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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Effective prevention of gang violence could be an unexpected legacy of ISIS

In the UK, many of the forces that spur gang violence are recognisable in the extremists that flocked to Syria, writes Damien McElroy

Extremist Khalid Mohammed Omar Ali was on June 26 found guilty of plotting a knife attack on MPs and police outside the Houses of Parliament. Justin Tallis / AFP
Extremist Khalid Mohammed Omar Ali was on June 26 found guilty of plotting a knife attack on MPs and police outside the Houses of Parliament. Justin Tallis / AFP

In the grips of a crime wave, London is a city on edge.

At the mid-point of 2017, the British capital was on the receiving end of multiple terror attacks by Islamic extremists.

Since crowded public areas were targeted primarily, the attacks sowed uncertainty over personal safety in the city's streets.

Thankfully, there has been some respite from that threat, but 12 months on citizens of the city feel no more secure.

In recent months, scores of mainly young and black men have died in violent stabbing incidents. The finger of blame has been pointed at Drill music videos: self-uploaded gang-based music productions on YouTube, filled with violent lyrics.

But this music, along with another scourge, drug abuse, make for a deadly combination. Increasingly, users are combining illegal and prescription psychotropic substances into strong cocktails of drugs.

The specific state of absorbing materials that make the user paranoid, while listening to music filled with threats of stabbing, heightens substantially the temptation to go out and stab someone.

The link between these two forms of violence – gang-related and extremist – is that the menace essentially comes from the same sources.

There was a myth about Al Qaeda that it was a product of the middle class and tertiary-educated. In fact, it drew from the same well as gangs.

A database run by the French expert, Olivier Roy, showed that 50 per cent of extremists between 1994 and 2016 had criminal records. But the myth, nevertheless, took hold in popular thinking.

Studies of those recruited to ISIS show the latest generation of extremist fighters are, like the assailants caught up in London street crime, from the lowest rungs of the social ladder.

ISIS exploits the social grievances prevalent in streets gangs and crime syndicates.

An illuminating report issued on Thursday by King’s College International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) looked at how the very youngest are cultivated and exploited by ISIS extremists.

Its main theme centres on “hyper-normalised” attitudes to violence and brutality. The structural blueprint used by ISIS is to recruit from infancy through to adulthood. While the study concentrated on the children recruited into ISIS ranks, there were wider lessons on the importance of desensitisation.

ICSR points out that ISIS cultivates anger and violence from the very outset. From mothers raising the so-called ISIS Cubs, the group demands ideological myth telling. Fairy tales are replaced with propaganda. Adult influencers of the Cubs instill in them a warped and simplified piety.

When it comes to young men, an intensely masculine outlook on the world accelerates recruitment.

Studies of the foreign fighters that have joined ISIS underline the group’s appeal to those that are ill-educated and often have had trouble with the law. “[ISIS recruits are] male, young and disadvantaged economically, educationally, and in terms of the labour market,” said a report by the UN Office on Counter-Terrorism.

Jeremy Moss, a British policeman who wrote an earlier ICSR report, said almost half the British recruits to ISIS were from criminal backgrounds.

An Italian analysis of its citizens who travelled to join ISIS found that 88 per cent had low or no educational qualifications. It revealed that 45 per cent had menial or manual jobs, while another 35 per cent were unemployed.

Meanwhile, it found that only 47 per cent regularly attended a mosque before leaving the country to fight in the Middle East, demonstrating how loosely the ISIS recruitment pool was associated with religion.

With so many obvious crossing points, experts are turning to the tools honed in fighting radicalisation as a counter to the gangs behind London’s stabbings wave.

The British Prevent programme that is supposed to counteract the extremists preying on the young or the vulnerable is now seen in many quarters as a model for dealing with the grooming, incitement and violent thrill seeking of gangs.

The key is finding counter narratives to the “death rhymes” that exploit the vulnerable, those with mental health issues and other frustrations.

Shifting the emphasis to “real-world” loyalties within families, social peers and the local community has proved an effective tool to reverse radicalisation. It can also be used as a means of fighting gangs that use the latest music fad as a recruitment tool.

This is remedial because policing is no longer effective. Crime is being sold as a career opportunity in plain sight. The gangs use the shooting of videos as recruitment opportunities on the housing estates of London. All the hallmarks of professional film-making sets are there, with lights, boom mics and food wagons. When set-ups are not challenged by police, locals are drawn on to first step on the ladder of deviancy.

Fighting the incitement was a key lesson from the ISIS trajectory and it now has much a wider role in societies challenged by brutality.