M. is 19 years old and lives at home with his parents and younger sisters, in an impoverished neighborhood of the national capital. He finished high school but, unlike some of his high school friends, has been unable to find a job, and can’t afford to attend College. Bored, with little pocket money, he spends his days listening to rap music, surfing the internet, and hanging around the local shopping area with his friends, who, like him, have no real prospects and no clear sense of what the future might hold. He has no other pastimes and holds no strong beliefs, though he was raised in a conservative, religious household. M is adrift, disenfranchised and aimless.

There is a gang of young men in his local area that look and act different than others their age. They wear the coveted athletic shoes and sports gear that M and his friends can’t afford. They are well known, respected, maybe a little feared in the local community. One of M’s friends knows their leader and wants to join them. M also saw some of the gang’s activities on a social media site that he and his friends all use. M is not sure where they get their money but it is clear to him that they have a bond and sense of belonging that he does not have. When M’s friend suggests that they approach the leader of the gang and ask to join, M agrees.

‘M’ in this story is Mohammed, and he’s not from Washington DC, but from Tunis, Tunisia. The ‘gang’ he sought to join – did join – was not an urban American criminal gang, but Ansar Al Sharia (AAS), an Islamic extremist group that, at a local level, focuses on youth outreach through community service and popular past times like rap music and sports, only later guiding members to religious and political violence.  AAS offers young adherents a sense of belonging that has eluded most of their generation outside of the wealthy elites with access to jobs and education; it also pays a stipend to those who engage in recruiting or other work for the group. At the earliest stages of membership, at the neighborhood level, AAS is not about ideology but about inclusion, purpose, and community involvement.  Members can be recognized through their attire: a mix of traditional Muslim dress and the prized sports shoes and jackets from European soccer and American basketball teams that virtually all young Tunisians idolize. They listen to a mix of Arabic rap music, and are fans of stylized Arabic graffiti and breakdancing. Mohammed, like his peers, found that as a member of the group, he was no longer just existing, but living with greater purpose. “With my brothers I have found out that my life can mean something.” For AAS recruits, finding ‘meaning’ doesn’t only mean religious purpose, but building a peer network based on respect, internal justice, and shared interests much broader than religion.   In AAS, radicalization happens slowly, and the invitation to participate in violence, or leave Tunisia to travel to Syria or Iraq wage jihad, comes much later.

I share the story above to show the many common elements of the experience of a young, disconnected Tunisian with that of an American vulnerable to gang recruitment, and to highlight the possible opportunities for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and Anti-Gang practitioners to learn from each other, compare best practices and lessons learned. Mohammed’s story, like that of countless other urban youth in the United States, the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean, is one of hopelessness. Absent any real path to full citizenship (through the dignity of meaningful employment, but also through participation in public life, influencing government decision making, participating in meaningful social and recreational activities) young people fulfill their basic needs for connection. The details vary depending on geography, but the fundamentals of that need for belonging, whether through gangs or Islamic extremism, have a lot in common. In a lecture about the appeal of gangs to young people that he delivered at the Chatauqua Institution, Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries said: “It’s about a lethal absence of hope. It’s about kids who can’t imagine a future for themselves. It’s about kids who aren’t seeking anything when they join a gang.”

During my time as Director of the Tunisia Transition Initiative, a USAID/Office of Transition Initiatives project designed to assist Tunisians to take part in the transition to democracy, our team commissioned field research as part of the program to build a sense of belonging for at risk youth to moderate Tunisian society.  Respondents reported very similar reasons for getting involved with AAS: belonging, brotherhood and social acceptance.  A young man at an opening of a youth center in urban Tunis told me “We don’t need more soccer fields. I have more things to take up my time now, and maybe I will be able to find a job now, but it doesn’t matter if I am still an outsider and I still don’t belong anywhere … and I just want to be part of something.”

When I joined criminologist and gang expert Scott Decker of Arizona State University to present on inclusion strategies for at-risk youth at the LA Gang Conference in May, a number of experienced anti-gang practitioners expressed understandable skepticism that there could be anything to be learned from outreach strategies to youth at risk of violent extremism, or vice versa. “Gang members,” one respected researcher told me, “are not terrorists.”

And of course, she’s absolutely right, especially if we are talking about the kind of violent terrorists most people think of, most recently in relation to the brutal murder of 39 tourists on a Tunisian beach in June. But what I want re-state here is that the disaffected young Tunisians our program worked with through 2013 and 2014, who were the core recruiting base for Islamic extremists were not yet terrorists either. Our program’s interventions with those at-risk, not those already hardened and ready to perpetrate violence, bore many similarities to USAID’s anti-gang interventions in Latin America, the Caribbean and, as I saw repeatedly over the two days of the Gang Conference, here in the USA.  At the recruiting level, I believe that there is much that anti-gang and anti-extremism practitioners can learn from each other, particularly in the area of fostering inclusivity and connection. The more we look at examples in the United States, and abroad, the more we see that just wanting to be “part of something” is a constant refrain.

