On Gangs and Terrorists

I’m not going to say much about this short piece of social science research on the similarities between street gangs and terrorist groups except that you should read it. And that’s not something I say often.

The study of gangs and radicalized groups share a great deal in common. The two fields of research are similar in that they both study hard-to-reach populations that engage in criminal actions. Both groups are composed primarily of young men. Gangs and terrorist groups tend to be loosely organized as opposed to maintaining rigid organizational hierarchies. The violence that these groups engage in is public and involves victimization and harm to members of the general public. The violence used by gangs and radicalized groups is also disproportionate to the degree of harm, marginalization, or disrespect experienced among extremists or gang members. Group processes are central to the processes of recruitment, the engagement in violence, mobilization and forms of collective behavior. In both the study of gangs and terrorism there is a “dark” figure of crime, that is, the volume of crime engaged in by these groups is not well known or understood. Much like terrorism, the study of gangs is also plagued by a number of “myths”. Such myths (gangs are well organized, gangs control drug sales, gang membership is permanent, gangs are organized globally, only males join gangs etc.) created misunderstandings of what gangs, gang members and gang crime are like.

Anyone looking in particular at Islamist groups ought to consider this:

Gangs are oppositional groups that thrive on enemies and conflict, real and constructed. Indeed, no gang could survive without a rival. There is a reason that it is almost impossible to find a city with only one gang. Conflicts and enemies spawn an oppositional culture – a culture in which defeating enemies is more important than achieving goals. Without such elements of an oppositional culture, gangs could not exist. This oppositional aspect of gangs has a direct referent to groups that engage in terrorist activities. The symbols, activities, and causes of radicalized groups reflect their oppositional nature. In most cases the government or certain cultures is the rival for terrorist groups and often a major goal of such groups is to provoke a reaction or in some cases an over-reaction. Indeed this is one of the areas where the correspondence between terrorism and gang research is the strongest: both need enemies to exist and grow.

I bring this up because I mention something in my book, an afternoon spent leading members of Chicago’s Latin Kings street gang in an ad-hoc worship service as part of a memorial for a fallen comrade. I’d like to do more ministry like this, and I’ve met a couple of pastors — including a chaplain at the Cook County Jail — who found their way to doing this kind of ministry because they were in street gangs themselves.

And I always found myself wondering — if asked about this, about being in a gang by someone currently in a gang, how would I answer? I have no visible signs of former gang affiliation. And yet, I have some sense of my time with the jihadis bears some similarities. Granted, we only studied, and anything we yearned to do would have been done far away in Bosnia. Still, there’s something to this.

Anyway, go read the piece. It’s thought provoking, if nothing else.

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