Is Your Local Street Gang Part of ISIS?

street gang isis


Editor's Note: ISIS and Local Street Gangs is a series discussing traditional local street gangs and their adopting of the ISIS brand and message as has become an emerging threat in certain communities.  During the series, examples of this activity and solutions for law enforcement officers will be showcased and highlighted. 


Law Enforcement Professionals have to anticipate a host of different trends impacting the jurisdictions they protect and serve. This includes the development of group and gang activity among teens and young adults in the community.  The escalation of gang violence has serious ramification as it causes young adults to be killed and seriously injured as well as spreading a general state of fear among all populations in the community.


Gangs: American Style

When I was a local police officer, I observed many of these gang trends like all veteran street police officers. What begins as feuding neighborhood groups, morphs into larger more complex groupings of several “name brand” gangs. “Gang Wars” intensify between the alliances of several groups under common group banners. This creates a deadly cycle of violence and revenge.  As the major “players” in gangs are killed and imprisoned, the next generation takes the place of the previous.  Many times the larger alliances and groups are replaced by much more neighborhood-centric “named brand” gang “sets."  The cycle of violence remains and now is propelled by what I think of as “the ideology of revenge."  These many years of gang feuds have caused a generational conflict.  

 A strong dynamic among these types of local groups were individual gang members who had family connections in the drug trade. For these individuals, gang membership – as merged with family connections to a supply of multiple ounces of illegal drugs – was a profitable endeavor. The other gang members, in need of a steady flow of money, provided a reliable distribution network for “street level” sales. The infusion of cash provides an outlet for gang members to purchase better weapons, lifestyles and exert stronger influences within the community.



The merger of ISIS ideology with local street gang activity

is moving rapidly to the forefront as an emerging danger.



Gangs: Iraq

As I left local law enforcement and began to work in conflict zones overseas to combat terrorism, I had the opportunity to observe similar gang-type dynamics among groupings of youths in areas facing severe challenges from insurgent and terrorist activity. I was involved in a Western Mosul (Iraq) investigation of a teenage grenade throwing and propaganda group.  A serious threat, US forces faced in Mosul at the time, was youths tossing improvised hand grenades at coalition vehicle and foot patrols. This caused deaths and serious injuries among US troops.   Some of the perpetrators were as young as 13 years of age.  Some of the teenage members of this group were the sons and nephews of ranking leaders of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (which is now ISIS).

After developing more information on this group, it was revealed they were organized by a terrorist in his early 20’s.  This individual and the other teenage members of his group, centered meetings and activity around a video game arcade in West Mosul. This is where they recruited members as well as distributed AQI propaganda such as videos and “night letters” (official terrorist group correspondence left at a location to threaten a person or place).  The terrorist youth “gang” had a tactic of the leader leaving improvised grenades in an abandoned vehicle in which a member of the group could retrieve when it was time to target a US patrol.

During the investigation, we were able to execute four simultaneous arrests and evidence collection operations on locations associated with members of the group including the leader.  The juvenile members of the group when detained, turned on the leader to save the leader’s younger brother who was also arrested during the raids. The younger brother was a hardworking kid in the neighborhood who was not a terrorist and went to work at a bakery every day to support his family.  But incriminating evidence belonging to the older brother was found at the residence the younger brother shared with their mother.  The other group members provided valuable information and vouched for the innocence of the younger brother.  He was promptly released from custody.

There is another example of these terrorist youth groupings from Mosul even more disturbing.  A small “set” of teenagers and young adults modeled themselves as a young branch of AQI. The more influential members described themselves as “emirs”, which is what AQI and other terrorist groups called leaders.  Five of these individuals were out driving one day and lured 5 young women from Mosul University to a house to “hang out."  At the residence, these group members drugged the girls and raped them.  They transported the girls to the banks of the Tigris River.  Two of the girls were beheaded which took more time than the members wanted to spend at the scene.  The three remaining girls were shot execution style and all their bodies were dumped in the river.   

As would be expected, the community was absolutely outraged by this brutal attack on the young women university students.  Even as the “gang” emirs attempted to use tribal and family influence to flee to Syria, they were captured by determined Iraqi security forces. One of the participants in the horrific crime turned cooperating witness. He took Iraq police investigators back to the scene of the murders on the banks of the river and reenacted the scene. During his interview, he was asked if he raped the girls and he stated: “No, not in the front."  As the investigators asked him to elaborate, he advised the group’s tactic was that only persons allowed to rape victims vaginally were “Emirs." Persons like him were only able to rape the victims anally in which he admitted to this act.  A disturbing revelation as this AQI terrorist youth grouping had a pre-established tactic for rape.



The merger of ISIS ideology with local street gang activity

is moving rapidly to the forefront as an emerging danger. 



American Gangs with ISIS Messaging

As I currently research emerging terrorism threats while creating classes to identify and confront threats to communities, the merger of ISIS ideology with local street gang activity is moving rapidly to the forefront as an emerging danger. 

In some western communities, however, a new trend is developing: traditional street gangs that are involved in criminal activity are now also additionally adopting the ISIS brand and message as a part of their identity.  Similar to neighborhood groups that adopt national brands such “Crips," “Bloods," “Folk," “People,” and others. These are not traditional ISIS terrorist groups that plan violence in communities presently, but they are still involved in violent feuds and promote the ISIS messaging.

Bottom line:

  • Street gang activity has negative consequences for all types of global communities.
  • It is important for local officers to become aware and learn about the diversity of global gang trends that may eventually impact the jurisdiction they protect and serve.


In this blog article series, we are going to explore and discuss several aspects of emerging ISIS gang activity, including as a possible future growing threat in US jurisdictions.  Our investigation will look at the crime-terror nexus as a very important component of ISIS and its recruitment of members.  We will also discuss ongoing deadly ISIS street gang activity and its roots in a nation close in proximity and cultural ties to the U.S. Most importantly, we will discuss ways this phenomenon may impact communities in the United States and key trends for law enforcement to consider in identifying and protecting jurisdiction from this emerging trend.


Coming Soon Part 2: Crime-Terror Nexus of ISIS


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