Gang Expert: Gang Research Sheds Light on Terrorists

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Scott H. Decker, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, gave a March 28, 2016 talk at the  Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University on what the study of gangs can teach about terrorist organizations. 

Decker, whose primary research focuses on criminal justice policy, gangs, violence and the offender’s perspective, said both gangs and terrorist organizations are spurred on by many of the same societal factors.

“Certainly immigration and rapid social change are part of what goes on at the time we get gangs in the 1890s, 1920s, 1960s, 1980s and beyond,” Decker said. “Boston plays a notable role certainly in the first three of these eras.”

For both gangs and terrorist organizations, understanding organizations sheds light on motivation, according to Decker.

“We think understanding how well they are organized is really important for understanding how they are motivated to act at specific times,” Decker said.

Decker said distinguishing between individual action, group action and macro-level processes is crucial to both the study of gangs and terrorist organizations.

“The group process is the most difficult–why does that gang that is sitting there for two weeks get the idea that they are going to get in the car and go shoot out the windows of rival gang members at 9 p.m. on a Friday night,” Decker said. “What’s the spark? What takes it from an inert group to a group that goes into action? That group process is really important. I think it plays into the understanding of crowds and the understanding of political movements.”