Similarities and differences between gangs and violent extremist groups

Step Together recently looked at the push and pull factors that influence an individual’s interest in using violence for social, political or religious change (also known as Violent Extremism). When examining these drivers, researchers found commonalities with other types of organised groups, such as cults or gangs. This month we take a look at gangs – in particular what drives people to join, and also to leave, these groups and the common links to extremist involvement.

What is a gang?

A gang typically refers to a group of people, usually with a similar interest or a common goal.

A gang can also refer to a group that unites around a common identity, often associated with criminal activity. Some gangs will identify themselves by certain symbols or dress codes, or by geographical location. The word gang is also associated with groups of (largely) young people.

For the purpose of this blog, we are looking broadly at criminal gangs, formed with financial goals in mind.

Similarities between gangs and extremist groups

There are many different factors (although in some rare cases a single event) that trigger extremist or gang involvement. Some of these factors are common to both types of groups, but these commonalities don’t apply in all situations. Some similarities include:

  • Drivers: The most common connection between gangs and extremist groups is the influence of social health drivers, where people might look to these groups for a sense social connection, purpose and belonging. A University of Maryland study also found that joining both types of groups addressed a disconnection in bonds. They also found that disillusionment and strains can also be a driver for both groups, though it’s been found that gang recruitment is more commonly related to economic strains, while extremist groups are more often related to cultural or social disillusionment. As well as social health drivers, people may join a gang or extremist group for personal protection, or because they provide basic needs, such as food or shelter.
  • Recruitment: People often become aware of both types of groups through personal connections, such as a family member or friend who are already part of the group. Common to both groups is “love-bombing” (where affection and attention is used for influence) at the beginning of the recruitment process. There is also the added influence of “echo chambers” online as part of the recruitment process with some terrorist groups (though rarely in isolation), and gangs are also increasingly using social media to coerce, or communicate messaging.
  • Manipulation and control: As well as taking advantage of people’s disenchantment during the recruitment process, group members and leaders will continue to emotionally manipulate individuals so they remain committed to the doctrine of the group. This includes offering rewards to those who undertake criminal acts of violence on behalf of the group, as well as punishments for those who do not participate or agree with the “rules” of the group.
  • Group identity, defined by opposition: Both gangs and extremist groups demand the sacrifice of individual differences for the goals and identity of the group, and rely on the exclusion of others. Gangs do not exist without those outside the gang (or other gangs) in opposition. Likewise, terrorist groups focus on excluding or “otherising” people who do not believe what they do, often seeing their group as superior to those of others races, religions, political views, or ways of life.
  • Risk taking and adventure: Extremist groups often try to appeal to a sense of adventure in the first instance – focusing on exciting life changes (rather than on the violence or isolation involved in fighting in a foreign country or leaving family behind). Gangs likewise offer a vision of a better life, where people can live somewhat outside the law, with the offer of money and power at the core.
  • Use of Violence: Unlike most cults, both gangs and terrorist groups commit violence against others to further their goals. Violence is often conducted in a public context for both types of groups, although the motivation or justification is different.

Differences between gangs and extremist groups

study from the University of Colorado compared data from 1,473 domestic extremists in the United States with data from 705 gang members and found that there were many differences between the groups. They noted that less than 6% of domestic US extremists in the study had gang ties, so it’s unlikely that gang involvement is in any way a pre cursor to extremist involvement.  Among the differences noted in the study was gender, with one third of those in the gang dataset female, while 90% in the terrorist data set were male.

  • Age: Another study also found that gang members are generally younger, which they believe likely contributed to other differences including wealth and employment status.
  • FocusWhile gangs can be involved in politics, for the most part gangs have economic goals rather than focusing on ideology, politics or religion.

Leaving a gang or extremist group

People will choose to leave a group for a range of reasons – and these will differ with each individual. As with joining an extremist group, a range of push and pull factors will come into play. One common factor in leaving gangs and extremist groups is dissatisfaction with the use of violence.

Another commonality is that people will leave when they find the same sense of connection and belonging they found in the group, in society outside of the group. A key difference with gangs is again associated with age. As gang members tend to be younger, there is also a level of maturity and increasing family commitments that may prompt people to leave these groups.

How you can help?

It can be hard to know how to tackle these issues at an individual level, but there are many things we can do to look out for, and support, those we care about:

Advice and support

If you would like further advice and support on how best to help someone you care about, contact our Step Together helpline workers.

Last updated:

18 Oct 2023

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