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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Munoz Burgos

Lessons from gang research for terrorism and extremism

Bridging CVE and CVP started as an effort to understand the links between countering violent extremism (CVE) and crime and violence prevention (CVP). In the first post that I wrote for this site, I discuss some of the similarities and differences between violent extremist organizations (VEOs) and criminal organizations, such as gangs, and how lessons from CVP could be used for CVE. My interest in the applicability of CVP best practices to CVE comes from the work of Scott H. Decker, Foundation Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, and David Pyrooz, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Both of them have extensively studied gangs, and in the past decade, started writing about using gang prevention best practices for terrorism and radicalization.

In their article “I’m down for a Jihad” How 100 Years of Gang Research Can Inform the Study of Terrorism, Radicalization and Extremism, Decker and Pyrooz identify twelve principles derived from gang research that they believe are applicable to research on groups involved in terrorism or radicalized groups. These findings are important given that research on gangs has been going on for the past 100 years, and interdisciplinary work can be very useful to find solutions to terrorism and radicalization. The authors point out that it is very important to understand that gang research has not reached a final consensus on what works and what does not in gang prevention, and that these twelve principles draw from both successes and mistakes.

The following are Decker and Pyrooz’s twelve principles presented in an abridged way:

1. Triangulation of ideas and methods. The best research on gang draws from multiple sources of data and combines several methods, such as trial transcripts, scenarios, experiments, survey research, as well as school, law enforcement, social media, and prison and jail data. The importance of an interdisciplinary approach to understanding gangs has resulted in important and innovative findings for this field. Confining research under only one discipline can lead to limited interpretations of this phenomenon and flawed policy.

2. Understand symmetries and asymmetries across the selection and the dis-engagement process into and out of groups. It is very important to not only focus on risk factors for gang joining and the consequences of gang membership. The disengagement process and whether it is inverse of the engagement process should also be studied carefully. Gang research has found that dramatic departures are rare, and that often, gang members just walk away. Longitudinal studies have shown that gang membership is usually of short duration, usually less than two years. Life course theory is valuable in the study of gang membership, suggesting that gang members continue their lives with more traditional activities rather than staying in the gang.

3. Study the collective – the clique, cell, group, or organization – do not just pay lip service to it. It is very important to understand groups and how they motivate individuals to act in certain ways. The collective features of groups can shed light on why they engage in crime and deviant behaviors. Understanding groups’ processes and their structures in recruitment, adopting behaviors, and engaging in violence are paramount to comprehend both gang and terror group acts.

4. Definitions matter. Definitional clarity is needed for terrorism, radicalization, and extremism, as these are often used interchangeably and they usually refer to different phenomena. It is important to create a typology of extremism to differentiate between different types of extremism (religious, environmental, political, etc.), and it is also important to determine whether extremist groups and individuals are defined by beliefs or behaviors. This last point is important because different foci can lead to different results, and beliefs do not usually result in specific behaviors. (For more information on definitional issues visit our post What works in CVE?)

5. Do not forget women. While it is true that terror groups and gangs are mainly comprised of men, women are very influential in the behavior and membership of these groups. Research should not only focus on disaggregating group composition and acts of terror by sex, or analyzing the similarities and differences between female and male extremists. The analysis should go further into understanding how gender is used as an asset in the organization, and the gender dynamics within groups. (Click on the following links for our posts on women in gangs and women in terrorism).

6. Knowledge of the efficacy of programs should be proportional to the investment in such programs. For more than forty years, there have been gang interventions, but only a few high quality evaluations have been carried out for these. All intervention start as “very promising,” but not all are. The same is happening in the terror realm, and consequently, funds are spent in interventions that are not based on empiricism or evidence-based practices. The authors recommend that “[w]hen rigorous evaluation is hard to come by, it would be profitable to take advantage of natural experiments-random or exogenous shocks- to assess the efficacy of policies and programs.”

7. Distinguish instrumental from symbolic activities. Gangs and terror groups talk more than they act, but official sources tend to exaggerate the magnitude of their violence, capability, and reach. Researchers need to be careful about this, and use approaches that take this problem into consideration.

8. Research must be held accountable for false positives and false negatives. Research shows that gang membership increases criminal behaviors. However, not all gang members are criminals and not all criminals are gang members. Also, research shows that criminal behavior is higher for gang than non-gang populations. However, more work should be carried out to distinguish between high-rate gang offenders from low-rate gang offenders, and from non-offenders. As a result, research on terrorism and radicalization should assess risk level cautiously and develop interventions accordingly. Interventions should be targeted to the individuals at the greatest risk of committing crimes rather than taking approaches that view all extremists or gang members (or populations at risk) as equal. (For more information on risk levels, see post Frameworks: The Public Health Methodology).

9. Understand the network of opposition underpinning extra-legal groups. Gangs need an enemy to exist. The same is true for terrorist groups. It is very important to know who the adversaries of these groups are to better understand these groups’ symbols, activities, and causes.

10. There is a need for theory making and theory testing. The best advances made in the study of gangs reflect equilibrium between theory making and theory testing. Back in the 1960s there was an abundance of literature and theories on gangs, but they were not tested. In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers began conducting longitudinal and survey research, mainly with individuals, and were able to prove some of the theories previously developed.

11. Pay close attention to the role of prison. More attention needs to be paid to this area of research in both the gang and terrorism fields. Methods, theories, and policies need to be further developed. Prisons are usually incubators of gang members, who leave these facilities with more skills and serve as links between the prison and the street gang. Prisons are also places where some individuals become radicalized and commit terrorist acts when they are released. With the return of ISIS foreign fighters to their home countries, this is an area worth examining more to better deal with reinsertion and reintegration of offenders. (For more information on returning foreign fighters, see post Tunisia: Returning foreign terrorist fighters)

12. Comparative research will offer greater returns to knowledge than research conducted in isolation. How is the gang phenomenon disseminated? Does it spread from individual to individual, from neighborhood to neighborhood, or from country to country? Are gangs expanding to new territories or are gang symbols being adopted by marginalized youth? These are all question that also apply to terrorism and extremism. Some acts are conducted by locals in their own countries, while other acts are conducted abroad. Are the motivations or behaviors behind these acts the same for both the local and foreign contexts? To address these questions and to avoid creating silos in complementary disciplines, a multidisciplinary approach to understanding terrorism and extremism is necessary.

Although these twelve points were written in 2011, they are still relevant today. Some advances have been made in both terrorism and gang research regarding evidence- and empiricism-based interventions and data. However, most interventions are still based on theory and often end in failure. Spaces for dialogue between different disciplines that can contribute to finding solutions to both gang violence and terrorism are much needed. While there are many similarities between the fields of gangs and terrorism, it is also important to point out that there are differences that will make some interventions from the gang world not effective in the terrorism realm. Practitioners are researchers should assess the validity of interventions from the gang world that are applicable to terrorism and extremism and vice-versa.

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