America’s Unacknowledged Insurgency: Addressing Street Gangs as Threats to National Security
Darren E. Tromblay
The United States faces an insurgency within its borders. While it contends with the Islamic State and al-Qaida – which seek to export violence to the homeland – an insurgency, intent on challenging the sovereignty of the U.S. government is already here. Furthermore, that same insurgency provides a conduit by which state and non-state threats can gain access to the United States. Finally, the insurgency threatens U.S. interests abroad by facilitating the operations of threat actors beyond the country’s borders. This multi-front assault against the United States is the work of street gangs – organized nationally and locally – which do nothing less than challenge U.S. sovereignty (regardless of whether they can spell “sovereignty”).
Recent years have been bad ones, in terms of public relations, for law enforcement. In 2014, the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which provided surplus equipment to police departments surfaced in the news, as part of a trend of broader criticism connected with developments in Ferguson, Missouri. However, it seems that if anything, law enforcement agencies lack resources rather than draw from overstocked armories. In 2015, James Comey, Director of the FBI acknowledged an increase in homicides among young men of color, at crime scenes characterized by the presence of multiple firearms. This succession of stories certainly raises questions. Is there too much law enforcement; too little? Is a law enforcement approach even the most efficient route to disruption and disruption of what?
This is a fraught state of affairs. Law enforcement and citizens are blaming each other for a culture of violence but there is no consensus emerging about the actors who perpetrate and perpetuate this culture. However, it is safe to assess that a not-insignificant factor is the presence of street gangs – both at the local and national levels. They are responsible for approximately 50 percent of the crime in the jurisdictions where they are present. The “broken windows” theory of policing – made popular by James Q. Wilson - holds that small crimes beget larger ones. Therefore, the violence perpetuated by gang members is probably indirectly responsible for an even greater degree of criminality in jurisdictions where they are present.
Gangs as Insurgent Entities
The most significant characteristic of gangs is their desire and activities to carve out a space over which they can effectively exert governance. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s definition, a gang “seeks to exercise control over a particular location or region, or it may simply defend its perceived interests against rivals.” Furthermore a gang seeks to control the power, reputation, or economic resources that will keep it viable. Gangs seek to effect the above objective through the use of violence or intimidation. Even though they do not think in terms of political theory, they nonetheless exhibit behavior that is a bid for control of a specific domain. Their despotism is similar to the behavior of the Islamic State - neither group need quote Kenneth Waltz to make its intentions clear.
The gang threat is not monolithic but it is aggregated problem, rather than simply a matter of stand-alone groups. According to the National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC), gangs may be neighborhood or national level in nature. However, national level gangs that seek to expand their territories have absorbed neighborhood gangs. Additionally, they have recruited members out of neighborhood gangs. As of 2013, the Bloods were the most successful at recruiting neighborhood gangs, accounting for 25 percent of the neighborhood gangs absorbed by national gangs. In addition to actual absorption by national gangs, neighborhood gangs may become tied to these larger organizations, as they fill a role of transporting and distributing narcotics within specific areas. Beyond consumption and collaboration, neighborhood gangs consciously emulate the culture of national gangs. The problem of emulation is paralleled in the field of terrorism, where self-radicalized individuals may adopt and act on the ideology propagated by a group which they know only be reputation.
Similar to al-Qaida and the Islamic State, gangs have expanded their footprint into the virtual domain, to claim even more territory. They use the internet to recruit – thereby expanding their numbers – and intimidate – eroding competing groups’ willingness to present a challenge. Gangs also use social networking sites in furtherance of aggrandizement. The impact of such activity is widespread. According to the NGIC, “[y]outh in other regions and countries are influenced by what they see online and may be encouraged to connect with or emulate a gang, facilitating the global spread of gang culture.” Instigation of criminal activities abroad potentially threatens stability in areas of interest to the United States.
Furthermore, gangs, rather than being random assemblages of criminals have developed unique cultures and hierarchies which perpetuate their existence even when individual members are incarcerated or killed. Various groups have established identities stable enough that the NGIC has been able to establish a Gang Encyclopedia; Signs, Symbols, and Tattoos Database; and a Gang Terms Dictionary. Gangs, according to the Department of Justice definition, may exhibit a number of behaviors which contribute to continuity. These include: an identifiable structure, meetings on a recurring basis, and rules for joining and operating within the gang.
One of the cultural cornerstones of gang identity is music and associated culture. As of 2011, multiple law enforcement agencies attributed the increase in gang membership in their region to the gangster rap culture. Furthermore “gangster rap gangs” are often composed of juveniles, providing an early entry into street gang culture. These groups are being used to launder drug money.
Challenging U.S. Federal, State, and Local Authorities
Gangs have, periodically, adopted the language of protest as a means to justify self-serving hooliganism. In the spring of 2015, in the midst of riots in Baltimore, MD, the Crips and Bloods announced that they were teaming up to oppose the police. (According to the Baltimore police department, the Crips, Bloods, and the Black Guerilla Family also entered into a partnership to “take out” police officers.
