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In North American Somali Communities, A Complex Mix of Factors Influence Gang Involvement, Violent Extremism

NIJ-supported research points to the value of targeting multiple social conditions as a strategy for reducing radicalization.
Date Published
September 8, 2021

It is not uncommon for refugee communities resettling in the United States and Canada to encounter adjustment difficulties. Even for a refugee group, however, Somalis seeking new lives in North America have endured extraordinary travails.

Many Somalis were traumatized by a civil war that has devastated their homeland for decades. Many of today’s Somali-American young adults were raised in resource-deprived refugee camps in Kenya and other countries before settling in poor Somali enclaves in U.S. cities.[1]

Against a backdrop of sustained disadvantage, recent research shows Somali refugee communities in the United States, as well as Canada, live with an elevated exposure to discrimination, social isolation, and other conditions that can put young people at greater risk of gang affiliation or even violent extremism.

Abiding concern within those communities over gang influences on their youth may draw parental concern away from the separate risk of radicalization and inadvertently heighten the appeal of extremism. Also raising the risk of radicalization, as a gang alternative, is the perception among some Somalis in both countries who are involved with gangs that switching to extremism can offer an escape from gang life, as well as a way to prove themselves. Thus, the presence of gangs in those communities may itself contribute to the risk of radicalization.

Those insights on factors informing extremism are key conclusions of a scientific study, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, on gang affiliation and radicalization to violent extremism in select Somali communities in the United States and Canada.

Important policy and practice implications of the study identified by the researchers include:

  • Interventions focused on structural challenges, such as anti-Somali discrimination and marginalization, may help address multiple problems, including both gang involvement and the radicalization process.
  • Violence prevention programming focused on reducing discrimination while fostering social connection and acceptance of diverse communities could be very valuable to Somali young adults.  
  • Participating Somali community members are eager for helpful gang interventions, but tended to be less interested in anti-radicalization programming, such as Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, programming. That approach was generally viewed by community members as less relevant than gang solutions, and CVE elicited mixed reactions.


Somali communities in the United States and Canada are especially vulnerable to conditions that can precipitate both gang involvement and radicalization to extremism, according to the research team’s report. Those conditions include discrimination, impediments to individual development of social identity, and potential alienation from society. Somali communities in North America thus offer a rare opportunity to examine whether and how gang affiliation and the process of radicalization to violent extremism are related to each other.

Understanding that connection was the essential purpose of the study by a hospital/university research team led by principal investigator B. Heidi Ellis, Ph. D. of Boston’s Children Hospital and Harvard Medical School. 

The study team’s report noted that Somali communities have historically proven difficult to engage in research. The team had the advantage, however, of building on a decade-long research partnership between Dr. Ellis and the Somali community, the report noted.

The research team endorsed Positive Youth Development, an approach supporting civic engagement and connection among youth, steering them away from radicalization processes.

That partnership had already yielded unprecedented access to data on sensitive issues, including violent extremism and gangs, the report said.

Study Design

The researchers looked at radicalization to violent extremism and gang affiliation in two phases:

  1. Pre-radicalization: Examining factors associated with attitudes toward violent extremism and gangs within a general ethnic Somali population.
  2. Known radicalization: Examining, for mention of or reference to gangs, case studies of Somali youth who had left Minneapolis allegedly to join extremist groups.

Also examined was how changes in psychosocial factors, such as discrimination, difficulty developing one’s own social identity, and potential alienation from the larger society, influenced changes in attitudes toward violent extremism.

The team evaluated both new and existing research datasets, as well as open source historical data (that is, freely accessible data, such as news accounts), community stakeholder perceptions, and personal narratives of individuals affected by the departure of Somali youth from Minneapolis, allegedly to join extremist groups overseas. 

The study had quantitative and qualitative components. The quantitative elements (that is, the part gathering data that can be measured and quantified) consisted, in part, of survey interviews informing standardized assessments of psychosocial, demographic, behavioral, and attitudinal variables. Participants in that study included 520 Somali community members ages 18-30 at the time of first interview. Participants resided in four U.S. cities and Toronto, Canada. Study staff interviewed them at four points in time over six years. That study component was an element of a larger effort called the Somali Youth Longitudinal Study (the “Longitudinal Study”).

