Why Google has brought an ex-gangster to Dublin


Former neo-Nazis, Colombian Farc guerrillas, Islamist fundamentalists, gang members and Northern Irish paramilitaries meet in Dublin this weekend to work out how to fight extremism

SUSAN CRUZ can name 50 people she cared about who were killed in gang violence in the US. As a member of one of Los Angeles’s most notorious Latino street gangs, Cruz, as a young immigrant from El Salvador, became caught up in a wave of gang-related crime in the 1980s and early 1990s.

“The gang lifestyle is like an addiction. Selling drugs, you can make more in one night than in a month working as a teacher,” says Cruz, who at one point shared a prison cell with one of California’s most notorious heroin dealers. “The gang is present in jail, school and even when a person is deported to their home country. The gang is always there,” says Cruz, who renounced violence in 1996 and has since dedicated her life to steering young people away from gangs.

Cruz is one of 50 former violent extremists who will attend a summit in Dublin on Monday cohosted by Google Ideas, Google’s new think tank, and the US Council on Foreign Relations. Former neo-Nazis, Colombian Farc guerrillas, Islamic fundamentalists, Haitian gang members and Northern Irish paramilitaries will talk about how they got involved in violent activity and how they left it behind.

Survivors of terrorism are also taking part. Carie Lemack, whose mother, Judy Larocque, was killed aboard one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th, 2001, is moderating a session. The 200-plus guest list also includes diplomats, academics, businesspeople and representatives of civil-society organisations, who will all aim to draw a blueprint for countering extremism.

“Radicalisation has become a growing issue since September 11th,” says James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations. “We want to see what common lessons can be learned to tackle violent extremism.”

Cruz, who fled El Salvador’s civil war, says her experience of poverty, exclusion and discrimination in the US led her to join a gang. “I didn’t know how to speak English. I didn’t know the customs in the US and didn’t know how to fit in. We didn’t even fit in with other Latin Americans. We dressed and talked differently. So we banded together for protection and solidarity.”

The gang she belonged to spread quickly in the 1980s, as more than a million people left El Salvador for the US. It is estimated it has 10,000 members in the US.

Cruz says her transition from gangster to antigang activist began when she returned to El Salvador in the mid-1990s and saw how the gang’s drug dealing and violence were hurting people. In response she founded Sin Fronteras, a group dedicated to rehabilitating young gangsters in the US and Central America.

“Fundamentally, the child that joins a gang is the same as a child who joins a militia, or a fundamentalist religious group, and at some level are all victims,” says Cruz. “Most of these kids are lacking something. It could be money, family or some part of their identity. Many feel the need for protection, and gangs are almost tailor-fit to address the needs of these kids.”

Henry Robinson, a former member of the Official IRA, vividly remembers the moment he started on a path towards violence, in the late 1970s. “I was sitting in a petrol station, and a car pulled up with a woman crying. I saw a Catholic family that had been put out of their home in Belfast, and as a young kid I wanted to do something about it,” he says.

The recruitment process began when he was asked to put up propaganda posters and sell newspapers by older men in the organisation. “In Northern Ireland you see a lot of young people arrested with older people. They are indoctrinated,” says Robinson, who at 18 was arrested after kneecapping a member of the Provisional IRA and sentenced to two and half years in jail.

His rejection of violence began in Belfast Prison, after he was beaten up by rival paramilitaries. “I was sitting in the prison hospital, getting my head stitched, and Wimbledon was on the television. The sheer normality of it, people playing tennis and eating strawberries, I think that started my transition,” he says.

Robinson was a founder of Families Against Intimidation and Terror, an organisation set up in 1990 to campaign against paramilitary violence. “We upset a lot of people by holding up a mirror to the Provos and the loyalist groups’ human-rights abuses and showing it was not freedom they offered,” says Robinson, who continues to campaign against violence in Northern Ireland and Britain.

He describes Google Ideas’s decision to cohost the summit as brave given the internet’s role in radicalising young people. “In the last decade we’ve seen how republican websites have held open the door for the dissident groups to get organised in Northern Ireland. I’ve seen YouTube videos showing how to assemble a bomb. Web-hosting firms have to show more responsibility to take this material off the web.”

Google Ideas’s director, Jared Cohen, says the summit will examine how the challenges the internet and mobile technology present in stemming radical causes’ recruitment of young people. But it will also examine the opportunities they provide to tackle that radicalisation, he says. One idea under discussion at the summit is the establishment of a YouTube channel dedicated to countering extremism.

He says Dublin was chosen for the summit because of its location between Asia and America and the symbolism provided by the peace that was built in Northern Ireland.

Glencree Centre for Peace Reconciliation, which worked behind the scenes to build trust in the peace process, has been asked to take part. “People who feel marginalised, come from a lower socio-economic base, feel relatively powerless, are more likely to become extremists,” says Ian White of the centre. “This profile doesn’t explain all extremism, but a lack of opportunities and a lack of constructive engagement in society are important factors.”

Glencree is using some of the techniques it learned in Northern Ireland to help counter extremism in slums in Haiti and in Taliban areas of Afghanistan. “Strategies to divert young people from violence can be as simple as having them join a football team. You need alternatives for them,” says White.

He also emphasises the critical importance of tackling poverty and community engagement. This is a key strategy being used by Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation, a counterextremism think tank. A former activist for the radical Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir party, Nawaz renounced extremism after being imprisoned in Egypt. He is setting up a grass-roots organisation in Pakistan to provides social assistance along with a democratic ideology. “This is a model used by jihadist groups like Hamas. It builds hospitals and schools but also sells its ideology. I’m their worst nightmare. I’m turning everything on its head, and they can’t stand it.”