Blue Line

LEWIS – Radicalization

March 25, 2015  By Chris D. Lewis

û Jeremiah Utley as told to Chris Lutes. <1>

Radical Islamic ideology’s draw on some young Canadians brings to mind the lure of gang culture, similarities in the appeal of both anti-social lifestyles and potential preventative measures.

“We are learning that there may be similarities in the factors that lead to gang involvement and violent extremism,” quoted Attorney General Eric Holder in a February 2015 article on studies examining the relationship between gang affiliation and radicalization.

“In both instances, the sense of belonging to a cause, however misguided, may be a lure for disaffected young people and understanding this potential link may help us tackle the problem of violent extremism.” <2>


Public Safety Canada’s National Crime Prevention Centre (NCPC) web site posting describes youth gang risk factors as including:

*Negative influences in the youth’s life;

*Limited attachment to the community;

*Over-reliance on anti-social peers;

*Poor parental supervision;

*Poor educational or employment potential; and

*A need for recognition and belonging. <3>

“Some youth (join gangs to) seek excitement,” according to the BC Ministry of Public Safety. “Others are looking for power, prestige, protection, a chance to make money or a sense of belonging.”

Risk factors include “negative influences in the youth’s life; limited attachment to the community; lack of connection to their cultural identity; and lack of friends, personal support; and sense of belonging.” <4>

In low-income communities rife with poverty and ridden with addictions and abuse û whether they be specific city neighborhoods or isolated First Nation territories û many young people have feelings of “little hope” for education, successful lives and careers and/or prosperity. The gang lifestyle portrayed in music videos, television and motion pictures can be a constant temptation making their lives pale in comparison.

Revered members brandish guns, drive flashy vehicles, carry wads of cash and are seemingly engaged in one exciting adventure after another. Yes, many young people will rise above their current status and the enticement of gang culture and make wonderful lives for themselves, but tragically the majority will not.

Comparatively, when speaking of the threat of radicalization in his speech to the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism on February 19, 2015, US President Barack Obama said:


CNN commentator and former CIA intelligence officer and FBI Senior Intelligence Adviser Philip Mudd said ISIS radicalizes Muslim (“or not”) youth by luring misguided teens through social media. Its technique is to simply offer a “better life” instead of focusing on ideology or violence.

Both are valid observations but given that extremist radicalization it is a fairly recent phenomenon, there has not been a wealth of research conducted on the issue. However, there are lessons to be learned about the recruitment of gang members in western society.

Although there are some recruitment, motivation, communication methods and risk differences between the two distinct cultures, there are also a number of similarities. We need to consider proven strategies to prevent youth from joining gangs while also examining extremist radicalization among young people.

Communities cannot arrest their way out of gang proliferation. Intervention and suppression by law enforcement is not going to thwart youth gang involvement. ‘Prevention’ is paramount to success. Toward this end police have teamed up with school officials and delivered various levels of comprehensive anti-gang strategy programs in some major Canadian and US cities with a proclivity for street gangs. These have successfully reduced youth gang involvement in many cases.

Would such programs work to better educate young people about the dangers and misconceptions about extremist group affiliation?

Many programs aimed at reducing gang-association risk factors have also had positive impacts. Concurrently, systems to help teachers better understand, respond to and prevent youth gang culture behavioural issues are standard fare in a number of urban centres.

Police school resource officers imbedded in schools develop trusting relationships with students and bring in supporting gang experts to help them speak to kids formally and informally. They will always have a positive impact in conjunction with other community-based programs.

Similarly, it is widely recognized that parents play a critical role in preventing young people from joining gangs, so programs have been established in many jurisdictions to help them identify and address such challenges.

Research on risk factors and trends supports community partnerships and assists police, educators, parents and social services to build stronger families. This helps preclude youth gang involvement and is another collaborative tool.

Gang culture involvement prevention strategies also have a role in preventing youth radicalization. The RCMP has developed a Terrorism Prevention Program (TPP), which “takes advantage of the expertise of existing multi-agency networks or ‘hubs’. These groups have the skills and experience to provide supports and services that are tailored for members of their community who may be on the path of radicalization to violence.” <6>

The ‘hub’ concept is often referred to the “Community Mobilization Model.” An early iteration was formulated in the United Kingdom and brought to Canada by the Prince Albert Police Service. Many Canadian police agencies are currently actively using the model or are in the process of integrating it into their ethos.

