As instances of lone wolf-style terrorism have increased in Western countries over the past six months and the Islamic State has called for more attacks around the world, police in the United States may turn towards known tactics for policing of urban gangs for new ideas on how to combat homegrown terror.
Street gangs, with their deft ability to recruit young men and encourage them to carry out violence, can act as a model for understanding extremist recruitment and attacks, according to law enforcement experts and researchers.
The National Institute of Justice, the Department of Justice's research arm, had a call for proposals and awarded grants in 2014 for studies comparing gangs and terror groups. They asked specifically for studies that could offer insights gleaned from gang policing strategies that could be useful for counterterror measures. And the comparison has already been implemented by the US military on the ground in Afghanistan, where they looked to domestic gang policing strategies for ideas on how to stop insurgents abroad.
A global initiative spurred by Google Ideas and a number of think tanks called Against Violent Extremism was created in 2011 to bring together former extremists of all stripes — gang members, white supremacists, other religious extremists — to share information on how to stop recruitment of young men into violent organizations.
And it is, researchers point out, nearly all young men who are joining these groups. The motivations for joining both gangs and terrorist organizations can be similar: finding a sense of belonging, group identity, and purpose in life. Michael Freeman, a professor in Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School who has studied the connection with gangs, said that young men often turn to gangs out of frustration at the lack of better economic opportunities, and that one theory of male violence is that it is a competition to get to the top of the pecking order to better secure a mate.
"The vast majority of violence anywhere in all of time has been created by young males," Freeman told VICE News. "There are reasons like general frustration and alienation, there's the pull of the groups themselves… the social value of joining groups."
David Kennedy, a gang expert at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that the research on jihadists shows that many are not really motivated by the "abstract, or theological." Instead, they are drawn into jihadist groups because they are around them, and offer purpose and status.
"It's something [that has been called] 'jihadi cool,' a sense of respect and standing and status that comes from being able to say I'm part of this and this is what I'm doing. A lot of it is motivated by the same things gang members do. They end up doing things that they aren't very motivated to do and committed to otherwise, but the group is doing it so they go along," Kennedy said.
A lot of times, Freeman said, young men will join terror organizations with their friends. The group mindset encourages individuals to act in ways they wouldn't normally act, Scott Decker of Arizona State University told VICE News. Practically all delinquent acts are committed by people in groups, he said.
"That's certainly true of gangs who as individuals would never do a drive-by shooting. It's almost always done in a group, not just because of the physical steps required, but because of the encouragement and support and group context," Decker said. "In that, gangs and terrorists tend to be alike."
Since some of the dynamics that lead young men to join violent groups are similar, some of the strategies for prevention are similar, Freeman said. Community policing, in which cops go into neighborhoods and get to know community leaders and residents, can help build bridges.
"Engaging with community, identifying at-risk populations, creating opportunities to steer them away from this kind of lifestyle, those things are common to both realms. In that sense it doesn't matter which population or threat you're talking about, the tactics that get at those dynamics should be the same," Freeman said.
If local police and federal intelligence groups like the FBI want cooperation from Muslim communities, they may have to change the way they treat them the same way law enforcement had to change its approach toward poor black neighborhoods to get help on combatting gang crime, Kennedy said.
American Muslims have said they want to help the FBI with any intelligence they might have from their community or local mosques, but at the same time, the entire community is treated suspiciously, he said. It's the same sentiment that people in poor black and Latino communities expressed to him about how they felt police treated entire neighborhoods like criminals.
"They say 'we are outraged because the FBI is treating us as if we're all terrorists. "We know they're trying to penetrate our mosques and turn our sons into informants. The thing most keeping us from being on the front line of terror is the anger at the way we're being treated by the authorities,'" Kennedy said.
"The thing that has been so effective in resetting relations between police and disaffected black communities is essentially police going to them and saying we have really gotten this wrong in the past," he said.
Police in cities like Los Angeles have earned back the respect of many black and Latino citizens by treating everyone in the neighborhood like an ally, and even those who were at risk for violence are being treated as good people who had fallen into a bad situation, he said.
Another solution most experts agreed on is using a former group member who had left the fold, but still has street cred, to convince young men not to join in the first place. Farah Pandith, who studies Muslim communities for the Council on Foreign Relations, said that peer influence is key in either inoculating youth against gang recruitment or pushing them toward it.
"In the case of Muslims who are persuaded by extremist ideology, if the loudest answers are coming from the so-called 'Sheik Google' [the term for online radicalization sources], those are the answers they're migrating toward," she said.
Police and community programs like Gang Resistance and Education Training Program — a kind of DARE-like drug program in which police officers go into schools to teach kids how to resist pressure to join gangs — can probably translate quite well into terror prevention programs, Decker said. Incorporating former members would boost the message's respectability, he said.
Other solutions are less police-oriented and more traditional.
"Nothing stops young men — and these are primarily young men — from continuing to participate in crime or terrorism than getting married and getting a job in the legitimate economy," Freeman said.
In some Middle East countries, governments try to find wives for potential terrorists in addition to giving them jobs, he said. But the point about jobs, and their availability, was mentioned by most experts as a way to push vulnerable young men into law-abiding, legitimate professions and lives.
"For policy makers, it's very uncomfortable to deal with that. Those are things that aren't easily solved, there's no easy remedy," Pandith said. "We have to marry both government knowledge with mental health workers, so that the civilian society on the ground seeing things from a specific point of view can work together to create initiatives at the grass roots level that can help those communities."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @CurryColleen
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