– Executive Summary –

One way to avoid terrorist attacks is to prevent individuals from joining terrorist organizations in the first place. Yet, despite law enforcement’s best efforts, people continue to join terrorist organizations at alarming rates. A new deterrence strategy is sorely needed.

In 2015, the U.S. government convened for a three-day summit at the White House to develop new strategies to counter violent extremism (CVE). Their goal was to coordinate local, state and federal stakeholders in countering behaviors that “radicalize, recruit and incite violence.”[1] But this was not the federal government’s first attempt at a national CVE strategy. In 2011, the federal government released a CVE national strategy called “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.” It was a three-pronged approach that included “community engagement, better training and counter-narratives” to extremist ideologies.[2] The authors recognized that communities at a local level were best suited to combat violent extremism because they were better positioned to identify program clients.[3] Therefore, the battle against violent extremism was to take a community-oriented approach.

If the U.S. government is looking for community-oriented solutions to deter criminal groups, they need look no further than the study of domestic street gangs. Gangs have been a focus of concern for many public officials, community service practitioners and researchers for decades. As such, the study has seen its share of theories that attempt to explain gang membership and offending and delinquent behavior. New CVE program developers may be able to use these same theories to help explain terrorists’ behaviors.

Any prevention or intervention program’s success starts with targeting appropriate program clients—in this case, terrorists or people on the path to radicalization. Any program that engages likely non-joiners can be very costly and highly ineffective.[4] This type of program, therefore, requires some form of early identification and specific targeting of the risk factors that make one more likely to join a group. This research has honed in on four common characteristics that make individuals more likely to join both terrorist and street-gang organizations: identity deprivation, poverty, progression and peer pressure. It should be noted that most people who possess one or more of these risk factors still do not join street gangs or terrorist organizations.[5] In fact, only a small percentage of people actually join these types of groups.[6] Regardless, before a program can be developed, the at-risk population must be identified; while possessing one of these risk factors may be a good start, possessing multiple factors is much more predicative.[7]


To resolve personal crises, people will often search for identity through a process called self-categorization, in which they seek out groups that have ideologies or characteristics with which they identify.[8] A person seeking a new or different identity may then adopt an identity put forth by a group. Once a member of the group, the individual then assumes the ideology and behavior patterns the other group members. Once people become members of groups, however, they begin to compare themselves to the other members and hope they are faring better.[9] If not, they may look to leave their group.

This group dynamic presents CVE program developers with an opportunity to prevent individuals from joining targeted groups, and possibly the opportunity to persuade them to leave; CVE program developers should focus on strategies that confer diminished self-esteem to terrorist groups.


Poverty does not necessarily refer to economic status. It can refer to respect, love, education, or any number of perceived wealths. Professor Fathali Moghaddam writes, “Relative deprivation…is how individuals feel about their situation relative to particular others, how deprived they feel subjectively and in a comparative sense, rather than how they are doing according to objective criteria.”[10] People may join terrorist organizations or street gangs if doing so helps secure resources, obtain desires, or accomplish goals

It is not possible to satisfy everyone’s needs. However, CVE program developers need to fashion socially acceptable ways for people to reasonably obtain those things street gangs and terrorist organizations provide for their members.


Terrorists are not born; they are made.[11] This progression can happed rapidly or occur over the course of several years. Failed neo-liberal policies, poor governance, political instability and economic recessions have caused Middle Eastern youths to become stuck in a period of limbo for protracted periods of time.[12] Some have joined terrorist organizations and/or street gangs because the group provided the only opportunity for the individual to exit this stalled state and progress.[13]

Moghaddam used the metaphor of a staircase to describe this progression. He explains that the majority of people begin on the ground floor, where they feel frustrated and deprived of material resources.[14] In an effort to better their situation, they ascend to the next floor. Each successive floor comes with more exposure to radicalized ideology and behavior. Eventually, a small few wind up on the top floor, which leads to an act of terror.[15]

CVE program developers need to create strategies that engage this youthful population. Job training, placement and entrepreneurship education may help stymie this state of limbo. Coordination and input from the private businesses in communities is integral to a successful strategy.


Peer influence is the most consistent predicator of group membership.[16] An individual’s behavior is overwhelmingly influenced by personal connections.[17] If one family member is part of a group, for example, there is a greater probability that other family members will join.[18] A study by the National Gang Crime Research Center found most gang members already had family members in the gang prior to joining.[19] Peer pressure exerted by an individual or group encourages others to change their attitudes, values or behavior to conform to the groups’.[20]Once a terrorist and/or street gang member is identified, program managers should look to their peer networks for other potential program clients.


The material covered in this research illustrates the similarities between street gang members and terrorists. If nothing else, it reminds us that these people still belong to groups. Prevention and intervention programs will fare better if they are fashioned from what we know about group processes.