In its more common application, the model brings community stakeholders and services together (police, social service agencies, educators and more) to discuss problematic and high risk individuals, issues and occurrences. They work together to merge thoughts, ideas and resources into strategies to successfully mitigate risk factors and enhance the overall health and safety of the community.

This model is certainly a valid tool to help address emerging radicalization issues. The RCMP has also established a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, described as “thwarting radical activity by coordinating intervention attempts with the help of local groups.”

Supt. Shirley Cuillierrier describes the program as having two phases. “The first involves training RCMP officers who act as force-multipliers, training their colleagues to recognize people at risk of becoming radicalized.”

The second phase: “When officers find someone heading toward violence on behalf of an ideology, they assemble a ‘community hub’ of local mentors, social workers, psychologists, community groups, relevant preachers and anyone else likely to help…

“It could be as simple as life circumstances in that individual’s life that everything’s falling apart, that there is no support. So you bring in that support and it’s amazing how people will start to look at things differently, and perhaps not see all as doom and gloom.”<7>

The program is similar to the TPP and perhaps not a panacea, but definitely another option for the toolbelt.

Mudd’s point about the parental role in preventing radicalization is excellent. He suggests parents are less likely to proactively report their suspicions to law enforcement if they fear their child may receive a significant prison sentence. He describes his theory as the need for “programs, not prisons.”

{Countering propaganda}

The effective and polished use of propaganda through social media, with well-established key messaging, contributes significantly to the recruitment efforts of extremist groups. In my view, this approach should also be key to our mitigation efforts. Law enforcement must monitor social media closely and develop key messages and media strategies to counter the propaganda, including correcting the misinformation as to what is really happening on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and why.

Many of the influencing societal factors require that collaborative solutions be formulated and delivered by police and other organizations (community mobilization model). They need to jointly identify at-risk youth and implement effective strategies to mitigate risk. When dealing with immense challenges like this, I believe that ‘Communities’ should include all cities, counties and countries. They all need to share ideas, research, lessons-learned, successes and failures. No one stakeholder or jurisdiction should work alone.

Educating youth, parents, educators, youth organizations, community groups and religious groups on trends, behavioural indicators and the consequences of radicalization is essential. They and the public at large, including friends and neighbours, must understand the need to report suspicious behaviours, and be encouraged to do so, for all the right reasons.

Community policing is widely accepted as the default police service delivery methodology across the western world. It is simply a model whereby police build collaborative and trusting relationships with communities and then work together to identify and solve safety and social disorder issues. The level of commitment to this tried and true approach will make or break any anti-gang strategy. The same principle applies to the prevention of radicalization.

As a young cop in the 1970s, I never understood or appreciated ‘prevention.’ I thought it was some airy-fairy, stand-alone program — someone else’s problem. However, I learned that prevention measures û mitigating risks and protecting the public from victimization û are a much more valuable investment of scarce resources than responding to and investigating death and destruction from acts of terrorism, expensive manhunts, criminal trials and jailing perpetrators.

Then there’s the intangible costs. Think of the immeasurable impacts of a terrorist attack û the culture of fear it creates and the resulting and often irreparable harm to the psyche of an innocent society.

The key to all this is that the public must trust law enforcement. A lack of trust will become an insurmountable chink in the armour of prevention, causing communities to fail in their collective efforts. Police services need to continue doing all they can to build and retain that community trust day in and day out on all fronts, including reducing youth radicalization.


1 – The Lure of Gang Life, Jeremiah Utley as told to Chris Lutes,

2 – Johnson, Kevin: DOJ studying links between gangs, violent extremists, USA TODAY,

3 – Youth gang involvement: What are the risk factors?

4 – Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Victim Services & Crime Prevention: Preventing Youth Involvement in Gangs, 2011,

5 – The White House, Office of the Press Secretary: Remarks by the President at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism | February 19, 2015,


7 – Robertson, Dylan: RCMP poised to roll out program to prevent radicalization, December 17, 2014, Ottawa Citizen,

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