Gang Affiliation and Radicalization to Violent Extremism within Somali-American Communities, 5 North American Cities, 2013-2019 Archival Version


How is the process of radicalization understood over time? Do current radicalization to violence differ from earlier waves? How can these understandings be utilized to prevent radicalization to violence and--equally important--understand the reach and impact of programs designed to do so? The overall goal of this project was to pursue the following aims:

Aim 1: To understand how adversity and social bonds relate to changes in openness to violent extremism over time. ; Aim 2: To evaluate experience and perception of, and the effectiveness of, Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) activities. ; Aim 3: To evaluate mechanisms of change in violent extremism.; Aim 4: To understand similarities/ differences in experiences and/or histories of Somali youth who joined Al-Shabab vs. those known to have been killed in Syria, fighting with ISIS and other terrorist groups.; The above aims were accomplished through extending an ongoing longitudinal research program to span 5 years, and expanding a psychological autopsy sample to include Somali youth who have left Minneapolis and been killed fighting with ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria. Data collection for the longitudinal study consisted of conducting an additional wave of structured interviews with Somali youth (between the ages of 21-33); interviews included assessments of structural adversity (resettlement hardships, trauma exposure, and discrimination), social factors (connection to the resettlement community and/or Somali diaspora community, internet use, and level of acculturation) delinquency, gang involvement, civic engagement, and support for legal and illegal (violent) actions in support of political change. The researchers used latent transition analysis (LTA), generalized estimating equation modeling, and linear regression modeling to accomplish Aims 1-3. Aim 4 was accomplished by using a combination of open source data analysis, psychological autopsy and case analysis methodology. The researchers expanded our current in-depth case studies of Somali youth who left Minneapolis to join al-Shabaab (N = 23, males aged 22-30) to include those who joined ISIS or Al-Nusra (N=4, males aged 18-29). Research questions associated with Aim 4 were analyzed using a psychological autopsy method of developing case histories. Case histories were coded for themes and analyzed for convergence or divergence with case histories of youth who joined Al-Shabab. Scholarly products include manuscripts in journals relevant to criminal justice, policy briefs, and interim and final reports. This project builds on partnerships between Boston Children's Hospital, Somali communities, and Georgia State University.

The primary purpose of this project was to understand to what degree radicalization to violent extremism and gang involvement are related. The researchers proposed to empirically assess the degree to which gang affiliation and radicalization to violent extremism among Somali-American youth are related to each other, and which factors are in common or unique in the prediction of these two outcomes. Somali communities in North America offer a unique and important opportunity to explore questions of gang affiliation and radicalization to violent extremism within a discrete population that has had an unusually high base rate of exposure to psychosocial circumstances that can be related to these problems, such as discrimination, the challenge of developing one's social identity while contending with acculturation, and the potential to feel alienated from the larger society. The researchers examined the intersection of violent extremism and gangs in two stages: 1) Pre-radicalization, which examined factors associated with attitudes towards violent activism and gang affiliation among a general ethnic Somali population, and 2) Known radicalization, which examined in-depth case studies of Somali youth who had left Minneapolis to join extremist groups for mention of or reference to gangs. In addition, supplemental funding allowed researchers to explore changes in radicalization over time. Specifically, the researchers sought to understand how changes in psychosocial factors contributed to changes in attitudes towards violent extremism. Finally, researchers sought to examine how Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programming was experienced by and impacted members of a general Somali immigrant population.

This project was built on a decade-long Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) partnership between the PI (Dr. Ellis) and the Somali community; this partnership has led to unprecedented data collection on sensitive issues, including violent extremism and gangs, within a community that is historically very difficult to engage in research. This project drew on both previously collected as well as new datasets. Collectively, the data supporting this project included mixed-methods qualitative and quantitative psychosocial research data as well as open source historical data, stakeholder perceptions, and personal narratives of community members affected by youth leaving Minneapolis to allegedly join extremist organizations overseas. These multiple perspectives, data sources, and methods provided an opportunity for triangulation and cross-validation of themes related to the phenomena of gangs and radicalization to violent extremism within the Somali immigrant community. Multi-Site Somali Youth Longitudinal Study (SYLS)-Quantitative: SYLS participants completed structured survey interviews that included standardized assessments of psychosocial, demographic, behavioral and attitudinal variables including the following constructs: Trauma exposure, mental health, gang affiliation, attitudes towards violent activism, experience of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, social bonds, discrimination, trust in government, and civic engagement. Multi-Site Somali Youth Longitudinal Study (SYLS)-Qualitative in-depth interviews: In-depth qualitative interviews were conducted with a subset of SYLS participants (n = 29) between 2014 and 2015. In-depth interviews focused on changes in life experience over the past year. Interviews were transcribed and coded for recurring themes; these code segments were then clustered and analyzed. Boston Somali Study (BSS) Focus Group Data: BSS' focus group guide was organized around three major topic areas: Somali piracy, Somali-American involvement in terrorism, and Somali-American involvement in gangs. Discussion was prompted by presenting a series of newspaper headlines that addressed each of the three topic areas. Focus groups were transcribed, coded for emerging themes, and these themes clustered and analyzed. Case Studies:Open source data of youth who were alleged to have left Minneapolis to join Al-Shabaab, ISIS, or Al-Nusra were pulled to develop case summaries. Additional interviews with stakeholders and family/friends/acquaintances of these youth were conducted to augment case descriptions and provide a deeper understanding of community context and perceptions. Case summaries and stakeholder interviews were analyzed for themes related to gangs, violent extremism, and their potential intersection.

