The federal Joint Terrorism Task Force is looking into the mysterious case of two self-proclaimed L.A. gangsters captured on video in what appears to be Syria, firing assault rifles at enemies both in the name of President Bashar al-Assad and for their "homies" back in Southern California.
A Los Angeles police gang expert said the pair captured on a video promoted by the pro-Israel Middle East Media Research Institute appear to be the real thing.
"They look the part," said the Valley-based cop, who didn't want his name used:
"Usually guys aren't calling themselves Surenos unless they are," he said.
Most gangs that aren't African American or Asian American in Southern California pledge allegiance to the Mexican Mafia prison gang by calling themselves Surenos and adding the X3, or "13" (the 13th letter in the alphabet is "M") to their clique names.
It's either that, or face the wrath of the Eme when they end up behind bars.
That holds true for Armenian Power, which in the 1990s was involved in a bloody war with Latino gangs in East Hollywood but which now answers to the Eme, which involves "paying taxes" on street drugs and other criminal proceeds to the prison organization.
AP has since spread to North Hollywood, Glendale and other communities. It's members still shoot and kill, but the gang has been perhaps most notorious in recent years for its white-collar crime.
National outlets have said that one of the two shooters on tape, who calls himself Wino, is from Westside Armenian Power. But that gang is Armenian Power (X3), which is, at its heart, a "W.S." gang like all others (18th Street, Mara Salvatrucha) based west of downtown.
We became aware of the video over the weekend, initially seeing it as a hoax. Former LA Weekly staff writer Simone Wilson appears to be one of the first reporters to take it seriously by analyzing the video in a piece for the Jewish Journal.
The other soldier, Creeper, says he's from Sun Valley's Grumpy Wynos gang, also a Sureno set. We couldn't find out much about that gang, except that it got a shout in David Kennedy's 2011 book Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America. The author simply calls it his "favorite ever" gang name.
"In the Middle East, homie, in Syria, still gangbanging," Creeper says on the video.
He also gives a shout out to "Capone from Cyclones" who, interestingly, is possibly identified here as an old-school San Gabriel Valley street gangster of Pakistani descent. Though it has pledged neutrality on the ground, Pakistan has verbally supported Assad's regime.
Though both men on the video bow to the Surenos and speak Chicano-gang spanglish (enemigas for enemies), neither appears to be of Mexican or Salvadoran descent. The LAPD gang expert we talked to said he was surprised to see that Wino used English on his Facebook page because "a lot of Armenians gang members don't type in English."
The officer said the video "looks legit" but, "to me it's weird they would go to Syria."
On that question we went to Seth G. Jones, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Santa Monica-based RAND Corporation and a former senior official at the U.S. Special Operations Command.
He noted that there are, as the Washington Post put it, "members of the Armenian Christian minority in Syria are known to be staunch supporters of Assad."
But there are also Muslims in Armenia, Jones said, and without knowing the backgrounds of the two gang members, it's hard to tell what their motivations might be.
The civil war in Syria, however, is complex and involves thousands of foreign fighters, if not more. Jones:
The Syrian war right now is attracting probably the greatest numbers of foreign fighters anywhere in the last two decades. It's a melting pot of fighters: Europeans, North Americans, North Africans, and those from across the former Soviet Union, which includes Armenia.
In other words, the expert says, the presence of these two street warriors in Syria "wouldn't necessarily be unusual."
He said that "at least 100 Americans have gone over there to support the Syrian opposition."
Given the sensitivities in the region, these two gangsters are now the subject of intense scrutiny by the United States government. If, for example, if they fought alongside members of the militant group Hezbollah, they could be in hot water, Jones said.
"If they broke a law, they'd be in serious trouble," he said.
A few of Wino's Facebook photos show him posing with a man dressed as a soldier and wearing a Hezbollah flag on his uniform.
Basing its information on an unnamed LAPD source, Fox 11 News reported last night that the two gang members had been deported from the United States, ostensibly for alleged criminal activity on the streets of L.A.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller told us that the Joint Terrorism Task Force ...
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... is aware of the video and is investigating to determine any potential threat to Americans or to U.S. interests here or overseas, but until we establish facts, we're not in a position to theorize or comment further at this time.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told reporters yesterday that he became aware of the video about a month ago.
"It doesn't surprise me," he said. "Gang violence is a form of urban terrorism in Los Angeles, and it's not much of a stretch to go to Syria."