Small Wars Journal

America’s Unacknowledged Insurgency: Addressing Street Gangs as Threats to National Security

Sat, 02/06/2016 - 4:13pm

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.”[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] (According to the Baltimore police department, the Crips, Bloods, and the Black Guerilla Family also entered into a partnership to “take out” police officers.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14]

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.[15] 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.[16] One of the group’s most infamous acts was barricading itself in New York’s Lincoln Hospital, in 1970, demanding changes in service.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21]

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 [22] 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.[23] 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.[24] In a previous incident, the Young Lords invited members of a street gang to travel to Cuba.[25] 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.[26] By the time the group was disrupted by the FBI, it had already chosen the specific flight to target.[27]  Several decades later a member of an al-Qaida related conspiracy cited the leader of this group as an inspiration.[28]

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.[29] 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.[30]

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.[31] 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.”[32] 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.[33]


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.

End Notes

[1] ”Congress Isn’t Ending the Pentagon-to-Police Weapons Program Anytime Soon” National Journal. August 14, 2014

[2] James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Washington, D.C., December 09, 2015

[3] 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment: Emerging Trends. National Gang Intelligence Center. P.15

[4] National Gang Intelligence Center. 2013. P.7

[5] Ibid. P. 7, 10, 11.

[6] Ibid. P.28

[7] 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment: Emerging Trends. National Gang Intelligence Center. P.42

[8] National Gang Intelligence Center.. P.1

[9] Ibid. P.11

[10] Ibid. P.18

[11] Bloods and Crips Team up to Protest Baltimore Cops’ The Daily Beast, 27 April 2015

[12] Credible Threat to Law Enforcement. Baltimore Police Department. Office of the Police Commissioner. Media Relations Section. 27 April 2015

[13] National Gang Intelligence Center. 2013. P.16

[14] Ibid. P.28, 29, 31

[15] Ibid. P.28, 29, 30, 31

[16] Colin Moynihan, “Police Files on Radicals Are at Center of a Lawsuit” The New York Times 11 August 2014

[17] 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

[18] National Gang Intelligence Center. 2013. P.48

[19] Burroughs, P.181

[20] National Gang Intelligence Center. 2013. P.48

[21] National Gang Intelligence Center. 2013. P. 21, 24

[22] Summary of Major U.S. Export Enforcement, Economic Espionage, Trade Secret and Embargo-Related Criminal Case (2014) USDOJ) P.3-4; Summary of Major U.S. Export Enforcement, Economic Espionage, Trade Secret and Embargo-Related Criminal Case (2014) USDOJ) P.38;

[23] 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment: Emerging Trends. National Gang Intelligence Center. P.40

[24] Selwyn Raab. A Defector Tells of Drug Dealing by Cuba Agents. The New York Times, 4 April 1983

[25] Extent of Subversion in ‘The New Left’. Testimony of Marjorie King and Mike Soto. Hearings before the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary. United States Senate. Ninety First Congress. Second Session. Part 3. March 31. 1970. At 223

[26] 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

[27] Garrett M. Graff. The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror.  Little Brown & Company, 2011. P.125-126

[28] 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

[29] Dan Eggen. Padilla Is Indicted on Terrorism Charges; No Mention Made of ‘Dirty Bomb’. The Washington Post. November 23, 2005

[30] Brian Michael Jenkins. When Jihadis Come Marching Home. The Terrorist Threat Posed by Westerners Returning from Syria and Iraq. Rand Corporation

[31] Nancy A Youssef. “U.S. Scratches Out ISIS Rapper” Daily Best. 29 October 2015

[32] Jenkins

[33] 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


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Darren E. Tromblay has served the U.S. Intelligence Community, as an Intelligence Analyst, for more than a decade. He is the author of The U.S. Domestic Intelligence Enterprise: History, Development, and Operations (Taylor & Francis, 2015) and co-author of Securing U.S. Innovation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). Mr. Tromblay has been published by Lawfare, the Hill, Small Wars Journal, and Intelligence and National Security. He holds an MA from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, an MS from the National Intelligence University, and a BA from the University of California. Mr. Tromblay can be reached at This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book on the impact of foreign influence operations against U.S. policymaking, which will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2018. The views expressed in this essay are entirely his own and do not represent those of any U.S. government or other entity.


In the military we do not "nation build" we liberate. Nation building is the job of the DOS. Unfortunately we have been handcuffed in having to coexist with them on the battle field. This has hampered us in being in it to win it.


Wed, 02/17/2016 - 11:00am

In reply to by jsheehan


What I was trying to say don't sell yourself short. LE has got it more right than the Green Machine - and IMHO by a considerable margin.

The core of the problem is the level of lethality both incoming and going downrange and how these exchanges distort the military response in COIN. If a BCT (4500 men) suffers 20 KIA (0.44%) during a six month period the good Colonel will consider his BCT got off lightly. If the NYPD (40,000 sworn officers) suffered half that death-rate (0.025%) in 6 months of duty there would be a national outcry.

For each of the KIA the BCT would have conduct a heart-wrenching ramp ceremony, attended by the O-6 and the casualty’s company with little or no fanfare. The NYPD would have a funeral cortege numbering tens of thousands of officers from all over the country and the center of NY would be sealed off for the day.

Both ceremonies are appropriate, honorable and are embraced with the greatest respect by everyone. As indicated by the huge funereal effort the pain of the police is just as strong and the urge to punish the perpetrators just as intense as the military. However the LE response could not be more different, and dare I say, much more likely to alleviate further deaths and misery on all sides. IMO where the military go wrong is the impoverished assumptions they embrace when they attempt to OODA the belligerents who killed their comrades.

