Why terrorists are not like gang members

It  makes sense to adapt existing models to handle new phenomena where there are enough commonalities between the existing and emerging issues.  I am not so sure it is easy to make that determination but if the costs and downsides of modifying approaches we already know well are low then I suppose no harm is done.

This is how I feel about the use of anti-gang programmes to deal with terrorists.  The Swedish government appears to be on the brink of doing so with returning foreign fighters.  The intervention strategies being used currently in several Canadian cities – such as Calgary’s Redirect programme – are also based on the notion that older plans to divert youth from gang behaviour may serve as a scaffold for violent radicalisation diversion.

If those subjected to these initiatives end up abandoning their violent views (whether ideological in the case of terrorism or criminal in the case of gangs) then this is of course a great outcome.  It is hard to see, at least for me at this point, how these efforts could go awry and make the problem worse and if the least desirable effect is a null result then we haven’t really lost much, have we?

And yet I am a little worried that the use of anti-gang methodology to treat terrorists will lead to the conclusion that the two things are more or less the same.  This attitude is already gaining strength in some quarters and it is a dangerous one because it is wrong.

This is not to say that there are no terrorists who came from gangs or who chose terrorism when they could just have easily chosen to join the Crips: there certainly are cases like that.  And the UK’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence just put out a piece in which it claimed that there was a growing link, at least in Europe, between criminal and jihadist milieus.  So we certainly cannot say that there is no connection between the two.

But that connection, even if it is getting larger, does not exhaust the set of reasons why people become terrorists nor the set of circumstances whence they emerge.  I fear that we will leap to the conclusion that the association between criminal behaviour/gangs and radicalisation/terrorism is the new paradigm and that the cures for the former work for the latter.

We know that the radicalisation process is very complex and all who study it seriously agree we cannot reduce it to a finite set of predictive variables.  So why would we posit yet another “explanation”?  I wholeheartedly agree that if robust data point to an interesting development then studies should be highlighted that present and try to explain that link.  But we have to stop extrapolating to future modeling: it has not worked to date and is not likely to do so in the future.

In essence, terrorism is ideology while gang membership is criminal.  This is not to suggest that every terrorist or activist is at heart an ideologue: tonnes of Marxists knew very little about Das Kapital.  The ideology underpinning terrorism is important, however, and it is likely that all terrorists, no matter how thick, have imbibed some of that ideology.  Programmes to undo the terrorist mindset have to have an ideological part to them: I would argue that in some cases a large section on ideology is necessary.  Do anti-gang approaches have such a module built in?

At the end of the day we are all struggling to develop methods to confront the problem of homegrown terrorism.  This challenge is likely to get a lot more difficult when some of those who have fought with Islamic State and other extremist groups in Iraq/Syria survive the siege of Mosul (best case scenario – they all die) and return to their homelands.  Some will come back to attack us.

If we can modify what works for gangs to what may work for terrorism then we will be in a better position not only to prevent more attacks but may even bring people back to normalcy.  Let’s not put too much stock in one approach though – after all it is rarely a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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