The challenge to legitimate authorities is embedded in gangs’ hierarchies. Gang members who have been arrested and incarcerated may return to the gangs of which they were previously members. Incarceration seems to provide a perversely status-enhancing imprimatur and these members assume more active leadership roles. The abject defiance of authority – distilled to its essence of defeat by the judicial system being seen as successes by gangs – goes beyond criminality into the insurgents’ realm of “us” versus “them”.
Gangs emulate state and non-state actors in their intelligence gathering activities directed at authorities. They use new technology – such as GPS and smartphones – to identify law enforcement operations. On occasion known and suspected gang members have pursued employment with law enforcement and corrections agencies and with the courts. Not surprisingly, the objectives of such efforts included obtaining sensitive information that would help gangs to impede investigations. This is a sometimes-overlooked aspect of the “insider threat” so often discussed in the context of the formal intelligence community. In addition to collection on law enforcement activities, gangs have taken measures to disrupt operations. For instance, they have used social media to expose informants.
In addition to seeking information, gangs have attempted to infiltrate law enforcement and military entities to obtain armaments. Access to training and to weapons have been among the reasons for gang attempts to penetrate law enforcement agencies. Similar objectives have been the reason for gang members’ endeavors to infiltrate the armed services. Military investigative agencies have identified individuals with gang membership or affiliation in every branch of the armed services. The Bloods, Crips, Folk Nation, Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings, MS-13, and Surenos all have military-trained members. The Black P Stones, Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, DMI, Latin Kings, and Surenos are all gangs which have encouraged members who do not yet have criminal records to enlist in the military to obtain weapons expertise, combat training, or access to sensitive information. Such efforts to compromise the integrity of U.S. national security represent another aspect of the insider threat and even a fifth column seeking to arm itself with U.S. materiel, in order to attack the U.S. interests.
Disruptive Political Forces
While existing gangs may hide behind a protest-du-jour, as in Baltimore, for an excuse to engage in mayhem, others have, historically, evolved into more pronounced political movements. However, these movements, rather than entering the political mainstream, have continued to rely on coercion, continuing to challenge U.S. sovereignty.
The Young Lords was one example of a street gang that evolved into a more overtly politically motivated organization. This group had originated in the 1950s, as a Chicago street gang, but by the late 1960s had become a militant movement – a la Puerto Rican revolutionary nationalists - with a presence in New York, Newark, and Philadelphia. One of the group’s most infamous acts was barricading itself in New York’s Lincoln Hospital, in 1970, demanding changes in service.
Black separatist extremist (BSE) groups – such as the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party - have counted current and former gang members among their ranks. Historically, the New York chapter of the Black Panthers married violence to a supposed political agenda. As described by journalist Bryan Burroughs, the group incorporated a number of former gang members. BSEs may view these individuals as conduits who can engage a broader pool as street gang members as militant resources. For instance, in 2013, Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam, suggested that Chicago gang members train as soldiers to help protect Nation of Islam property and assets.
Foreign Agents and Dupes
Gangs’ role in the trafficking and distribution of narcotics often makes them an extension of a network that extends well-beyond the borders of the United States. As of 2013, U.S. street gangs most often collaborated with the Los Zetas and Sinaloa cartels. Mexican transnational criminal organizations competing for a share of the U.S. market have turned gangs into proxies. For instance, increased violence in Chicago, IL as of 2013 was attributed to street gangs which were being supplied by different Mexican organizations and competing for local clientele. Street gangs are also known to collaborate with groups further afield, including African, Asian, Caribbean, Eurasian, Italian and Russian crime syndicates.
Cartels pursue U.S. weaponry which requires facilitators in the United States. The Sinaloa, :a Familia, and Los Zetas cartels have been the intended recipients of weapons from the United States including: a Stinger missile; anti-tank grenade launchers; grenades; machine guns and AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles  The efforts of gangs to acquire weapons from law enforcement and the military, may allow them to be of use to the cartels. The possibility that gangs might put these infiltrations to work on behalf of the cartels is made even more plausible by the competition occurring among gangs to prove their worth and serve as U.S. proxies for cartels. Proving their ability to facilitate the movement of weapons from the United States into Mexico would be one way in which gangs could demonstrate their usefulness.
Gangs may also be dupes of foreign governments seeking to instigate dissension and violence within the United States. Cuba is one state that has demonstrated a willingness to use criminality to create a nuisance for the United States. In the early 1980s it sponsored narcotics trafficking in New York, New Jersey, and Florida, with the intention of creating social unrest. In a previous incident, the Young Lords invited members of a street gang to travel to Cuba. Considering Cuba’s totalitarian government, it is unlikely that the Young Lords could have extended such an invitation without Havana’s concurrence.
Another instance of a gang working in conjunction with a hostile state nearly resulted in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil during the mid-1980s. In 1985, a group called Al Rukn – which was founded by a Chicago gang member - brokered a deal with the Libyan government to carry out attacks on U.S. police stations, government facilities, military bases, and passenger airplanes in exchange for USD 2.5 million and asylum in Tripoli. By the time the group was disrupted by the FBI, it had already chosen the specific flight to target. Several decades later a member of an al-Qaida related conspiracy cited the leader of this group as an inspiration.