Unlike gangs, the literature for public health responses to violent extremism typically refers to assisting victims of large scale violent attacks, after prevention has failed. Yet, as I saw at the Conference, many of the factors that drive young people to extremism, and the approaches that have been devised to address them, bear a striking resemblance to some of those successful public health-oriented anti-gang strategies. This is not an entirely new perspective: the well-regarded ‘Cure Violence’ approach has been employed successfully in domestic and international contexts, in approaches to, for example, sectarian based violence in Iraq, and communities in conflict in Syria. As the Cure Violence website states: “While the characteristics of violence in the Middle East differ, the root causes remain the same – it is a learned behavior that can be unlearned.” Similarly, during the breakout session on an LA Regional Gang Strategy, LAPD Deputy Chief Bill Scott talked about the need to “build bridges” between LA’s at-risk youth and the wider community, to prevent violence. Building bridges is a familiar concept to CVE practitioners. On a community stabilization project that DAI implemented in South East Afghanistan, our team worked with prominent, well-regarded but neutral local citizens to lead small development projects to engage communities in conflict in jointly resolving their differences, undermining the influence of groups like the Taliban that might otherwise step in to solve a dispute. By reinforcing community cohesion, and strengthening the bonds of family and tribe, young Afghans could be brought strongly into the fold of moderation, before extremists could exploit instability to recruit more members. Our program, and others like it, explored new ways of bridging these communities, just as Deputy Chief Scott described, and using influential community members to disrupt the transmission of violence in a given community. Some were successful and some were not, but my point is that we gleaned many valuable lessons in the process that could be shared with practitioners in other countries, with other types of at-risk youth.

To offer another example, our Tunisia project carried out a successful, art-based intervention in a poor, violent neighborhood in Tunis that had much in common with anti-gang approaches explored at the Conference. We partnered with  youth outreach group ‘Tahadi’ to engage 500 young, disenfranchised men in a week-long workshop creating visual and performance art pieces expressing their frustrations with the slow pace of political change in the country, and their aspirations for a more meaningful place in Tunisia’s new democracy. Culminating in a two day festival in the city center, attended by a wide cross section of residents, the event helped build peer groups based on peaceful expression of shared grievances, at the expense of extremist influences. And importantly, it put a siloed group of young people into direct contact with moderate Tunisian society. A local government employee whose office is near the festival told our staff that he had “never imagined” that there were so many talented youth who wanted to be part of ‘his’ community; another festival visitor said that he had a greater appreciation for the plight of local teenagers who were worst affected by violence and poverty in their neighborhoods.  Many of the young participants kept the momentum going by starting their own art-based outreach to their peers in response to the near-constant recruiting efforts by extremists in their neighborhoods.

Leaving aside the geography, we see many parallels between an inclusion strategy like the one Tahadi used in the arts festival, and the art-based interventions carried out by, for example, DC-based ‘Words Beats and Life’ which uses the “transformative power of hip hop” to “reshape the lives we live and the communities we serve.” At the L.A. Conference, I was struck by Fabian Debora’s characterization of his use of art as a resilience building tool for youth. Through the Art Academy, he uses art as a tool to “create space” for vulnerable youth to talk about their experiences, and grow from them rather than following the path of violence. He talked about how he helped instill his own daughter with hope for the future through her creation of art.

Art-based interventions are but one example of approaches that work to create space, foster hope and build the connections that are vital to the spiritual and social development of all young people, regardless of where they are from. The key takeaway is that there are important parallels between anti-gang and CVE work, particularly in the area of youth inclusion and ‘unlearning’ violence that warrant further investigation and collaboration. This is not to say that gangs and violent extremism are exactly the same problem set, or to liken gang members to terrorists. While the aims and practices of the extremist group and the criminal gang are clearly different, the vulnerability to recruitment by any of these illicit groups has many common elements, and both are major public health problems for their respective communities.

Michele Piercey has implemented at-risk youth and CVE programming in the Middle East and Afghanistan for the last ten years. She was the leader of the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives project in Tunisia from 2012 to 2014, which supported Tunisian citizen participation in the democratic transition in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. She is now the leader of DAI’s CVE practice in Bethesda, Maryland.

Space, hope, and connection: helping at-risk youth find a place to belong, wherever they are
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