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What London gangs can teach us about London terrorists

memorial to soldier
REUTERS/Toby Melville
A picture of victim Drummer Lee Rigby, of the British Army's 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is displayed with flowers left by mourners outside an army barracks near the scene of his killing in Woolwich, southeast London.

By now we have all watched the video. A young man in a black hat, soaked in blood, the meat cleaver and knife used to butcher a British soldier on a busy London street in hand, tells a gathering crowd:

densley photo
James Densley

We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. … I apologise that women had to witness that, but in our lands our women have to see the same thing. You people will never be safe. Remove your government. They don’t care about you. Do you think David Cameron is going to get caught in the street when we start busting our guns? Do you think politicians are going to die? No it’s going to be the average guy, like you.

The words and alleged actions of this man are disgusting and truly disturbing. But as my eyes set on the rolling news feed, all I could think about was the similar young, black, Muslim, south London men I spent two years interviewing as part of an in-depth study of street gangs in London. Men, like the man with the black hat and the butcher’s knife, with no direct contact with al-Qaida but inspired by radical preachers and by Islamist militant websites. Men, like the man with the black hat and the butcher’s knife, who justified street violence as being of the same order as the violence used by the government.

Let me explain. After the 7 July 2005 terrorist attacks in London, some delinquent and disenfranchised young men converted to Islam and began posing as Islamists to gain street credibility and trade on false perceptions about links to al-Qaida. As one of them explained to me, his “gang” was “more than a gang” — it was a “brotherhood.” He added, “We are Muslims, Allahu Akbar (God is great), we have guidelines … does that scare you?” My answer was no, in part because when questioned, he and his fellow gang members appeared unable, at best unwilling, to explain in detail the basic pillars and tenets of Islam. But he knew that trading on the al-Qaida brand was good for business — it holds real value as a dangerous and ubiquitous entity. Gangs, for protective purposes, routinely borrow and cultivate myths in order to appear more dangerous than they really are.

Like the man with the black hat and the butcher’s knife, my interviewees desired to be feared. And when asked about the violence they perpetrated, they used the same “techniques of neutralization” the man with the black hat and the butcher’s knife used to rationalize his behavior after it occurred and when it was called into question:

You got, alright, if you look at the Iraq war, Afghanistan, all these other wars that the Governments are planning … you’re telling young people ‘don’t commit crime, don’t do this, don’t do that.’ But yet you’re flying off to other countries and fighting for things that does not belong to you, things that have no rights to do with you. And it’s like if you’re doing that then how do you expect the young people to behave?

I did not expect these young Londoners to photograph or film brazen and extravagant acts of crime and violence and post them on YouTube. But they often did, in full knowledge that, in this digital age of perfect remembering, they were attracting police scrutiny and rival predation. Such was the point, they told me, because violence conveys information and reputation. And such explains why the man with the black hat and the butcher’s knife went out of his way to be filmed yesterday. He wanted his words and deeds to reach the widest audience. He wanted to incite more violence. He wanted to scare us.

We cannot let him.

In 2007, following largely unsubstantiated rumors that the “Muslim Boys” gang were forcibly converting young men to fundamentalist Islam at gunpoint with help from corrupt Imams, the mayor of London’s senior adviser on policing described the gang as a criminalized front for terrorist extremists and “as tough to crack as the IRA.” Local police equally overemphasized the threat of the gang in order to tap into a burgeoning counterterrorism budget and bring state resources to eliminate them. Yet while the Muslim Boys were certainly responsible for a number of violent crimes, they neither presented the size or scale of threat that was implied.

Such is the main takeaway from comparing gang members and the man with the black hat and the butcher’s knife. We need a measured, proportionate response. Lest we forget, despite events in Boston and Woolwich in recent weeks, people are more likely to be killed by bees and wasps or falling televisions than by terrorists. And in a decade, terrorist tactics have declined from spectacular, highly organized operations like 9/11 or 7/7 to individuals or pairs of conspirators wielding knifes on the street.

Only by starving terrorists of the oxygen of publicity can we hope to challenge the rationalization of their own pathologies and their reputation of power. After all, as Thomas Hobbes once wrote, “Reputation of power, is Power.”

James Densley is an assistant professor in the School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University. He is the author of "How Gangs Work: An Ethnography of Youth Violence" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Densley holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford.

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