A new study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice finds that street gangs are not breeding grounds for extremism, as some have argued, and that U.S. gang members rarely go on to become radicalized and commit acts of terrorism.
In fact, street gangs and domestic extremist groups, such as neo-Nazis, seem to have very little in common, according to the findings.
“Criminologists have been studying gangs for years, whereas the study of domestic extremists is relatively recent,” said co-author Gary LaFree, Ph.D., director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland.
“There has been some hope that if the processes by which individuals get into gangs resemble how they get into terrorist organizations, we might be able to use what we know from countering gang participation to counter participation in terrorism.”
But the study suggests there are fewer links than suspected.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder compared the data of 1,473 political extremists (those motivated by far-right, far-left, Islamist, or other ideologies) with the data of 705 gang members and found that the two groups showed similarities in only 10 out of 27 measures.
In fact, only 82 domestic extremists — less than six percent — had gang ties. In addition, 80 percent of domestic extremists are white, while fewer than half of gang members are. And just 1.2 percent of extremists have no religious affiliation, while 24 percent of gang members are not religious.
On average, members of extremist groups are 34 years old; gang members are 19. And while females constitute nearly one-third of gangs, 90 percent of extremists are male.
“This suggests gangs are not breeding grounds for extremism as previously thought,” said lead author David Pyrooz, an assistant professor of sociology.
“Overall, these preliminary findings suggest that, on an individual level, policies and programs designed to prevent and intervene in gang membership might not translate very well to domestic extremism,” said Pyrooz.
Still, the researchers did find a few compelling commonalities that draw people to both types of groups, including strong attachments to like-minded peers and poor employment history.
For studies to come, the researchers are conducting in-person interviews with gang members to compare their life histories with those of domestic extremists.
“We want to better understand how and why members from each of these groups enter and leave them, and provide this basic research to people out in the trenches dealing with these issues,” Pyrooz said.
The political extremist information was pulled from the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) dataset. This included information on members of violent extremist groups or terrorist organizations, and individuals who committed crimes motivated by far-right, far-left, Islamist, or other ideologies.
The findings come as the Trump administration has named the large U.S. street gang MS-13 “one of the gravest threats to American public safety,” and as ideologically motivated extremism remains a national concern.
The authors hope the paper, and related studies, will be used to help inform policies to counter both domestic terrorism and gang participation.
“Both criminal gangs, like MS-13, and domestic extremist groups, like neo-Nazis, pose great risks for crime and violence in the United States,” said Pyrooz. “This study gives us a much better statistical portrait of what such groups look like in relation to each other.”
The study is published in the journal Justice Quarterly.
Source: University of Colorado Boulder