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Radicalisation is not just a terrorist tactic – street gangs do it every day

The word radicalisation has been hijacked by the war on terror and become interchangeable with extremism. But radicalisation is happening in our towns and cities every day as marginalised teenagers and children – left isolated from opportunity – join street gangs. Some eventually climb the criminal ladder into organised crime groups looking for some kind of belonging.

The only way to deal with this type of radicalisation is by getting to the root of the problem. Only then is there a hope of addressing the wider issue of extremism, not only in religious thinking but also in criminal motivations at an early age. A report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police defined radicalisation as:

The process by which individuals, usually young people, are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs, to extreme views.

Over the last couple of years, the media has tended to focus on religious or political fundamentalism as the defining criteria of radicalisation, driving the idea that the phenomenon is directly associated with terror. However, my research into street gang culture on Merseyside, has shown how the process of recruiting new gang members could be classified as a form of radicalisation.

New recruits get drawn to crime, having deviated away from the “straight and narrow” ruling ideology that fails to benefit them because of social inequality and issues around poverty. More specifically, the lack of real opportunities caused by unemployment and a government austerity programme that is cutting services and causing child poverty to soar.

These factors make certain areas, such as council estates, even more bleak and propel young people towards the only opportunity open to them – the dark recesses of criminality. In effect, it is an ideal setting for the triggering of psychological personality issues. Leading Cambridge neuro-psychologist, Simon Baron-Cohen, has highlighted what can happen when individuals who have experienced long term deprivation become socially detached from the world.

For Baron-Cohen, this can result in what he calls “Empathy Erosion”. When this situation occurs, then there will be a tendency for young people to conceive their own means to attain material goals and in most cases this usually means relinquishing compassion for others – others who form the law-abiding majority – instead opting to join like-minded peers forming “deviant” street groups.

Once they join a gang there is also the seductive allure of committing crime for the shear thrill of the risk and a need to escape the monotonous banality of council estate life. It is a phenomenon that criminologists have come to recognise as “edgework”.

The code of the street

The running common denominator for recruitment to these groups – whether their motives are political, religious or criminal – can be seen to be social isolation. It has become clear that some individuals who become victims of religious radicalisation are indeed loners or so-called “lone wolves”.

But, in the same context, looking at street gangs, social and academic commentators point to individuals who have become disenfranchised, socially excluded and marginalised. The predominantly right wing think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, wrote an in-depth review of street gangs in the UK which described a generation of young people who have become “alienated from mainstream society”. It states that these young people have “created their own, alternative society: the gang. And they live by the gang’s rules, the ‘code of the street’”.

With this in mind, different types or levels of radicalisation now need to be considered. The examples of street gangs and organised crime groups show how there are similar themes with individuals becoming vulnerable to being sucked into an alternative, potentially violent, counterculture via the same core social and psychological triggers.

My study involved interviewing 22 young people who had been involved in street gangs. Evident in every young person’s case was the same type of social, psychological characteristics that had initially been triggered by feelings of communal isolation. They all needed to be part of a group and many were influenced by both the internet and an older mentor who was already in a gang.

The uniform and the pressure

Once in the gang, other psychological factors take hold, like “de-individuation” or a loss of self-awareness and personal identity. The effect of gang members wearing similar clothing can provide them with the ability to blend in with the group and a freedom to behave in a way they would not as an individual. In Liverpool, the wearing of an all-black dress code consisting of hoodies, a military-style cap, tracksuit bottoms and trainers has become the standard uniform for a gang member. Taken together, the young gang member becomes a “street soldier” and blends in to the rebelling mass.

Central government and local authorities could have helped combat and reduced radicalisation well before the rise of Al Qaeda or IS by simply focusing on domestic issues, such as social and cultural deprivation and, in particular, diversity and inclusivity.

My observations of the Stockbridge Village estate in Knowsley, Liverpool – branded a “new kind of ghetto” by The Economist – highlight the tight jingoistic bonds and racial alienation of inner city neighbourhoods. As a result, we see young people in areas like this become environmentally introverted and territorial, embracing and an “us versus them” mentality where crime becomes the only way to get through life.

Only by reshaping the social landscape of these communities – by creating greater diversity, equality and opportunity through inclusivity – can we ever hope to develop a greater resistance to radical thinking of a violent nature on all levels.

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