A wealth of criminology research about criminal gangs is proving to be of little use in understanding the behavior of homegrown violent extremists, according to a new study from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).
“It was long hoped that what works against gangs could also help build community resilience to the emergence of homegrown violent extremists,” the study said.
“But recent research suggests that gang members and domestic extremists have too few traits in common for gang programs to translate.”
Only 5.6 percent of extremists had any history of gang involvement.
Domestic extremists are older than the average gang member, much more likely to be married, have college experience, and be adept with social media. They were less likely to be from backgrounds showing poverty.
In one of the biggest differences, extremists were 90 percent male, while gang members were one-third female.
“Domestic terrorists more closely approximated the overall racial and ethnic composition of the United States,” said the NIJ study, titled “Gangs Vs. Extremists: Solutions for Gangs May Not Work Against Extremists.”
In contrast, “gang members more closely reflected the composition of millennials. They were more likely to be Black or Hispanic.”
Another crucial difference was that domestic terrorists’ perceived reward was “emotional,” while criminal gangs were motivated by “material rewards.”
The extremists were “more frequently exposed to threats to their cultural or social identity” and their strains were caused by “cultural disillusionment and socially based loss of significance.”
In contrast, gang members were fueled by economic strains and rarely felt any threat to their cultural identity.
Yet another difference was how the two groups kept in contact with their members.
“Nearly exclusive to extremist groups was the use of message boards, forums, or other forms of media, a fact that may relate to the political nature of extremism,” said the study authors.
While “pathways into gangs were largely local,” said the study. “Gang recruitment is often the product of neighborhood-based ties and friendships.”
Research into the traits of criminal gangs has directed the focus of community-focused anti-gang programs, such as youth intervention.
But the findings of the study appear to suggest that new programs and tactics must be developed.
“A finding of a low level of overlap, in terms of both population overlap between gang members and extremists (relatively few individuals were both) and shared traits, offered little support for adapting anti-gang policies and programs to the threat of domestic extremism,” said the study.
The study can be read in full here.