The qualitative elements of the study (that is, elements evaluating the qualities of something, rather than quantifying something) consisted of interviews of a subset of 29 Longitudinal Study participants, as well as a Boston-centered focus group organized around three topics: Somali piracy, Somali-American involvement in terrorism, and Somali-American involvement in gangs.

As a separate study element, open-source data — data freely available from online sources — on youth thought to have left Minneapolis to join extremist groups were developed into case study summaries. Additional interviews of stakeholders and family members, friends and acquaintances of those youth, were conducted to augment case descriptions.

Key Project Findings

The team arrived at several findings related to community perceptions related to violent extremism and gang involvement; relative openness to those activities over time; the role of discrimination as a predictor of violent extremism and gang involvement; participants’ relative support for gangs and violent radicalism; and levels of awareness and attitudes toward Countering Violent Extremism programming.  

Community Perceptions

  • Radicalization to extremism was viewed by participants as a remote and irrelevant issue in the Somali community; participants distanced themselves from the idea of radicalization.
  • Gang involvement was characterized as a major problem in Somali communities, a product of marginalization associated with refugee status.

Openness to Extremism or Gangs

  • Openness to violent extremism steadily declined over the six-year period of study for both females and males.
  • On the other hand, attitudes toward gangs were more uneven. Gang support initially decreased, then increased, and finally remained level over the last study time period. That finding suggests that factors perpetuating gang presence may be an ongoing challenge for Somali communities.

Discrimination as Predictor

  • Models designed to predict antisocial behavior and openness to violent extremism suggested that discrimination was associated with both antisocial behavior and openness to violent extremism. In each case, social bonds moderated the association.
  • The impact of discrimination held true across time and gender.

Division of Support Among Young Adult Somalis for Gangs and Violent Radicalism

  • In the Longitudinal Study, some participants expressed support for gangs without expressing support for violent radicalism.
  • On the other hand, those who expressed support for violent radicalism typically also expressed support for gangs and demonstrated civic engagement.
  • Although male participants tended to show positive transitions away from gangs and away from support for violent extremism, this transition was less likely among those with past traumatic exposure.

Contribution of Gang Concerns to Radicalization

  • Somali community members perceived that the urge to protect youth from gangs contributed to radicalization. Religious involvement was seen as a protective influence on youth, and even isolating involvement of youth at mosques was perceived as less threatening than youth exposure to gangs on the street.
  • Other community members noted that in the view of youth seeking a way out of gangs, religious extremism seemed to offer an opportunity to prove themselves.
  • The presence of gangs thus may have contributed to the risk of radicalization.

“Countering Violent Extremism” Activities

  • Of sample participants in the Longitudinal Study, only 18% reported, at either the third- or fourth-time interval, having participated in CVE activities, and only 25% had heard of CVE activities.
  • Although most of those who were aware of CVE had positive impressions of the program, an important subset felt negatively about CVE activities.

Policy and Practice Implications and Recommendations

The research team recommended, in light of the research findings, policies and programs targeting multiple social and psychological challenges confronting Somali youth, rather than focusing solely on radicalization to violence. Those problems can include gang involvement and delinquency, as well as radicalization to violence. Programs and policies designed to address trauma, marginalization, and discrimination against Somalis are likely to be broadly accepted and generate good outcomes on a range of problems.

Violence prevention programs that are focused both on reducing discrimination and fostering social connections and acceptance of diverse identities could be particularly valuable for Somali youth in North America, the report concluded.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ grant 2014-ZA-BX-0001, awarded to the Children's Hospital Corporation. This article is based on the grantee report “Gang Affiliation and Radicalization to Violent Extremism Within Somali-American Communities,” by Principal Investigator B. Heidi Ellis, Ph.D., Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and Co-Investigators, Scott Decker, Arizona State University; Alisa Miller, Boston Children’s Hospital: Jessica Stern, Boston University; Ineke Marshall, Northeastern University; Alisa Lincoln, Northeastern University; and Saida Abdi, Boston Children’s Hospital.  

Date Published: September 8, 2021