It is assumed by the military that the much more lethal actors (compared to the NYPD experience) who inflicted their pain are motivated by a completely different mindset that killed the policeman and as such the military's counter requires a completely different response to what the NYPD would bring down on the suspects and their immediate environment/neighborhood. In my experience the motivational tool-set of the ass-hole who killed the soldier/marine is very similar to asshole who killed the police officer and as such the response should employ similar Ways, Means, and Ends.

The military cite no end of Jeffersonian and spiritual motivational reasons lurking within the mindset of their opponent to explain the more lethal nature of the Green Machine’s reaction. It is my contention that these ‘lofty’ factors are a very distant second and in fact the same societal and individual elements that the NYPD deal with 24/7 are what drives an insurgent and the insurgency.

And as Sun Tzu suggests not knowing your enemy rarely ends well.

One could reasonably argue it's best to err on the side of caution but let's flip that to an imaginary day after the NYPD’s funeral parade. Officers are called to respond to ‘shots fired’ in the 41st Precinct – where it so happens the latest police death occurred. Imagine the NYPD roll out 50 strong in MRAPs and gun trucks and head into the borough. Various air-assets are on station and a pair of attack helicopters are directly overhead.

You somehow avoid side-swiping dozens of cars, upending street-vendor stalls, hitting pedestrians and manage to sneak it. You pull up and an armed suspect is cornered in an 8 floor apartment building. You dismount and one of your team gets picked off and the gunman has some of your dismounts pinned down and men are bleeding out. You pull back, and because the building opposite are too high and the streets too narrow the targeted building blind-spots the Apache’s trajectory of fire, you decide to import JDAM. Boom. The asshole is dead, the wounded are shipped off to hospital and everyone high-fives and goes back to the station.

Very few in the neighborhood would argue the dead drug-dealer/ loan-shark / car-thief whatever gunman was an asshole and deserved all he got. However the fate of the other folks who didn’t/couldn’t evacuate the building, the 50 odd destroyed dwellings and the severance of gas, water and power to another 10 thousand people - not so much love there.

If you maintained this kind of response to ‘shot’s fired’ in the 41st precinct for 6 months you wouldn’t be able to drive to work unless you were in an armored vehicle and even a response to an old lady’s cat trapped up a tree would entail running a gauntlet of homemade fertilizer-bombs and incoming small- arms fire. Furthermore this wouldn’t kick-off near the hood, your Response Unit would wear the shit after moving a stone’s throw from the station perimeter.

If someone tried to explain to the police officers at my imaginary 41st Precinct that the escalation of widespread death and destruction over the previous 6 months was a consequence of a violation of Jeffersonian righteousness and/or a large number of people's spiritual beliefs that particular individual would be condemned as stark raving mad.

If on the other hand the same person alluded to the infiltration of heavily armed drug-cartel goons, money-launders, gang-bangers, pay-back avengers and the nefarious influence of this influx , you would find few disagreements.

Certainly there would be violent actors who were determined to kill you for a grievance pertaining to a lack of legitimate governance and/or divine inspiration but it is my experience they are a rare breed. I would hazard a guess that the numbers of such inclined folk are similar to the number of violent psychopaths, schizophrenics or the criminally insane a NY police officer may be forced to confront in a 30 year career. I would guess these numbers are thankfully very small.

In other words if a police officer approached every day and every person as if a rare and dangerous behavioral condition ruled over the citizenry of his precinct you would end up with an Operational Environment that would look similar to the what our COIN approach has created in Iraq and AF.

I would argue the root of the our COIN failure is a mistaken understanding of what motivates the insurgents and what drives the insurgencies we have faced over the past 15 years. And thus it is my contention the approach by LE to violent criminals, not just in the US but in every law-abiding country, has much to offer if we hope to correct our COIN failures.



Tue, 02/16/2016 - 5:35pm

In reply to by RantCorp

Maybe I got it wrong, but I wasn't aware of successful law enforcement counter insurgency efforts. We certainly haven't exercised that level of expertise on the gang problem. I would agree that in many areas cops have a significant expertise in tactics and operations, and are very adept at operating in a non-linear environment,but clearing out a corner without any coordinated follow up just opens that corner for the next group. I think the author's thesis is worth considering, and any historical lessons that relate, even failures, have value. Not an argument, just my opinion.


Tue, 02/16/2016 - 12:43pm


IMHO that 's where you're completely wrong. The military have very little to teach LE when it comes to executing successful COIN.

Having spent more years than I care to remember surrounded by Fruitcake Jihadi I have learned in spades it is officers who have the experience combating criminality who should be taking the lead when it comes to political violence.

Perhaps not at the strategic level but certainly at the tactical and operational level LE is light years ahead.

The biggest problem is neither party can bring themselves to believe it.



Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:03am

Thoughtful article. I don't think many (me included, until now) looked at street gangs and other criminal organizations as insurgents, since they're not looking to replace governments (and provide all the associated services). But certainly they're challenging existing political control, to modify government behavior in an effort to accommodate a parasitic relationship. Definitely something to add to my class reading list.


Mon, 02/15/2016 - 4:43pm

Fantastic article but will go largley unnoticed by the powers that be because it doesn't fit thier globalist open borders agenda. These groups also try to affect elections but again this goes unreported most of the time. This is the true number one threat facing what is left of America.


Mon, 02/15/2016 - 1:22pm

Mr. Tromblay,
Great article, we in US Law Enforcement could benefit greatly from lessons learned about COIN operations throughout history. Unfortunately we face many of the same obstacles the military has run up against in their nation building efforts that coincide with counter-insurgency warfare. Elected officials are rarely interested in long term, low profile strategies.