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December 27, 2015
by Dr. Dawn Crosson,Psy.D

Terrorism Prevention: The Gang Connection

December 27, 2015 21:34 by Dr. Dawn Crosson,Psy.D

With the recent onslaught of terroristic attacks, there has been much speculation on the reasoning of such horrific acts. Such tragedies as the mass shooting in San Berdino in early December of 2015 and the attack in Paris in November of 2015 has prompted politicians and analysts to debate how to stop further assaults.

While most of the media coverage tends to focus on foreign terroristic attacks on the United States, some have argued that gang behavior within the country is also a form of terrorism. Street gangs have been compared to terroristic groups more intensely since the 911 attack on the World Trade Building. Lack of knowledge and understanding of terroristic behavior caused researchers to turn to the literature on criminal street gangs as an analog (Advanced Concept Group Sandia National Laboratories, 2002). Decker and Pyrooz (2011) argue that understanding street gangs can provide useful information about criminal, deviant and extremist groups. Gaining insight into the formation of both groups can possibly prove beneficial in deterring membership.

Gang Origins

Howell & Moore (2002) dates gang behavior in the United States back to 1783 originating on the East Coast. However, there is some question as to the gravity of gang activity during that time. Therefore, it is postulated that serious gang behavior didn’t emerge until around the 19th century. There are a variety of explanations for the reasoning behind gang formation. Sense of belonging, camaraderie, status, surrogate family, protection, security, money and activity are among the many factors that may influence one to seek gang membership. Gang organizations can vary from highly organized groups to ineffective social assemblages. The structure and hierarchy of the gang is often associated with the type of crime committed.The more organized gangs produce more crime and victimization and membership is associated with more serious crime and delinquency.

Gangs have expanded and become more sophisticated over the decades.Organizations have grown across the nation and even internationally. The 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment reported that gang involvement increased significantly in the Northeast and Southeast regions of America and is becoming more sophisticated and adaptable utilizing new and advanced technology to facilitate criminal behavior across the world.

The Connection

There are a number of similarities between gangs and terroristic groups. Both groups are comprised of mostly males, violence is practiced, both groups attempt to redress wrongs and both engage in collective behaviors. In addition, both groups engage in weapons trafficking often times solely to provide weaponry for their endeavors.

While there are a number of commonalties, the differences between the two groups can be considerable. Gang behavior tends to be financially motivated whereas terrorist groups are largely motivated by an ideological belief and are political. Gangs also tend to engage in a diverse type of crimes. Another difference is that terrorist groups maintain a cross-national connectedness that is not commonly present in gang behavior. Terrorists also employ technology to access data and organize criminal acts.

While gang affiliation and immersion doesn't necessarily result in terroristic involvement, there is a potential for such behaviors to evolve into terrorism. Smith & Rush (2011) argue that gangs in the United States cultivate connections to terrorist groups and threaten the homeland security in the United States. Sullivan & Bunker (2007) proposed that some gangs evolve through three generations that can lead to terrorism. The generations are: (1) Turf gangs, (2) Market-oriented drug gangs, and (3) Mix of political and mercenary elements. Sullivan also outlined three factors that determined the potential evolution of the gang towards terroristic behavior: (1) Politicization, (2) Internalization, and (3) Sophistication. Politicization denotes the gang’s level of political involvement. This can vary from creating neighborhood laws to bribing police and government officials and adopting political agendas. Internalization refers to the geographic span of the gang. Some gangs are small and local and some are transnational and/or international. Lastly, Sophistication speaks to the nature of gang tactics and strategies, the use of weaponry and technology and the complexity of the organization. The more politicized, internalized and sophisticated the gang the greater risk of future terroristic behavior and involvement.

Once someone becomes a member of a gang, leaving and relinquishing membership can be life threatening. It appears that more effort should be placed into preventing gang involvement. Because people join gains for a variety of reasons, multiple strategies for intervention are needed. The attraction of gang involvement has to be reduced for membership to decline. Community partnerships can possibly offset the attraction to gang affiliation by offering young people access to organizations with a strong, solid image. Such organizations should offer job training and education, include law enforcement, and promote positive opportunities. Given the research presented, deterring gang associations may play a role in decreasing future terroristic attacks.


Dunker, R. & Sullivan, J. (2007) Third Generation Gang Studies: An Introduction

Decker, S. & Pyrooz, D. (2011) Gangs, Terrorism and Radicalization. Journal of Strategic Security 4: 151-166

Howell, J & Moore, J (2010) History of Street Gangs in the United States. National Gang Center Bulletin. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention

Simon, T, Ritte, M, Mahendra R. (2011) Changing Course Preventing Gang Membership.

Smith, C. Rush, J. (2011) Distinguishing gangs, Organized Crime and Terrorism. Southern Criminal Justice Association

About the Author

Dr. Dawn Crosson Dr. Dawn Crosson, Psy.D

While there are a variety of places that offer psychological services, many of these services use a "one size fit all " approach to treatment. Dr. Dawn Crosson provides quality services that are tailored to meet the need of the individual.

Dr. Dawn Crosson has a clinical practice in Harrisburg, PA

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