Ottawa has a gang problem. This should come as a surprise to no one as Ottawa is a relatively large city (more or less a million people) and most big cities are plagued with similar issues. We should note that the size of the gang issue in the nation’s capital is not nearly as serious as that of other municipalities, although this is probably of little solace to the Ottawa Police Services.
There is also a discouraging nexus between a small part of Ottawa’s Muslim population and gangs, according to an op-ed in today’s Ottawa Citizen. The columnist, Mohammed Adam, rightly notes that gang members come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and that there is nothing particularly special about Islam in this regard. Nevertheless, I have noticed a disproportionate series of arrests and incidents in Ottawa over the past few years that are tied to Muslim perpetrators. This is not a scientific survey by any means and I am well aware of media bias. On the other hand local Islamic leaders are worried about the problem enough to start addressing it.
In his column Mr Adam notes: “The reasons for gang violence are the same across the board: lack of parental control, alienation, poverty, peer pressure and a yearning to belong.” There are likely other drivers behind gang members, but this short list is probably accurate.
As this is a terrorism blog, what, if any, is the relationship between gangs and radicalisation/terrorism? In my working days I used to hear constant advice that we in CSIS and government should examine the commonalities in these two forms of anti-social behaviour. And I usually rejected the comparison for reasons that will become clear shortly. This is not to say that there are NO similarities. On the contrary: there are in some cases. And yes there are those who have experience in both gangs and terrorist groups.
But the differences outweigh the parallels. And the biggest, and by far the most important, difference is the role of ideology. Terrorism is ideologically-motivated criminal activity: gang offences are not. Undoubtedly there is some kind of mindset to any given gang, but the crimes and activities committed are carried out for more mundane purposes: money, control of territory, elimination of rivals, etc. True there are terrorist groups such as Islamic State that have a criminal aspect. The two phenomena remain, however, very different. Terrorists are out to change the world to coincide with their views: gangs are not.
Which brings us to another important question: can the same strategies developed to discourage gang membership apply to terrorism? The simple answer is that we don’t know. I suspect that any approach that addresses issues such as alienation and poverty are good in and of themselves, except that neither alienation nor poverty (nor anything else for that matter) have been shown to be causal factors for radicalisation to violence. Again, resolving these social ills would make us all better off but it will not be the magic bullet we appear to be seeking to stop terrorism in its tracks.
There will be instances where an individual has ventured down the path both to a local gang and to a terrorist group (the late Muhammad Ali Dirie of the Toronto 18 is a good example in Canada). It is in these cases where we will see if there is anything useful to be learned with applying anti-gang methodology to those radicalised to violence. Whatever happens, we must not fall – again – into the trap of believing that a one-size-fits-all solution to social ills is in the offing.