Sveinung Sandberg is a professor from the University of Oslo’s Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law. His three major research projects include examining street culture from a Bourdieusian perspective; the sociology of contemporary cannabis use; and the development of the narrative criminology theoretical framework. His All Souls seminar brought aspects of these projects together to explain how gangsters become jihadists—and why most don’t.

A recording of this talk is available here.

The crime-terror nexus is the overlap between criminal individuals and groups, and terrorist ones. Professor Sandberg explained that this is in part due to both ‘recruiting’ from the same groups of individuals; 68% of jihadi radicals in Norway have previously been involved with the police (suspected or charged of criminal acts). However, as this is such a broad topic, Professor Sandberg narrows his research focus down to what he terms the ‘street-jihadi’ nexus—a link between the street culture of criminals and extremist Islamist groups. An important facet of this is the “new jihadi cool” with jihadist symbols being mixed with street clothing, slang, and rap music. One fighter in Syria described it as “Jihad Joe”, trivialising violence through comparison to the popular children’s action figure G. I. Joe. Terror attacks mean Islam has been misused as a symbol of danger and is therefore, within street subculture, cool. In street culture, rap stars are often at the forefront of new trends—a key example of this is Norwegian rapper Kamel’s song Si Ingenting which primarily revolves around ‘street culture’ but also includes the lyrics ‘to my Muslim friends, Salaam-Alaikum’ (translated from Norwegian). At the other end of this street-jihadi continuum, aspects of street culture are noticeable within photos of jihadis; they wear similar clothing, and even pose in a similar ‘gangster’ style.

This phenomenon can be explained through the idea that marginalised groups will often seek new arenas to survive and succeed—this pushes them further out of ‘mainstream’ (arguably, middle-class) society and towards oppositional cultures and crime. Professor Sandberg developed the method of ‘street ethnography’ often used by researchers of street culture into a more coherent theoretical framework in his book Street Capital. Street capital refers to ‘the knowledge, skills and competence necessary to manage life on the streets’. Closely linked is the Bourdieusian concept of street ‘habitus’: people become committed to the street subculture, and the behaviour of this subculture becomes habitual and increasingly difficult to change, therefore explaining people’s actions within their context, and combining cultural and economic explanations of ‘street culture’. Alongside this, narrative criminology emphasises the importance of language and stories to explanations of ‘deviant behaviour’. These two perspectives provide the theoretical and methodological foundation for Professor Sandberg’s fieldwork on street cultures, particularly drug scenes, in Norway.

During fieldwork in 2005, Professor Sandberg conducted interviews with those involved with ‘street culture’. His initial findings were that religion was not particularly important to the drug dealers interviewed—Islam was a reason to get out of the criminal lifestyle, and increased religious commitment correlated with decreased involvement with crime; one interviewee said “I’m gonna be judged on it. My sins, I mean”, indicating a clear distinction between street culture and Islam. In contrast, there are presently more efforts to recruit individuals with street crime backgrounds to join jihadi groups, with notable examples including Mohammed Emwazi (UK), Arfan Bhatti (Norway), and Abderrazzak ‘Big A’ Benarabe (Denmark). Those with violent backgrounds may become fighters; others utilise criminal connections to raise funds—with drug proceeds going to jihadi groups.

Professor Sandberg’s concept of ‘street capital’ explains the attraction to both street culture and ‘jihadi cool’: individuals attracted to toughness, excitement, and hyper masculinity, who perceive themselves as marginalised, place themselves in opposition to the ‘norm’ and search for a new identity through alternative subcultures, leading them to street culture, and potentially to jihad—‘the most potent oppositional symbol right now’. A move from street culture to jihad may offer religious redemption, a pride in belonging to a controversial group, or a practical opportunity to “reinvest” street capital. Interestingly, some street criminals turned jihadi will continue their street lifestyle, returning to crime after having been jihadis for a while.

There are limitations to this hypothesis: the exact number of street criminals turning to jihad is difficult to measure (though there is evidence that the proportion of jihadis with criminal backgrounds is significant; see works by Basra and Neumann and Gaub and Lisiecka), and the vast majority of street criminals will not become jihadists. Street criminals are not the ‘entrepreneurs’ of jihad—they are not initiating terrorism, so are not the most important actors and many are focused on every-day survival. While there is much fear of jihadi violence in many countries, we should keep in mind that the number of people recruited is relatively low. It is estimated that between 60 and 150 Norwegians have traveled to Syria and Iraq as foreign fighters since 2012 with numbers falling significantly since 2015.

Recently, new fieldwork has been undertaken to examine how street culture has changed over the past ten years. Professor Sandberg found religion to be far more important in street criminals’ narratives. He also found strong and clear resistance to radicalisation in street culture. Most members of street gangs oppose jihadi groups because they are not perceived to have street capital—the code of street fighting justifies combat against an armed opponent of equal or greater strength to you, not mass murder of innocent people—which is seen as cowardly and therefore not in line with the street culture perception of masculinity. Resistance can be very emotional in drug dealers as they face regular anti-Muslim stigma and so feel the need for a strong symbolic boundary. Strong resistance can even justify snitching on, and violence towards, jihadis. Overall, the fieldwork has demonstrated that while there is more effort to recruit among street criminals and despite some glamorisation of jihad within ‘street culture’, the majority of individuals involved with ‘street culture’ are strongly against violent jihadism.

To conclude, the street-jihadi nexus has influenced western street cultures, though largely on a cosmetic level, and attempts have been made to attract new recruits by offering a supposedly ‘moral' and ‘religious’ way out for criminals. Yet, the jihadi link to street culture has ultimately been not very successful as most gang members do not want to be associated with jihadism. It is important to remember both that it is a long way from street culture to jihadism and significant resistance to jihadism is found within street culture. While jihadism has begun to lose momentum, this mechanism could potentially also be applicable for recruitment into other violent extremist groups.

Questions from the audience focused on possible areas to develop this work further—for example, taking a closer look at how factors such as education, race, and ethnicity might influence the street-jihad nexus. Overall, Professor Sandberg provided an interesting new theoretical framework and a fascinating perspective on how the crime-terror nexus operates in a highly specific context.


Post by Toni Brunton-Douglas

Current MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice Student