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Understanding modern terror and insurgency through the lens of street gangs: ISIS as a case study

Matthew Valasik (Department of Sociology, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA)
Matthew Phillips (Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA)

Journal of Criminological Research, Policy and Practice

ISSN: 2056-3841

Article publication date: 18 September 2017




The purpose of this paper is to use nearly a century’s worth of gang research to inform us about modern terrorist groups, specifically the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).


A case study approach is employed, comparing and contrasting the competing theoretical frameworks of gangs and terrorist organisations to understand group structure, demographics, patterns of behaviour (e.g. territoriality, strategic, and instrumental violence), goals, and membership patterns of ISIS.


The qualitative differences of ISIS make them more comparable to street gangs than other terrorist groups.

Practical implications

ISIS, while being qualitatively different from other terrorist groups, actually has many similarities with street gangs allowing for the adaptation of effective gang prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies. This paper highlights how the expansive literature on street gangs is able to inform practical interventions to directly target ISIS and deradicalise potential recruits. By introducing a gang-terror nexus on the crime-terror continuum, this paper provides a useful perspective on the decentralised but dynamic nature of modern era insurgencies. This paper urges similar case studies of terrorist organisations to determine the extent to which they conform to street gang characteristics.


Terrorist groups are often compared to street gangs, yet it has not been until the last few years that gang researchers (Curry, 2011; Decker and Pyrooz, 2011, 2015a, b) have begun to compare and contrast these two deviant group archetypes. The goal of this paper is to use nearly a hundred years of gang research to better equip scholars and practitioners with a broader understanding of terrorism and insurgency in the era of globalisation by presenting a case study of ISIS using a street gang perspective.



Valasik, M. and Phillips, M. (2017), "Understanding modern terror and insurgency through the lens of street gangs: ISIS as a case study", Journal of Criminological Research, Policy and Practice, Vol. 3 No. 3, pp. 192-207.



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Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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