Does the FBI Know What a Gang Sign Is?

The Bureau's report on gang members infiltrating the military illustrates its case with less than damning evidence

FBI gang sign post.jpg
Page 37 of the FBI's National Gang Threat Assessment

The FBI's annual National Gang Threat Assessment, an in-depth study of U.S. criminal gangs and their role in society, makes an unusual claim this year. Gangs, it says, are infiltrating the U.S. military, expanding their territory abroad and using military training in gang warfare at home. It sounds scary, but is it as bad as it sounds?

The first hints that this might not be quite as big of a danger as the FBI might think are the two photos that the reports presents as illustrations of the problem. The first of the two photos, above, appears to show nothing more than an unidentified black soldier making a 'W' sign with his hand. (Or it might be an 'E.') That might have been a gang sign back in 1992 during the East Coast-West Coast rap wars, but ever since Tupac died it's become so common among bourgeois college kids that the trend was documented in a popular 2006 YouTube video called "White Chicks and Gang Signs." The FBI is probably not going to issue a report on criminal gangs infiltrating Kappa Kappa Gamma, of course, but it's worth considering what assumptions informed the decision that the above photo would be appropriate for this report.

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The FBI's other photographic demonstration, shown right, documents some English-language graffiti on an Iraqi truck, probably left by an American servicemember. The Hell's Angels are a real gang, of course, but they're so omnipresent in American pop culture that it seems like a bit of a leap to assume that any reference to them is evidence of a gang presence.

Despite these somewhat cringe-inducing photos, the FBI is a serious organization and it's worth looking more closely at the actual text of this report. Here's how the Bureau introduces its three-page section on gangs in the military:

Gang recruitment of active duty military personnel constitutes a significant criminal threat to the US military. Members of nearly every major street gang, as well as some prison gangs and OMGs, have been reported on both domestic and international military installations, according to NGiC analysis and multiple law enforcement reporting. Through transfers and deployments, military-affiliated gang members expand their culture and operations to new regions nationwide and world-wide, undermining security and law enforcement efforts to combat crime. Gang members with military training pose a unique threat to law enforcement personnel because of their distinctive weapons and combat training skills and their ability to transfer these skills to fellow gang members.

(If the Crips really are moving to expand their domain from South Central Los Angeles to South Central Baghdad, then I wish them lots of luck competing with the Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army for turf.)

Many street gang members join the military to escape the gang lifestyle or as an alternative to incarceration, but often revert back to their gang associations once they encounter other gang members in the military. Other gangs target the US military and defense systems to expand their territory, facilitate criminal activity such as weapons and drug trafficking, or to receive weapons and combat training that they may transfer back to their gang. Incidents of weapons theft and trafficking may have a negative impact on public safety or pose a threat to law enforcement officials.

So what this appears to boil down to is that a significant number of people in the military have some record of association, though not necessarily violent, with a criminal gang. The report has extensive research to back this up, and the trend looks to be across branches. But where it gets a little more difficult to follow is the report's conclusion that this is part of a deliberate and orchestrated effort by the gangs as part of a mission to achieve some larger gang missions. Here's an example of the FBI's logic:

Younger gang members without criminal records are attempting to join the military, as well as concealing tattoos and gang affiliation during the recruitment process, according to NGiC reporting.
Maybe there's something nefarious about this, but it doesn't seem like much more than young people trying to get a decent paying job. If someone hides a tattoos to try and get hired by a prospective employer, that doesn't necessarily seem like an example of criminal infiltration so much as an effort to make a living wage.

Many U.S. media outlets have reported on the FBI's claim, but mostly as an oddity. Only Kremlin-owned news outlet RT, which frequently spins its coverage to portray the U.S. as a violent and dangerous aggressor, seems to take it seriously, reporting that "Bloods and Crips" are "teaming up within divisions of the U.S. Military."

It sounds like what's really happening is that sometimes people who are associated with U.S. gangs are also ending up in the U.S. military, and that shouldn't be surprising. Unemployment is sky high, especially among young, minority, urban, lower-to-middle class men. This demographic can't seem to get a job in today's America, but it is heavily sought by gangs in certain communities and by military recruiters nationwide.

But being in a gang is a terrible job; while military service is incredibly dangerous, it also pays much better and includes good benefits. That young men might go from a street corner to an army recruitment center is not shocking. It's also not evidence of an orchestrated campaign to take over the Green Zone as Crip territory.

Maybe the FBI knows something it couldn't include in this report, but this seems to be an example where the correlation might not necessarily prove the suspected causation. But it is an important reminder of a much bigger problem: the U.S. military is stretched really, really thin. The Bush administration increased its size by 100,000 members by, among other things, lowering recruitment standards. Troops are getting burned out by stop-loss programs, four or five war-zone tours, and a chain of difficult deployments from the chaos of 2005-2007 Iraq to the chaos of Afghanistan today. And it's becoming more difficult to justify retiring with the civilian job market so bad.

Gangs are, as the report convincingly outlines, an enormous threat to Americans; they play a major role in drug trafficking, human trafficking, and violent crime. The report finds a "high level" of gang involvement in 17.1 percent of U.S. homicides -- that's about 2,500 deaths per year. The FBI's effort to keep the U.S. safe from gangs is one of the less glamorous but more important of U.S. law enforcement's many mission. But the supposed gang infiltration of the U.S. military might not be one of the bigger threats facing America today.