Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Homeland Insurgency

New Orleans: The Insurgency at Home
Original Creation Date: September 2005

Gangs, what is the big deal? ….Ask the Big Easy.
Why do people need to concern themselves with gangs anyway? I had that question posed to me less than a month ago when putting together some work for a seminar on gangs. The starkest response is because of the untold number of young people who have died in the undeclared gang war over the past 40 years. “Our children are dying.” is a quote I often use. While the tragedy of school shootings has placed the number of victims at around 100 killed or injured the gang wars across our nation have claimed thousands of lives. Even more sinister implications of gang proliferation have come to the forefront as well since the attacks on our country since September 11th.

The recruitment of subversive and or deviant groups and individuals into more dangerous organizations has already taken place. People like Jose Padilla; a former Maniac Latin Disciple street gang member was detained and accused of plotting with al Qaeda to detonate a radiological device in a major US city. Jeff Fort founder of the El Rukn street gang which evolved from the Blackstone Ranger street gang was also arrested and convicted of conspiring with terrorist elements out of Libya in the 1980’s. A plot that is said to have included the use of shoulder fired missiles to shoot down American airplanes and the planned assassination of US political leaders. Now there are reports of members of the transnational gang, Mara Salvatrucha, meeting with an al Qaeda operative known as Adnan el-Shukrijumah. Allegedly this meeting was to coordinate logistical support and possible direct involvement of attacks within the United States. The alleged tie between Mara Salvatrucha and al Qaeda has again demonstrated the potential of gang members or other deviant groups to be recruited by terrorists.

New Orleans has illustrated several key things that individuals involved in the intelligence, law enforcement, and security fields need to make note of. So called minor threats can evolve into major ones literally overnight. We are more vulnerable than we care to admit. And our ability to respond to catastrophic events does not seem to be anywhere near what it should be. Has no one responsible for our infrastructure security thought about how utterly easy it would have been for terrorists to blow the levy walls there in New Orleans with minimal effort? With no warning the devastation could have been even worse than now. I can tell you from experience that terrorists are using the internet itself to study our weaknesses. Now they can study CNN as well. Though the tragedy in New Orleans was an act of nature and a failure of preparation it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that terrorists could create similar havoc with minimal effort. And if they did not realize that before the hurricane you can bet that they certainly do now. Let’s just hope that they are not able to implement such an attack now during this crisis somewhere halfway across the US as the National Guard is going to be busy in Louisiana for sometime.

A citizen’s hell and a gangster’s paradise
The horror of the hurricane devastation in New Orleans, and subsequent aftermath has illustrated yet another and even more blatant need for law enforcement and the general public to train and combat gang proliferation. Within 24 hours of the collapse of the infrastructure in New Orleans armed gangs took to the streets and took control of the city. It’s not the first time this has happened. In a Gang Investigator’s conference I attended in 1995, the FBI reported that the Los Angeles riots were primarily carried out by members of the Crips and other street gangs in the area. The ruse of “protesting injustice” was nothing more than a loosely coordinated effort by street gangs to loot stores for money, goods, and guns. For a period of time there in the city police did not dare enter the war zone because the gangs controlled the area. Now it is happening again.

New Orleans fell under the control of local gang members many of which are affiliated with other national gangs. Street gangs, commonly referred to as “a law enforcement and community nuisance”, evolved literally overnight into roving bands of armed guerillas. Shots fired at rescue helicopters, the remnants of the New Orleans Police Department pinned down by gunfire at night, and accounts of shooting, assaults, and gang rapes on little girls illustrate the real threat of gang violence in our society.

I’ve worked with 15 year old kids who have been placed in custody for stealing hand grenades from military storage. I’ve studied the culture long enough to learn about gangs acquiring night vision goggles, top of the line body armor, and other military grade weaponry. The anti-social “cousin” of the modern street gangs, Ideological gangs, also thrive in our society under the radar of the average citizen. While Vice Lords and Bloods are classified as Street Gangs, Ideological Gangs / Groups also pose potential threats to national security. Groups such as Aryan Nations, Skinheads, and other Neo-Nazis have been the most successful in acquiring weapons of mass destruction on US soil. Several reports exist detailing the arrests of anti-government and Neo Nazi groups acquiring such weapons as botulinum toxin and nerve gas of varying potencies. Other reports don’t even make the national news but are just as startling. In December of 2003 in the tiny town of McKenzie Tennessee a man was arrested during a FBI sting for attempting to purchase components for VX and Sarin gas. A plot which included setting off dispersal units in a major US city with the primary target suspected to be Washington DC. Neo-Nazis and their associates such as Timothy McVeigh do not function quite the same or consist of the same individuals as groups like the Crips or Gangster Disciples but they often share more antisocial and structural dynamics than they differ on.

A power outage away from anarchy
As our technology advances it appears we are like a house of cards. The higher we build it the more intricate and delicate it becomes. In a very real sense it appears that we are all only a power outage away from chaos. That is a bit of an exaggeration but the point is valid nonetheless. If a natural disaster that has been supposedly planned for can paralyze half of the country, drain fuel supplies, and turn a city of half a million into a third world shooting gallery then what has been happening with all of the billions of tax dollars set aside for homeland security? Both parties of our political structure have failed and in a twist of irony Baghdad has become a safer place to be than in one of our own cities. With gangs and related deviant subcultures the group dynamic already lays the groundwork for lawlessness even in the absence of such a crisis. When the lights go out we go to who we know. We group together with those who we share common beliefs, history, and behaviors. When the lights went out in New Orleans families tried to get to one another, rescue workers and police officers huddled together to do their jobs and the street gangs came together to do what they do best in a lawless environment.

The Crips began as a small group of individuals in Los Angeles over 30 years ago. Now they have chapters globally. It is no stretch of the imagination to think that there was a time in New Orleans when the first street gang formed and they were likely dismissed as just a nuisance. Like global terrorism, ignoring gangs in inner city and suburban areas, can only provide a fertile environment for future troubles. The inner city gangs were ignored and handled ineptly and then they moved into the suburban areas. Gangs whose origins lie in the inner city now have representatives in middle and upper class society. Gangs were ignored and grew as a result. Islamic terrorism was ignored and festered into a global war as a result. In a strange twist ignoring the growth of gang subculture and religious extremism may one day create the environment where the two link together to create the ultimate enemy from within.

Enemy of my enemy
Fidel Castro has offered assistance to the people of New Orleans in the absence of immediate help from the government. Why with some of his own people not having adequate medical care would he offer help to his “enemy?” Because he knows that now there are literally thousands of people who will see the inaction of the government as a sign of indifference to their need. But if someone offers them what their own government has been slow in doing then that someone has an audience ready to listen. Gangs form because someone does not meet the needs of angry, hurt, and disenfranchised youth. Adult gang leaders seek out vulnerable young people, meet their immediate needs when others have not then recruit them into the gang lifestyle. Just as gangs offer a sense of love or family to these youth, the potential for others to come and offer help to disenfranchised refugees from New Orleans will be high. No one was there when these youth needed someone to listen. Not enough people responded when the gangs began to spread across the country. The broken youth of our society were ignored for too long. When no one from the best of society would come to their aid the worst of society did and earned loyalty in colors and in blood. Now we look upon the poor and suffering of New Orleans we have to know that someone will meet their needs but who will it be and what will it cost us all in the long term? We need to meet the needs of an angry and hurting populace or someone else far worse than Fidel Castro or any gang will meet those needs. Even as the gangs turned homegrown insurgents burn and loot New Orleans… Al Qaeda is taking notes.