestations are sincere. First, the plotters might conceal their true purpose to prevent a thwarting of their “sacred missions.” Second, the families may refuse to acknowledge the signs that did exist and to admit the possibility that their loved one is about to self-destruct while dispensing tragedy and pain all around. The intimates’ need for cognitive closure may have led them to stick to their preconceived image of their friend or relative as a regular person who could never commit such an atrocity. Most intriguingly, the family may refuse to accept the alienation and strangeness that radicalization of their kin represents.

Confronting a friend or family member’s alienation is psychologically taxing. It requires recognizing that he or she has turned into an “alien” of sorts, thoroughly altered from the person once known and loved. The alienated individual disrupts their “shared reality” with his or her new beliefs. Such a change casts doubt on the validity of that “reality” and ushers in angst and uncertainty about its fundamental premises. It means that their intimate has crossed over to the “dark side,” defected from the social network and relinquished its cherished values and perspectives.

Such person is all but lost to his family and friends, no longer self-identifying as one of theirs. Understandably, these thoughts are frightening and painful to the remaining members of the social net. The thoughts are banished from mind and repressed out of hand.

And yet the evidence is often out there, if only one bothered to look. A study of lone-wolf attackers suggests that in the majority of cases (64 percent), family and friends were aware in retrospect of the individual’s intent to engage in deadly activities. Similarly, in school shooting cases, family and friends were aware of the shooter’s intentions a whopping 81 percent of the time. It is not that perpetrators’ intimates don’t know — rather, it’s that often they don’t take the would-be extremists at their word.

Violent extremists’ flight under the radar can only be thwarted by increased vigilance on part of family and friends. They often have tacit, if repressed, awareness of their loved one’s intentions; they know more than they can tell. The challenge, therefore, is to work with social networks of youths at risk of radicalization, increase their sensitivity to signs of impending disaster and facilitate a recognition of their own need for closure that impedes their readiness to “say something” when “seeing something.” The lone-wolf attacks inspired by fanatical extremism target each and every one of us. Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option. We must all actively mobilize to fight the extremist threat any way we can.

Editor’s Note: This column has been updated to reflect events in San Bernardino, California.

4 comments

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Or, perhaps the families do such a lousy job of being connected with their children, they have no idea what’s going on. Would not surprise me in the USA.

Posted by EyeForget | Report as abusive

We need to focus happy and piece full life

Posted by devdelhi21 | Report as abusive

They know.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Why are these articles always about the families and not about the person who sold them 4 assault rifles and 6,000 rounds of ammunition. Is that guy seriously trying to say….”I had no idea. He seemed normal. He was a cash buyer…”

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive