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On Gangsters and ISIS Militants: Contemporary Manifestations of Marginalization and Anomie

Robert Alvarez wrote “On Gangsters and ISIS Militants: Contemporary Manifestations of Marginalization and Anomie” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship. The research essay was first published in Shifting Paradigms (Humanity in Action Press 2016). The complete book is available for purchase on Amazon.

In March 2014, a YouTube video surfaced from the heart of the bloody Civil War in Syria. The video featured two young men self-identified as Los Angeles (LA) gang members. They were each brandishing AK-47s and firing off rounds from around a brick wall as they looked menacingly into the camera:

“In Middle East, homie, in Syria, still gangbanging, not giving a fuck, homie […] We still got love for all the homies all the sureños. All you vatos… Tell the homies in the Middle-East, homie, still gangbanging homie, putting that shit down for the Big Sur-13 gang. It’s Syria homie, we’re in Syria homie. Still g’d up [….] Fuck them putos.” (1)

To many viewers, the contortion of fingers into gang signs and proud verbal proclamations of neighborhood gang identification seemed a juxtaposed novelty. The brutal Syrian Civil War and America’s gangs seemed a macabre contrast of identity, politics, and violence. As I looked on, I heard a familiar vernacular, reminiscent of my own experiences in Southern California and El Salvador with Chicano and Latino gangs. I saw gang signs and body language indicative of a specific space and counter-culture.

As Syria continued to spiral into ever greater chaos and the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) asserted a territorial claim over a large swathe of Syria, this video stuck with me. Though it was later shown that the young LA gangbangers were fighting for the Assad regime, it still caused me to look at extremism in a new light.

Was it a coincidence that these young men were able to so easily slide from the streets of LA into the sectarian and political maelstrom of Syria? Or were there structural and ideological similarities between extremist movements and gangs that explain why certain groups of people are drawn to them or targeted for recruitment? As the world began to learn more about ISIS, its recruitment tactics, and the droves of westerners leaving to fight with them, the images from the video haunted me. Through research and conversations with experts in Germany and the Netherlands, analogous patterns and modes of operation became apparent.

As a young Latino in Southern California, I grew up around LA gang culture. I was encircled by it and, as a youth, enticed by it. Its allure was powerful, especially for many young men of color, who saw gang members as the pinnacle of masculinity, pride, and respect. There was a brotherhood, and those who comprised the ranks of the largest gangs were both feared and respected. This is one of the reasons that gang ideology and culture has spread so rapidly from its birthplace in the streets of LA to nearly every country in Latin America and beyond.

Since that time, I have spent over a decade working with gang members and at-risk youth in California and El Salvador. One of the things that I’ve learned is that people who have not been around gang culture are generally unaware as to how it functions, of its underlying ideology, and its allure. Gang culture does, in fact, have a very strong ideology. It represents a powerful counter-cultural movement.

The purpose of this article is not to do a comparative analysis of extremist groups (such as ISIS vs. gangs such as MS-13 and 18th Street). Rather, it is to analyze the common characteristics shared by individuals who make up the general recruitment base and membership ranks in these groups (not leadership), ideological similarities, and why certain aspects of ideology appeal to those groups. By highlighting ideological links and some prominent common causes, the goal is to identify and promote the use of community-based strategies that have proven successful in gang diversion and rehabilitation as a means to effectively address radicalization.

Common Causes of Radicalization and the Profile of an ISIS Foreign Recruit and Gang Member

Scott Atran, a highly-regarded anthropologist and expert, has conducted systematic studies across six continents on people who are drawn to violent action for a group and its cause. His work includes ISIS recruits and defectors. In a recent address to the United Nations Security Council, Atran sought to provide an account of his experience and insight into the typical profile of an ISIS recruit and member. Atran stated, “None of the ISIS fighters we interviewed in Iraq had more than primary school education, some had wives and young children. When asked ‘what is Islam?’ they answered ‘my life.’ They knew nothing of the Quran or Hadith, or of the early caliphs Omar and Othman, but had learned of Islam from Al-Qaeda and ISIS propaganda, teaching that Muslims like them were targeted for elimination unless they first eliminated the impure.” (2) Atran further described the average recruit as falling within the “normal distribution” in measures of compassion and ideals. They primarily represented youth in transitional stages, students, immigrants, between jobs, and mates, looking for people with whom they can find purpose in life.

This account speaks volumes about the kind of groups that are most vulnerable to ISIS propaganda. It provides guidance as to which social demographics anti-recruitment efforts should focus on. Context aside, the description also fits the typical profile of gang members in El Salvador and LA. The commonalities are striking and point to common causes for radicalization: socially and/or economically marginalized groups, in search of purpose or to be a part of something larger than themselves, socio-psychological trauma, and limited or non-existent opportunities for achieving the ideals of success as outlined in the hegemonic vision.

Individuals who fall into these groups are more vulnerable to extremist ideology that justifies their anger or frustration and offers a means by which to lash out. A means, which can help to explain aspects of “self-radicalization” in aspiring gang members and extremists alike. This ideology, in gangs and extremist groups, is most effectively communicated through horizontal, peer-to-peer interaction, in person or through online networks, with extremist activists, whom prospective recruits identify with. (3) Through this medium of horizontal communication, there is the cultivation of a collective identity among vulnerable individuals who are experiencing the denial of access to opportunities, which increases the draw to counter-cultural movements that seek to undermine or defy modernism and its material pursuits.

In many ways, gang ideology can be interpreted as a simultaneous rejection and exaggeration of modernist ideology and idealism. This can also be said of ISIS, which differs from Al-Qaeda, whose leaders were often (though not necessarily accurately) portrayed as pious, intellectual, and devoted to a life of austerity. (4) ISIS appeals to recruits through brutality, offers of adventure, sex, and membership in a brotherhood, all of which are tied to power. Large gangs and ISIS reject the dominant ideological power, whether it is seen as “the State” or as North American ideals of materialism and secularism. Yet at the same time, the very means by which they perpetuate themselves are products of the same modernist system that they so vehemently reject (e.g. the internet and multimedia). This occurs through the projection of a hyper-masculine, hierarchical image meant to project power or strength and instill fear while justifying extreme violence as a means of retribution against perceived threats.

Ideological Similarities and their Appeal


Territorialism and having a geographic space gives legitimacy to both ISIS and street gangs and this territoriality serves great importance in their recruitment as well. For ISIS, having sustained borders and territorial control is one of the biggest factors that attracts recruits and affirms their claim to “the Caliphate.” In contrast to today, when ISIS proclaimed itself a caliphate in 2007, it was originally mocked by Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. ISIS was regarded as a “paper state.” During the following years, there was a theological and ideological struggle between Al-Qaeda and ISIS, in which Al-Qaeda sought to discredit ISIS by questioning their possession of an actual territory. It is significant to note how it was only after ISIS made significant territorial gains in Iraq and Syria that its ability to recruit and to receive bay’a (oath of loyalty) from other extremist groups increased. The possession of this territory is what ISIS scholars use to justify their argument for being the caliphate and for establishing Al-Baghdadi as Caliph. Their territory is inextricably linked to their power and influence.

Also in street gangs, this concept of territoriality is prominent. MS-13 and 18th Street gangs have complete territorial control over entire regions of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The territorial control and influence that MS-13 possesses became clear in 2011, when the gang declared a toque de queda (stay order), calling a halt to all public transportation in El Salvador. For three days, legions of public busses across the country refused to carry passengers due to fear of violent retribution. In another striking example of organizational cohesion and territorial control, the gang negotiated a peace treaty, brokered by the Catholic Church, with the federal government. The national murder rate dropped precipitously from 14 murders per day to just under four (since the breakdown of the treaty, the murder rate has surged to 20 per day).

Both ISIS and street gangs claim nearly absolute control of territory. In Salafi jihadism the establishment of the Caliphate carries religious and historical significance, but nevertheless compares greatly with foundational gang ideology of being inextricably intertwined with territory. Spaces of occupation existing in the world give further justification for the occupation of mental spaces in other geographic locations. The occupation of physical space therefore reinforces the occupation of the mind through ideology.

Purists and (Proclaimed) Absolute Loyalty

I will not delve into theological arguments or analyses of Salafi jihadism. I am looking only at the function that absolute loyalty serves within ISIS ideology and, thus, recruitment strategies. Followers of Salafi Jihadism, the ideological foundation of ISIS, believe that they are the “only true Muslims,” hence ISIS’ violence against Shi’a and other Islamic sects. All of their interactions are controlled. This narrow view is explained in a report from the Brookings Institute: “…all Muslims must associate exclusively with fellow ‘true’ Muslims and dissociate from anyone not fitting this narrow definition; failure to rule in accordance with God’s law constitutes unbelief; fighting the Islamic State is tantamount to apostasy; all Shi‘a Muslims are apostates deserving of death; and the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are traitors against Islam, among many other things.” (5) Any violation of this is punishable by death. Similarly, in El Salvador and other gang controlled areas, your physical movement, relationships, and words are closely scrutinized, and any violation of loyalty to the gang, whether this means leaving the gang or being an informant, is punishable by death.

While in El Salvador, I spoke with individuals who worked in conjunction with police officials and would regularly hear about the penalties for trying to exit the gang or become an informant. One of the more grotesque displays of retribution involved a member, who had tried to leave the gang life. He was beheaded and the local clica proceeded to play a soccer game with his severed head. This level of brutality within gang ideology is warranted. A violation of loyalty to the gang is seen as one of the most egregious acts that could be committed. ISIS has witnessed similar acts of violence and brutality through their social media machine. These acts serve a dual purpose. First, to keep members and residents in line through strong handed tactics. Second, to reinforce their power and influence in social media, which is used in recruitment by continuously grabbing headlines.

“Me Against the World” and the World According to ISIS

When you look at the foundations of MS-13 in East LA, they were a group that was formed in order to protect Central American immigrant and refugee groups from abuse at the hands of Mexican-American gangs. Similarly, the concept of defensive Jihad viewed the Middle East as having been invaded by “Western Crusaders” so jihadists were seen as protecting territory and Muslims from invaders. (6) This then evolved into offensive Jihad. Similarly, MS-13 went from a “protection group” to an offensive group in incorporating many of the violent tactics that youths had witnessed during the bloody Civil Wars of Central America in the 70s and 80s. Both types of groups seek to portray the world as a hostile place.

In LA gang culture, you often see tattoos or graffiti displaying “Me Against the World” or “Fuck the World.” The image of the “real gangster” is that of an outsider or outlaw, fighting against the system in every way that he can. This idealist portrayal compares to the ISIS portrayal of the brave jihadist fighting off the North American Crusaders and Western hegemony. The fomentation of hostility, paranoia, aggression, and all things that represent the Other is foundational. The message appeals to those who already feel marginalized, not fully accepted into the society in which they live, or are looking for an outlet for releasing their sense of having suffered injustice. When you look at some of the intellectual pre-cursors to ISIS, you can see the steady development of this hatred and hostility towards “the West.” In a recent lecture, researcher Yaseen Norani described the ideological transformation of the late Sayyid Qutb, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a foundational influence to the line of thought that composes the ideological and theological foundations of ISIS (Salalfi-Jihadism). Sayyid Qutb, after a visit to the United States (US), changed his rhetoric and attitudes, emerging from a poetic interpretation of Islam driven by romanticism towards a hostile perspective towards the US and modernism. Hence the movement “emerged in response to the rise of Western imperialism and the associated decline of Islam in public life, trends it sought to reverse via grassroots Islamic activism.” (7)

Seeking Purpose

“Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalization. They radicalize to find a firm identity in a flattened world: where vertical lines of communication between the generations are replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can span the globe. Young people whose grandparents were Stone Age animists in Sulawesi [in Indonesia], far removed from the Arab world, told me they dream of fighting in Iraq or Palestine in defense of Islam.” (8)   - Scott Atran in a speech to the United Nations Security Council

The desire to have purpose in life and feel that you are living out that purpose is a foundational pursuit in the human experience. If large groups of individuals are unable to find satisfaction, fulfillment, or success in their daily lives, does it come as a shock that many look outside of their socially accepted options?

There is one last aspect of ideology, which is perhaps the most powerful and influential in regard to recruitment. It can explain those points at which gang involvement and ISIS involvement diverge. It can also help to partially explain the heterogeneity of ISIS recruits; occasionally you will find individuals who were “successful” by social standards engaging in “lone wolf” attacks. In many cases these actions can be linked to disillusionment with the context and society in which one exists, whether it be through not quite being accepted, not quite being successful, not quite receiving what one believes they deserve or were promised, or a general feeling of alienation.

Famed sociologist Emile Durkheim called this feeling of alienation and disillusion “Anomie.” A state of anomie is reached when individuals labor upon the hedonic treadmill in pursuit of the fulfillment of all of their wants and desires, without impediment or boundaries. Durkheim asserts, “it is this anomic state that is the cause […] of the incessantly recurrent conflicts, and the multifarious disorders of which the economic world exhibits so sad a spectacle.” (9) The dominant idea of capitalism that the possession of more things will lead to happiness often fails in practice, whereas extrinsic motivations lose their bluster, and the individual seeks out intrinsic motivations. The human desire for fulfillment and to live a life of purpose is nefariously targeted by ISIS and gangs alike. Whether this is intentional or a byproduct of the application of ideology, it nonetheless represents one of the greatest threats to social stability and equilibrium.

Policy Recommendations

The purpose of identifying the similarities in vulnerable groups, causes of radicalization, and ideological influences on recruitment is to establish the fact that similar strategies can be used holistically within the context of the European Union (EU) and the US in dealing with extremists.

The US has decades full of examples of failed and successful gang diversion programs and policies. Due to the demonstrated similarities in ideological appeal between ISIS’ brand of extremism and transnational gangs, it would be wise for the EU to follow the US’ lead in developing and investing in programs to address the root causes of what makes ISIS an attractive proposition for young, socially and economically marginalized people.

