So now gangs are terrorists too? No, they are most definitely not

We may not all agree with what terrorism is but I wish we could agree on what it isn’t!

Warning: this blog contains graphic images

How do you define terrorism? What are the essential elements that have to be there? Is there any consensus at all?

You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that there is really no one-size-fits-all concept when it comes to terrorism. According to Alex Schmid, a Swiss-born Dutch scholar in terrorism studies and former Officer-in-Charge of the Terrorism Prevention Branch of the UN, there are 260 (!) definitions out there.

Alex Schmid

Canadian Criminal Code

I hate to sound like a broken record (OK, boomer – what’s a record?) but I have decided to stick as closely as possible to the wording and scope I am most familiar with: the Canadian Criminal Code. It served me well when I was at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) and it serves me well now.

Under that code, an act of terrorism is a serious act of violence perpetrated for political, ideological or religious reasons. To my mind and in my experience, parts of that can be found in most definitions I have come across even if we do not always agree on what a terrorist – or a terrorist group – is.

And then there are times when the term is used in ways that are very unhelpful as far as I am concerned.

The CSIS crest – representing an old palisade (did YOU know that?)

Are gangs terrorist organisations?

On January 9, US federal marshals arrested a Salvadoran man in Carson City (Nevada) they maintain is in the US illegally and who has ties to a terrorist organisation in Central America. That organisation? 18 Revolutionary Pandilla, which is apparently a faction of an El Salvadoran gang called Shadow Park Locos. The man is accused of crimes including homicide, extortion and terrorism.

I fully confess to knowing nothing about Salvadoran law, but do we really want to start talking about gangs as ‘terrorists’? Yes, they are a problem and this one in particular is big into lots of transnational crime (drugs, etc.) but are they terrorists? As an aside, in November 2019 US President Donald Trump vowed to list Mexican drug cartels as terrorists after the killing of nine American citizens from a Mormon community in Mexico. He later decided not to (this of course means nothing as he is wont to change his mind inexplicably).

Are gangs terrorist organisations? Not in my books, and I think if we go down that path, we divert attention from real terrorists.

Are gangs terrorist organisations? Not in my books, and I think if we go down that path we water down what terrorism is in truth and divert attention from real terrorists. No, I am not advising that we do not do whatever we can to stop these bloody gangs: we just can’t do it with counter terrorism resources.

Gangs of this type are not ideological. They are not political. And they are sure as hell not religious. They are butchers who like to kill.

Image result for salvadoran gang killing
Aftermath of a Salvadoran gang killing (Photo: NPR)

Terrorism police list Extinction Rebellion as extremist ideology

Before I go, I want to cite another story that caught my eye recently and which also points to why muddying the terrorist waters is counter-productive. According to the Web site of the UK newspaper The Guardian, that country’s counter-terrorism police placed the non-violent group Extinction Rebellion (XR) on a list of extremist ideologies that should be reported to the authorities running the Prevent programme, which aims to catch those at risk of committing atrocities.

Image result for extinction rebellion

I and others have been commenting for some time that violence tied to groups advocating for action to combat climate change and environmental catastrophe is on its way, but nothing XR says is anywhere near an advocacy for violence (unlike Deep Green Resistance which I featured a few months ago). If violence is not part of their programme do authorities want to demonise them and hence, in a perverse way, nudge them in that direction?

For the record, yes I know that one can be extreme and not violent but we often conflate the two ideas. To its credit, the Counter Terrorism Policing South East in the UK realised this whole thing was a mistake and they withdrew their listing.

We have been faced with a lot of terrorism over the centuries. Can we please narrow our counter terrorism focus to those individuals and those groups which are indeed terrorist in nature?


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

Phil Gurski

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