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Gangs, Terrorism and Disaffected Youth

20 August 2008

Phil Groman: While gang violence and religious extremism attract a broadly different demographic, both phenomena appear to be gaining momentum among young people in Britain. Gang violence took the lives of 26 teenagers last year in London alone. The security services admit a steady increase in those supporting terrorist activities, some as young as 15 and 16.

Much of the analysis into the factors driving involvement in both street gangs and radical Islamist movements focus on broad structural causes such as unemployment, poor community leadership and even the failures of multiculturalism. However, one salient parallel between both movements is the presentation and mobilisation of violence as an attractive solution to disempowered youth.

The government's recent Prevent Strategy, along with a major YouGov report for the Prince's Trust, "The Culture of Youth Communities", recognises that both those joining street gangs and those joining extremist movements are the disillusioned within society. They are the teenagers that feel excluded, and the young Muslims and non-Muslims that are beginning to question their association and allegiance to Britain. Joining a movement provides a sense of purpose and a strong assertion of individual empowerment, whether through gaining "respect" or through the notion that ones action is directed towards a higher purpose.

The recent YouGov report finds that potential gang members are most likely to be teenagers without access to stable family ties. They are the neglected youngsters seeking support and belonging through tribal allegiances. With no recourse to adult role models, violent role models fill the void - and popular culture delivers glorified violence in abundance. Jacqui Smith recently warned that UK gangs are starting to copy their US counterparts. Two months ago a 14 year old boy was stabbed to death because he seemingly wore the "wrong" colours in a neighbourhood in southeast London. This reflects the tactics of famous LA gangs, the Crips and the Bloods; a rivalry that is elaborated by a number of mainstream Hip Hop artists.

Al Qaida has also become a role model, providing both ideology and methodology to ad-hoc groups of disenfranchised Muslim youths. While foreign policy is often quoted in justification of violent acts, behind this grievance lies a much deeper disaffection with wider society. Omar Bakri Mohammed, the former leader of the now proscribed group Al-Muhajiroun, is on record as citing perceptions of discrimination and blocked social mobility as a major driver of recruitment (Wiktorowicz, 2005). The potential recruit begins to question how they fit into British society and the role of their religion. The group then capitalises on this vulnerability by providing an attractive trans-national identity of empowerment constructed along religious lines. As with teenage gangs, the group structure provides valuable support and a sense of belonging without necessarily the recourse to violence.

However, in some cases fierce loyalty causes the individual to abandon personal responsibility to collective tribal attitudes based on geography, ideology and allegiance. In rejecting formal society, both movements offer a parallel social order that awards status through violence and violent rhetoric. This is not a new phenomenon - violence has always had the power to transform the mundane nobody into a heroic warrior. Consider, the former Guantanamo detainee and Al-Qaida training camp recruit, Mourad Benchellali. A young Frenchman from Lyon lured to Afghanistan by, as he puts it, "a misguided and mistimed sense of adventure".

The challenge for society is thus twofold. Firstly, as parents, teachers and community leaders, we must understand and address the grievances that drive young people towards seeking empowerment. And secondly, we must challenge the perception that violence is a viable and successful way to address shared grievances. Both gangs and terrorists regard violence as a viable method to resolve either local territorial disputes or perceived global injustices. As an effective enabler, violence thus becomes both acceptable and appealing. Therefore, as a society - and especially in the media - we must eradicate the constructive image of violence and promote the many non-violent methods that democracies offer citizens to resolve disputes and address grievances.

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