Key variables for papers are centered around four main themes: LCA class, Openness to violent extremism, Gang involvement, and Negative interactions with the police. These key variables are used to define groups of individuals with similar behaviors and attitudes characterized by several variables: attitude toward gangs, delinquency (minor offenses, property damage, crimes against people), civic engagement, political engagement, and radicalism.

ICPSR data undergo a confidentiality review and are altered when necessary to limit the risk of disclosure. ICPSR also routinely creates ready-to-go data files along with setups in the major statistical software formats as well as standard codebooks to accompany the data. In addition to these procedures, ICPSR performed the following processing steps for this data collection: Performed recodes and/or calculated derived variables.; Checked for undocumented or out-of-range codes..

Presence of Common Scales:

Time 1: War Trauma Screening Scale (WTSS; Layne, Stuvland, Saltzman, Djapo, and Pynoos, 1999), adapted for Somalis (Ellis et al., 2008).; Time 2: My Exposure to Violence (ETV; Selner-O'Hagan, Buka, Kindlon, Raudenbush, and Earls, 1998; Brennan, Molnar, Earls, 2007).; Every Day Discrimination (EDD; Williams, Yu, Jackson, and Anderson, 1997).; Time 2-4: Revised version of Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support (MSPSS; Zimet, Dahlem, Zimet and Farley, 1988).; Civic Engagement Measure (Stepick, Stepick, and Labissiere, 2008).; Added for Time 2: Civic Measurement (Flanagan, Syversten, and Stout, 2007) to assess types and frequency of civic engagement.; Adapted Measure of Identification with the National Group (Roccas, Klar, and Liviatan, 2006);16 items. ; Gang Attitude and Involvement Scale and Neighborhood Gang Scale (Kent and Felkenes, 1998).; Added for Time 2: Subscale from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (Earls, Brooks-Gun, Raudenbush, and Sampson, 2000). ; Self-Reported Delinquency (SRD; Elliott, Huizinga, and Ageton, 1985; Esbensen, Winfree, He, and Taylor, 2001).; Activism and Radicalism Intention Scales (ARIS; Moskalenko and McCauley, 2009).; Countering Violent Extremism Exposure Reaction Scale (CVEERS; Ellis, Miller, and Abdi, in preparation).;

Response Rates: Not available.

Datasets:DS1: Gang Affiliation Data

Somali youth ages 18-30 born outside North America, but who have resided in the United States or Canada for at least one year. Smallest Geographic Unit: City

Participants for the study were recruited from four communities in North America: Boston, MA, Lewiston/Auburn, ME, Portland, ME, Minneapolis, MN, and Toronto, Canada. Additional participants were also recruited from Lewiston, ME but are not included in the current set of analyses in order to maintain more consistency around size of resettlement city (Lewiston, a small city, provided a very different resettlement context). Inclusion criteria was Somali youth between the ages of 18-30 born outside North America but who have resided in the US/Canada for at least one year. The researchers successfully recruited a diverse representation of young Somalis, with a broad range of educational, religious, and acculturative backgrounds.

Funding institution(s): United States Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. National Institute of Justice (NIJ-2014-ZA-BX-0001).

computer-assisted self interview (CASI)

coded on-site observation

face-to-face interview

Metadata Access
Creator Ellis, Heidi
Publisher Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research
Contributor United States Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. National Institute of Justice
Publication Year 2020
Rights Delivery; One or more files in this study are not available for download due to special restrictions; consult the study documentation to learn more on how to obtain the data.
OpenAccess true
Contact Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research
Language English
Resource Type Dataset; observational data, survey data
Discipline Social Sciences