Dangerous street gangs and violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria both depend on recruiting disaffected youths with the promise of a sense of belonging.
Because of those similarities, community leaders involved in the effort to fight extremism—many of whom gathered in Washington this week for the White House’s summit on the topic—are drawing lessons from the nation’s decades-old fight against gang violence.
After cities failed to arrest their way out of the problem of gang violence, law enforcement agencies such as the Los Angeles Police Department began taking a different approach. By engaging in “community policing” and shifting the focus from making arrests to building relationships, officers across the country learned to fight crime by finding allies in the community.
Paired with community outreach, devoting resources to educational and economic opportunities and, sometimes a little luck, the efforts worked in some communities. In Los Angeles, for example, the total number of homicides in 2012 was nearly half the number of gang homicides the city faced in 1992.
“You can’t declare war on gangs, you can’t declare war on this ideology,” says Michael Downing, the deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department’s counter terrorism and special operations bureau. “But what you can do is develop a balance.”
Los Angeles is one of three cities chosen by the federal government to host pilot programs to counter terrorist groups. The L.A. program, which Downing says is based on prevention, intervention and interdiction, draws inspiration from anti-gang models, as do the other pilot programs.
Outside of law enforcement, though, the stakes are just as high, if not greater. One of the key factors in countering extremism is keeping it from happening in the first place through prevention. “We’ve got a lot of disengaged youth,” says Steve Weine, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago who researches anti-extremism. “They’re just ripe for being picked-off by recruiters.”
A major criticism of the White House summit from members of the Muslim community, who have found themselves at the center of this discussion due to the savvy recruitment techniques of groups such as ISIS, is that these tactics will end up being a new excuse for law enforcement communities to target people based on their faith.
“We’re in very dangerous territory when law enforcement agencies are leading the effort,” says Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project. “I don’t think anyone is arguing to take away community outreach, but it’s got to be community outreach that’s open where the hand of trust isn’t accompanied by the hand behind the back that is taking down intelligence information.”
Weine says one of the best lessons the efforts to counter violent extremism can learn from the efforts to stop gang violence is that it takes a person with credibility and trust within a community to really get through.
“You need to be able to identify people who can reach down deep into pockets where these young people who are more isolated, more susceptible to radicalization and recruitment are,” says Weine.
The Chicago-based anti-gang violence effort Cure Violence, formely known as Ceasefire, is a good model of this approach. But the most important aspect of its efforts is trust. “It’s not just someone who looks like you or shares the same language, or is part of the same church or mosque or synagogue,” says Dr. Gary Slutkin, the founder and Executive Director of Cure Violence. “You can’t fool people into thinking you’re not associated with law enforcement.”
That level of trust is why Cure Violence boasts its success rates in parts of Chicago and cities across the globe, including in parts of Honduras, Iraq, and Kenya. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which presented at the White House Summit,is working in the private-sector agencies to engage former extremists—from gang members to white supremacists—to foster one-on-one interactions between those seeking out terror groups and those who have stepped away from that environment.
Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who also works on the Los Angeles program, has helped develop a model that helps community leaders focus on providing healthy alternatives and outlets for people who may feel cast out or may be at risk of feeling that way, while also working with people who may be on the path to extremism. It too, draws from efforts used to fight gangs, but Al-Marayati notes there are some major differences between those at risk of joining a gang and those in the Muslim community who could be lured into joining an extremist group.
For one, though the threat of ISIS brought the Muslim community to the center of the conversation on extremism, in the United States it’s not the only potential cause of terrorism. Experts note that there is also a threat of militia movements, such as the men behind the Oklahoma City attack, or those based on other ideologies, such as the anti-abortion beliefs of the man behind the Atlanta Olympics bombing.
“You know where gangs are and where they’re going and who they’re recruiting,” said Al-Marayati. “In this case it’s an amorphous issue. It’s tougher to pinpoint when there’s going to be a problem.”