Menu Close

The new terrorists and the roots they share with gangs and drug lords

Bullet holes from the Copenhagen attack. Liselotte Sabroe/Scanpix Denmark/Reuters

The recent attacks in Paris and Copenhagen are the latest incarnations of a new type of terrorism. Decentralized and homegrown, it is hard to understand.

Last week, the Obama Administration convened a three-day summit to focus on the reasons young people become involved in this kind of violence. In many cases, these young perpetrators have been drawn to extremist ideologies without personal histories of religious commitment, militancy, or even social activism.

How do they – in a relatively short period of time – get to the point where they are willing to commit such violent acts?

Our research and program experience at the George Washington University’s Center for Social Well-Being and Development, and the Avance Center for the Advancement of Immigrant/Refugee Health may offer some guidance.

Not isolated actions

It is useful to think about such acts as taking place within a broader context.

The Kouachi brothers, for instance, reportedly felt excluded and ultimately just “wanted to be French.” They lived in the 19th arrondissement in Paris, a neighborhood long disconnected from the French mainstream, with high levels of unemployment, particularly for young adults.

In Copenhagen, 22-year old Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein was said to be seething with anger about exclusion from Danish society. He was radicalized in prison and swore allegiance to ISIS only moments before his shooting rampage.

How does this kind of context contribute to these outsized acts of violence? Our work suggests that it does so in at least two significant ways.

The nature of exclusion

The first has to do with the nature of excluded communities. Cut off by many boundaries, they become like islands disconnected from the society around them. These boundaries are socio-economic and cultural and are often made deeper by racism and discrimination.

But within these islands, people still strive to make a living, to belong, and to attain status. Because the possibilities are limited, the ways of achieving these basic goals may divert from conventional paths. The difference between legal and illegal becomes blurred and the definition of risk less clear.

Social structures like gangs and family-like crime networks often develop to provide opportunities for income, protection and social bonds. Even so, competition for the finite number of opportunities is tough. The script for success may well include violence – and that is before we even consider religious or ideological motives.

Add to this general context a second, powerful factor. The people we are talking about are largely young, not far from adolescence.

The significance of adolescence

As the psychologist Erik Erikson and others have noted, an important part of being an adolescent involves assembling a personal identity.

The material for putting that identity together comes from what one sees and experiences in one’s immediate community and cultural environment, as well as from the media and Internet. Attaching to an identity at this stage can be a deeply emotional process; it is all about getting social acceptance and recognition. The stakes are high.

In excluded communities, there are a limited number of valued identities to choose from that can also offer a viable future. Add one more level of difficulty if the community in question is an immigrant one.

Exclusion and the search for identity – a toxic mix

A young person searching for identity and status in an excluded community is vulnerable to the influence of people who use violence to demonstrate their importance. If that violence is connected with a sense of payback and revenge against those forces that exclude, then the situation is even more volatile.

The Kouachi brothers. Reuters TV/Reuters

This appears to be what happened in the cases of the prison-based jihadi networks in Denmark, and in Paris for the Buttes-Chaumont network that included the Kouachi brothers as well as Amedy Coulibaly.

It also holds true in different ways for the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street gangs in the US and Central America, for the Crips and Bloods and quite possibly for more than a few drug trafficking organizations.

In one study, young men interviewed from poverty-ridden colonias on the Mexican border recounted that they were willing to traffic in drugs and die or kill violently in order to be remembered as heroic in popular songs known as “narcocorridos.”

While not exact parallels, there is a common thread to these examples.

Though we do not equate gang or drug violence with terrorism, each of these is at least partially rooted in exclusion, where legends are made, songs written and YouTube videos are posted about people who become notorious through acts of violence. It is either that or having to eke out a living with little chance to get ahead.

Social exclusion and poverty, said anthropologist Elliott Liebow, is facelessness. There is a common human desire to be someone, to matter. For people who feel exclusion every day, the desire to be someone wells up and is ready to be channeled. Enter an ethos of heroic violence or heroic martyrdom, and you will see many takers.

What can be done?

Token jobs programs are not the answer, nor are token programs of any kind. We have to compete with the benefits offered by gangs, traffickers and potentially extremist groups.

This process takes time, local collaboration and resources. It is not easy or a quick fix. Young people must come of age seeing that there are multiple opportunities for them that include access to social capital, resources and decent work where they can retain a sense of identity and acceptance.

The Adelante program, currently being implemented in the Washington, DC, metro area community by George Washington University’s Avance Center is one such attempt.

Adelante is a program designed to prevent substance abuse, sexual risk behavior and violence among immigrant Latino youth. To achieve this goal, the program works at three levels:

  1. It helps building skills and capabilities that participants can use to strengthen the community, stay healthy and increase their likelihood of finding decent employment or further education.
  2. It brings together a range of organizations including non-profit groups, the faith community and businesses to connect with participants.
  3. It helps create a positive identity for the process and its participants.

To illustrate how it works, take the example of a high-school age young man who is on the verge of dropping out.

At Adelante, he learns advocacy skills and how to talk about problems in his community. He makes a presentation to a local community group together with several other youth. People listen. Encouraged by Adelante program staff, the community group then asks these young people if they want to be peer educators, maybe even with a stipend attached. Now school looks a little different, more meaningful. The prospect of getting involved in destructive activities loses a little of its pull.

Going global

At the Center for Social Well-Being and Development, we are applying the same systematic approach in global settings.

Key to this is our focus on “social well-being,” which is derived from the World Health Organization’s definition of health as “not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” We look at each community and its environment as a system that can promote good outcomes or bad ones. By identifying the factors that make families and young people vulnerable, we can help decide how to change that balance.

With partners at UNICEF, our staff developed the Adolescent Well-Being Framework.

This tool serves as a guide for identifying whether or not adolescents have the supports they need to do well. These supports relate to, among other things, safety, education, and having future possibilities for employment. The more such supports are in place, the less likely adolescents will be involved in violence and other situations that place them at risk.

This framework is now at the early stages of implementation and testing. For example, in one Central American country where we work, adolescent girls from a particular ethnic minority group are frequently trafficked. HIV rates are high. If we use the Framework as a guide, we might find that the problem is that there is little help to keep them in school; that there are few sources of income other than at local tourist sites; that their ethnic identity does not get any recognition and that there are limited funds allocated to HIV prevention for adolescents.

The conclusion, therefore, is that to give these girls and their families better options, some effort needs to be made to fill these gaps. The goal of this process is to move away from “band-aid” solutions. The Framework is able to highlight where comprehensive and sustainable changes must be made in the community.

It is from this perspective that we look at violence – and extremism – among youth. Our argument is that it is no accident that the use of violence is much higher in some communities than in others. There is something going on that increases vulnerability. The task is to find out what that is, and then make the effort to change that context.

Will these kinds of efforts eliminate homegrown terrorism or violence?

Not entirely. Not all terrorists are driven by the motivations described above. But such actions will at least help drain the fuel that feeds the fire.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 119,900 academics and researchers from 3,857 institutions.

Register now