There is a long academic history in the study of gangs. That accumulated knowledge coupled with the experiences in successful and failed intervention programs should be a solid starting point for upcoming CVE strategies. There is no need to develop brand new models and spend years of research before developing a program. Past gang research should suffice. Gang theories, models and programs may not explicitly tell us what to do but, rather may guide us away from what not to do.


Ali, Mohamed. “The Link Between Unemployment and Terrorism.” Speech. September 2013. http://www.ted.com/talks/mohamed_ali_the_link_between_ unemployment_and_terrorism/transcript?language=en#t-19391.

Brooking, Keren, Ben Gardiner, and Sarah Calvert. Backround of Students in Alternative Education: Interviews with a Selected 2008 Cohort. Research, New Zealand: Ministry of Education, 2009.

Cairns, Ed. “Intergroup Conflict in Northern Ireland.” In Social Identity and Intergroup Relations. Edited by Henri Tajfel, 277–297. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Durrheim, Kevin. “Introduction to Social Identity Posted by Henri Tajfel.” YouTube video. 11:35. Posted by “Henri Tajfel.” February 28, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tf5_gWa3h2g.

faqs.org. “Peer Pressure.” Accessed July 13, 2015. http://www.faqs.org/health/topics/ 76/Peer-pressure.html.

Forsyth, Donelson R. Group Dynamics, 5th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2010.

Honwana, Alcinda. “‘Waithood’: Youth Transitions and Social Change.” In Development and Equity. Edited by Dick Foeken, Leo de Haan, and Linda Johnson, 28–40. Social Sciences E-Books Online, 2014). doi 10.1163/9789004269729_004.

Klein, Malcolm W, and Cheryl L Maxson. Street Gang: Patterns and Policies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Moghaddam, Fathali. “The Staircase to Terrorism: A Psychological Exploration.” American Psychologist 60, no. 2 (2005): 161–169.

National Gang Center. “Frequently Asked Questions About Gangs.” http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/about/FAQ#q2.

Office of the Press Secretary. “The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.” The White House. February 18, 2015. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/18/fact-sheet-white-house-summit-countering-violent-extremism.

Speckhard, Anne. Talking to Terrorists. McLean, VA: Advances Press, 2012.

Temple-Raston, Dina. “White House Unveils Counter-Extremism Plan.” NPR. August 3, 2011. http://www.npr.org/2011/08/04/138955790/white-house-unveils-counter-extremism-plan.

Vogt, Amanda. “Gangs: A Cry For Family?” Chicago Tribune. December 24, 1996. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1996-12-24/features/9612240065_1_gang-members-kids-probation-officer.

White House. Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States. Washington, DC: White House, 2011.

[1] Office of the Press Secretary, “The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism,” The White House, February 18, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/18/fact-sheet-white-house-summit-countering-violent-extremism.

[2] Dina Temple-Raston, “White House Unveils Counter-Extremism Plan,” NPR, August 3, 2011, http://www.npr.org/2011/08/04/138955790/white-house-unveils-counter-extremism-plan.

[3] White House, Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States (Washington, DC: White House, 2011).

[4] Malcom W. Klein and Cheryl L. Maxson, Street Gang: Patterns and Policies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[5] Ibid., 105

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Frequently Asked Questions about Gangs,” National Gang Center, accessed January 25, 2015, http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/about/FAQ#q2.

[8] Kevin Durrheim, “Introduction to Social Identity Posted by Henri Tajfel,” YouTube video, 11:35, posted by Henri Tajfel, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tf5_gWa3h2g (accessed July 18, 2015).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Fathali Moghaddam, “The Staircase to Terrorism: A Psychological Exploration,” American Psychologist 60, no. 2 (2005): 162–163.

[11] Anne C. Speckhard. Talking to Terrorists (McLean, VA: Advances Press, 2012), 15909.

[12] Alcinda Honwana, “‘Waithood’: Youth Transitions and Social Change,” in Development and Equity, eds. Dick Foeken, Leo de Haan, and Linda Johnson, 28–40 (Social Sciences E-Books Online, 2014), doi 10.1163/9789004269729_004.

[13] Mohamed Ali, “The Link between Unemployment and Terrorism,” speech, September 2013, http://www.ted.com/talks/mohamed_ali_the_link_between_unemployment_and_terrorism/transcript?language=en#t-19391 (accessed July 1, 2015).

[14] Moghaddam, “The Staircase to Terrorism,” 163.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Klein and Maxson. Street Gang.

[17] Donelson R. Forsyth, Group Dynamics, 5th Edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2010), 137.

[18] Keren Brooking, Ben Gardiner, and Sarah Calvert, Backround of Students in Alternative Education: Interviews with a Selected 2008 Cohort (Research, New Zealand: Ministry of Education, 2009).

[19] Amanda Vogt, “Gangs: A Cry For Family?” Chicago Tribune. December 24, 1996. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1996-12-24/features/9612240065_1_gang-members-kids-probation-officer (accessed July 15, 2015).

[20] “Peer Pressure,” faqs.org, accessed July 13, 2015, http://www.faqs.org/health/topics/76/Peer-pressure.html.

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