Gangs and terrorists


by Gracchi    
1:37 am - November 12th 2007

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John Kerry, the former Presidential Candidate for the Democrats in 2004, was ridiculed when running for the White House because he compared terrorists to criminals. Whatever the merits of the case that some states encourage terrorism, Kerry may have been right to point to the similarities between terrorists and criminals. Both in the fact that it may be impossible to eradicate terrorism finally, and as a way of understanding the structure of terrorist movements.

This can all be illustrated if we turn to a recent Congressional Research Service report on the subject of some Latino Gangs that are increasingly worrying both the US and Central American governments.


The Report (pdf) was released to the public on the 2nd November and it paints a very interesting picture. Firstly we have an argument, presented as coming out of the criminological literature, about first, second and third generational gangs. The key group here is the third generational gang- thinkers at the Pentagon like Max Mainwaring have already begun drawing together arguments concerning these types of gangs (as can be seen in this pdf).

Essentially a third generational gang is a gang whose mission has become more generalised and organised- less of a front for the exploitation of a particular profit making illegal activity- John Sullivan, a criminologist, argues that these gangs are part mercenary part ideological gangs, he sees their emergence both in Latin America and in Iraq at the moment. Returning to Celinda Franco’s report for Congress, she provides evidence that some third generational gangs can become transnational and have bases in two or three countries which communicate and liase with each other. There is an argument, she suggests, that particular Latino gangs in the United States such as MS-13 and M-18 may be becoming such a force, that both are evolving in that direction. MS-13 in particular is taking on features of a third generational gang. These gangs have together around 40,000 members in the states and somewhere near 70-100,000 in central America.

Obviously that presents real dangers to the United States and to central America- both of these gangs are deeply unpleasant organisations. What is interesting though is that for the first time we may have something to compare terrorist networks, like Al Qaeda. to. For terrorism is essentially the product of a third generational transnational gang- exactly like say MS-13 and M-8. Even if we believe that Al-Qaeda has now evolved into a franchise operation- what is interesting is that it must have evolved through this stage of being a transnational violent gang. By looking at examples like MS-13 and M-8 we might get an inkling of how such organisations develop and how they are created.

For example one of the possible origins of MS-13 and M-8 as transnational gangs lies in their dominance of smuggling people across the Mexican and American border. The roots of some of the militant Islamic organisations in Europe could similarly lie in the management of the evasion of immigration controls. One might argue that this is exactly the phenomenon that we are seeing at present in France with the rise of the GSPC. What this analysis also supports is the idea that broad brush explanations could well lead us in the wrong direction- we need to reevaluate the threat of terrorism as John Kerry argued all those years ago as a criminal problem, as well as an ideological one or a geopolitical one.

We tend to be too limited in the way that we think about terrorism. Both far right organisations and third generation gangs may offer us useful models for analysing and understanding the behaviour of Al Qaeda. Ultimately the behaviour that results in terrorism may have the same roots as that which leads people into gang violence and far right violent groups. Ultimately what we find looking at the evidence, is that as any liberal would expect, terrorism is not a Muslim propensity but a human propensity and that understanding it in order to diminish its threat, requires us to look comparatively at other similar organisations around the world instead of starting a war between civilisations.

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About the author
'Gracchi' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He started a blog last year which deals with culture and politics and history, where his interest lies. He is fascinated by all sorts of things including good films and books and undogmatic discussion of ideas. This seems like a good place to do the latter... Also at: Westminister Wisdom
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Terrorism


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Reader comments


The trouble with Gracchi posts is there’s not much left to say in commentary. Good stuff.

If there’s one strand I would add it is that the vast networks used by large numbers of Western corporations to move money around in tax avoidance schemes, typified by banks in the Cayman Islands and Jersey amongst others are also centres for moving “criminal gang” and “terrorist organisation” money around. That’s a large vested interest in the top ranks of our society in not rocking the money-laundering boat too hard, which isn’t helping…

Very interesting.

I’m reminded of an article by Matthew Parris a few months back, suggesting that we should treat terrorists as crimminals. He made the point that this was how the (right-wing) government dealt with the IRA, while the Left were more eager to paint them as freedom fighters. With Islamic terrorism, the opposite is true.

In the aftermath of the failed Picadilly/Glasgow bombings, the emerging concensus from the blog hive-mind was that a good tactic for dealing with terrorists might be to treat them as figures of fun! This would hopefully blunt the appeal of joining such groups. However, this depends on the idea that terrorists are a small and
disparate band. If we are talking about networks of tens of thousands of people, then clearly the approach would have to be different.

That is an interesting Parris point I’d missed that article- thanks for bringing it up.

The problem with terrorists I think is that actually its such an amorphous band of people- all the way from a loon with a home made bomb to a popular uprising- perhaps one of the problems with analysing the issue is that we use this catch all term for both entities.

That was in response to the figure of fun idea- sorry I’m not doing well with comments today- the loon with the bomb is definitely in that category but as you say the gangs I’m talking about above are not in that category.

5. Sergeant Howie

Very interesting article. The only problem I have with it is the GSPC and France part. There has never been a serious suggestion of a link between illegal immigration and the GSPC, especially as a way of financing. There are however Islamist schemes for EMIGRATION (French muslims going for jihad to Iraq).


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