In Singapore, such a program has had success with rehabilitating detainees from extremist groups by offering comprehensive vocational, counseling, psychological, and rehabilitation services. Indonesia has a similar program that utilizes ex-terrorists as a central facet of the disengagement process, through providing religious-based mentoring at the community level to offset extremist propaganda through horizontal, peer-to-peer relations.

These programs closely resemble some of the more famous and successful anti-gang program models in the US, most notably “Homeboy Industries” in LA, which offers community-based mentoring, vocational, religious, case management, and psychological services. The foundational ideals of these types of initiatives represent a community-based, individual, and collective empowerment approach to addressing the social, economic, and psychological causes of gang involvement/ radicalization and its perpetuation. Only through a comprehensive approach and recognition of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities that exist within modern western society will the issue of foreign recruitment into ISIS be adequately addressed.

Oppression is not an adequate strategy in reducing foreign recruitment. In El Salvador, oppressive strategies were utilized to combat gangs, the aptly named “Mano Dura” (hard hand) and the subsequent “Super Mano Dura.” These militaristic tactics used on their own citizens led to a surge in violence and attacks against police and military personnel. The US equivalent was the gang injunctions and “crash units” of the 1980s in LA. These outright, militaristic policing tactics only served to exacerbate distrust and further marginalize ethnic minority populations. Strong-arm tactics represent a short-term solution with dangerous long-term implications.

With the number of refugees pouring out of the Middle East and North Africa at the moment, it will be monumentally important for countries of the EU to provide access to basic services and assistance in social and economic integration. Many security hawks emphasize the risks associated with large numbers of refugees, citing the possibility of ISIS agents covertly entering, while hidden within the masses.

The bigger risk is the long-term possibility of these groups of Arabs and Muslims becoming socially and economically marginalized within the countries that are settling them. Stories have already spread of massive shanty towns forming along the edges of London, where refugees from throughout the Middle East and North Africa have settled due to a lack of access to housing, temporary or otherwise. These refugees have limited access to basic services and economic opportunities. In addition, the issue of collective and widespread trauma among youth who are coming from conflict zones can play a large role in their ability to adapt or impact their perspectives on radical ideology. ISIS ideology feeds off of this type of marginalization, because it fits into their rhetoric of the world against the “purist Muslims.” If these groups are continually pressured by xenophobic politics, there is a risk of self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the very defense hawks that warned against ISIS infiltration could actually push young people toward the radical ideology. 


•     •     • 

About the Author 

Robert Alvarez is a Paul D. Coverdell Fellow and Tinker Foundation Fellow at the University of Arizona, where he will be receiving a Master of Public Administration and an MA in Latin American Studies in 2016. He conducted field research in Fortaleza, Brazil, examining the social and economic impacts of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Previously, he served in the Peace Corps in El Salvador where he worked in youth development and gang diversion. He received a BA in Psychology at Northern Arizona University and is originally from Los Angeles, California.


Alvarez, Robert. "On Gangsters and ISIS Militants: Contemporary Manifestations of Marginalization and Anomie" In Shifting Paradigms, edited by Johannes Lukas Gartner, 34-43. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2016.


The author and editor thank Leon Valentin Schettler for his dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


1. “Creeper” and “Wino” in: “Los Angeles gangbangers fighting for Assad in Syria,” Youtube Video, Mar. 3, 2014, accessed Apr. 4, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTogG38OPnI. The word sureños refers to Southern California gang members. 

2. Scott Atran, “The Role of Youth in Countering Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace,” Address to the UN Security Council Ministerial Debate, Paris, Apr. 23, 2015, accessed Apr. 4, 2016, https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=qlbirlSA-dc. 

3. Peter R. Neumann and Brooke Rogers, “Recruitment and Mobilisation for the Islamist Militant Movement in Europe” (London: King’s College London, Dec. 2007), accessed Apr. 4, 2016, http://ec.europa. eu/home-affairs/doc_centre/terrorism/docs/ec_radicalisation_study_on_ mobilisation_tactics_en.pdf. 

4. Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World: Analysis Paper, no. 19, The Brookings Institute (Mar. 2015), accessed Apr. 6, 2016, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2015/03/ideology-of-islamic-state-bunzel/the-ideology-of-the-islamic-state.pdf. 

5. Ibid, 7. 

6. Yaseen Noorani, “Aestheticism and Islamist Ideology: The Case of Sayyid Qutb,” Lecture, Middle Eastern & North African Studies Colloquium Series, Tucson, Sept. 2015. 

7. Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate,” 7.

8. Atran, “The Role of Youth”. 

9. Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology (New York: The Free Press, 1951), 5.

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