Possible Proxies of Terrorist Groups
Participants in street gangs have matriculated into terrorist activities. The most well-known of these was Jose Padilla, a former Latin Kings gang member in Chicago, IL was accused of plotting to detonate a “dirty bomb” on behalf of Al-Qaeda. Furthermore, a number of U.S.-based individuals of Somali origin were members of street gangs prior to choosing to fight alongside Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
There are indications of an increasing fusion between gangs and terrorist groups. The Islamic State has consciously attempted to use rap as a means to attract new recruits. Furthermore, according to Brian Michael Jenkins, of the Rand Corporation, there are “[I]ndications that violent jihad is entering popular culture, that it may transcend its religious and ideological precepts and become the expression of a broader rejection of today’s society and resistance to the existing establishment.” Terrorist organizations may actually learn from gangs, which have, after all, perpetrated an ongoing campaign of violence in the West. For instance, the Islamic State guide, How to Survive in the West, advises adherents to use secret compartments in vehicles for hiding weapons, similar to tactics employed by gangs.
The problem that U.S. street gangs pose is a direct challenge to U.S. sovereignty. The use of violence and direct challenge to legitimate authorities is, by itself, a threat to security no different than the wanton violence of a group such as the Islamic State. Furthermore, gangs have joined forces with a multitude of state and non-state actors that seek to exploit U.S. populations for profit, or harm its interests for ideological and political reasons. The expansion and convergence of gang culture on one side the militant culture of the Islamic State and al-Qaida on the other will continue to produce new varieties of threats.
Street gangs are one piece in a number of larger-scale national security concerns. They should be treated as such. When U.S. intelligence – including the law enforcement components which act on intelligence information – develops its assessments of threats which pertain directly to the homeland, it should take account of the entities within the United States which could act as proxies for external actors (e.g. Al Rukn for Libya). Even those gangs which have not been directly linked to threat originating abroad should be targeted for disruption as domestic insurgencies. The focus of intelligence should be in establishing that these groups are engaged in a challenge to U.S. sovereignty, in their attempts to carve out areas where the rule of law does not apply. Serious consideration should be afforded to whether associated cultural accouterments such as “gangster rap” constitute sedition.
The Department of Defense, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and state and local law enforcement have all been subject to harsh public criticism in recent years. However, the volatile nature of many neighborhoods is more appropriately laid at the feet of street gangs, which degrade the quality of life for neighborhood residents and provoke law enforcement activity that can then be distorted by unscrupulous demagogues. By targeting street gangs as nothing less than domestic insurgencies the United States not only eliminates a an immediate criminal threat but also strikes a blow against external threat actors who could use these groups as proxies.
 ”Congress Isn’t Ending the Pentagon-to-Police Weapons Program Anytime Soon” National Journal. August 14, 2014
 James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Washington, D.C., December 09, 2015
 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment: Emerging Trends. National Gang Intelligence Center. P.15
 National Gang Intelligence Center. 2013. P.7
 Ibid. P. 7, 10, 11.
 Ibid. P.28
 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment: Emerging Trends. National Gang Intelligence Center. P.42
 National Gang Intelligence Center.. P.1
 Ibid. P.11
 Ibid. P.18
 Bloods and Crips Team up to Protest Baltimore Cops’ The Daily Beast, 27 April 2015
 Credible Threat to Law Enforcement. Baltimore Police Department. Office of the Police Commissioner. Media Relations Section. 27 April 2015
 National Gang Intelligence Center. 2013. P.16
 Ibid. P.28, 29, 31
 Ibid. P.28, 29, 30, 31
 Colin Moynihan, “Police Files on Radicals Are at Center of a Lawsuit” The New York Times 11 August 2014
 Bryan Burroughs, Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, New York, Penguin Press, 2015. P.449
 National Gang Intelligence Center. 2013. P.48
 Burroughs, P.181
 National Gang Intelligence Center. 2013. P.48
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 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment: Emerging Trends. National Gang Intelligence Center. P.40
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 Prison Radicalization: Are Terrorist Cells Forming in U.S. Cell Blocks? Testimony of Frank J. Ciluffo. Director, Homeland Security Policy Institute. The George Washington University. Before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. September 19, 2006
 Garrett M. Graff. The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror. Little Brown & Company, 2011. P.125-126
 Vanessa Blum, “5 Convicted in Terrorism Trial; Prosecutors Say the Florida Men Sought an Alliance with Al Qaeda to Carry Out Attacks” The Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2009
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 Brian Michael Jenkins. When Jihadis Come Marching Home. The Terrorist Threat Posed by Westerners Returning from Syria and Iraq. Rand Corporation
 Nancy A Youssef. “U.S. Scratches Out ISIS Rapper” Daily Best. 29 October 2015
 Bergen, Peter. “The Impact of ISIS on the Homeland and Refugee Resettlement. Hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs”, November 19, 2015. p.11