A rocky road for Lebanon in 2014: What caused the terrorism surge?

Published December 30th, 2014 - 12:04 GMT

It’s been many months since Lebanese security forces  put a stop to the campaign of suicide bombings and terror plots that plagued this country for almost a year. And yet the threat of Islamist extremism lingers – very few believe that Lebanon is in the clear just yet.

Many blame the explosion of radicalism on outside forces, whether Syrian refugees or ISIS, but the fact remains that in every attack in Lebanon so far, nearly all those involved have been locals who grew up here. So what prompts someone to put their faith in violent, intolerant ideologies, and agree to attack people in the name of religion?

“For me it’s a combination of things,” said Maha Yahya, a senior associate at Carnegie Middle East Center, who has written about the way that ISIS recruits. “For some it’s about being part of a larger project. For others it’s about defending your brethren and community who they see as being attacked by ‘shia infidels,’ and all of this sectarian rhetoric.

“For others it’s socioeconomic, they need a job and this is as good a job as any. And for others still you go and live out your fantasy, conquering the frontier somehow, like cowboys.”

This complex range of motivations is often missing from media stories on the subject. Those who plot or undertake attacks against Lebanese targets are depicted in one-dimensional terms, and described variously as militants, terrorists, extremists, radicals or fundamentalists.

But to deal with the root of the problem, understanding the motive is crucial, as American psychiatry adjunct associate professor Anne Speckhard at Georgetown University Medical School explains.

“When I was hired as a consultant for the Iraqi [prisoner] rehabilitation program, I told the US. Department of Defense, no one takes up an ideology for no reason, it has to resonate with them,” she said by phone from the US “So if your sister has been killed and someone comes to you and tells you there is a way to take revenge, then that might work. Or the message might be that if you are a misfit, I can make you belong.”

Speckhard has spent much of her professional life studying extremism, and conducted some 400 interviews with people involved in terrorism from across the world for her book “Talking to Terrorists.” She says the motivation for someone adopting a radical ideology can be broken down according to whether the person is in an active conflict zone or not.

“In Gaza for example, people are motivated by a desire for revenge, by resentment. In a nonconflict zone, poverty and desperation plays a much bigger part, that feeling that they have no future.”

While Lebanon is technically at peace, a number of miniconflicts have flared up in the last few years, from Sidon to Arsal to Akkar. But one city has been in the headlines more than any other: Tripoli.

There have been roughly 20 rounds of fighting between two warring neighborhoods since the Syrian civil war began, giving the neglected city a reputation as a hotbed for sectarian extremism.

The never-ending cycle of clashes culminated in an army-led crackdown in April that has more or less managed to keep a lid on the violence, but everyone acknowledges that the underlying issues have yet to be resolved.

“There are lots of layers [to Tripoli],” said Sahar Atrache, Lebanon analyst at the International Crisis Group. “One layer is economical marginalization, which occurred mainly due to the whole reconstruction process after the war when there was a lot of focus on the center [Beirut].”

“There is also the problem of the Lebanese state as a whole,” she added. “It is not a functioning state, so during the last decade, people have learned to rely more and more on clientelism. Politicians use the resources, money and services to rally the base, and the base needs the politicians. It’s in their mutual interest, but it also prevents any real development.

“Of course, you also have the sectarian reasons,” she said. “There’s a general picture that the fault lines that we see in the region and in Lebanon in particular have been exacerbated by the Syrian conflict.”

“All of these things play into what we see in Tripoli ... there are always nuances you have to look into, as every area has its own reasons [for the rise in extremism].”

Like many of the analysts who spoke to The Daily Star, she warned against assuming the trend was simply down to poverty, saying that during an investigation into Salafism in Tripoli in 2005, it became “very clear that many of the militants I met were not just poor but felt they were second class and had demeaning jobs, that they did not belong [in society].”

“It’s poverty plus alienation,” agreed Lina Kreidie, a political psychology expert at the American University of Beirut. “They [extremists] are disenfranchised from society, they are not included.”

Kreidie, who did her Ph.D. on the subject back in 1999 and continues to study extremism as part of the Middle East Prospect Forum, said that radical groups played on these feelings and offered vulnerable people a way to “feel part of society [by being] part of a cult or extremist group.”

Psychologically speaking, someone involved in extremist activities is not normally a psychopath or suffering from a mental illness, she said, but rather was likely to be “a person who is excessively and inappropriately concerned with significant life purposes, implying a focused and highly personalized interpretation of the world.”

“When these people are faced with problems,” she continued, “they attribute it not to themselves but to the ‘situation.’ It’s always about the other. They never look at themselves. Usually these people disengage themselves from morality; they use it for their own purposes so they can dehumanize people.”

For many, the elephant in the room is religion. The relationship between the rise in Islamist extremism and the peaceful teachings at the heart of Islam has become fodder for daily debate, a debate muddied by the repeated assertions by ISIS, the Nusra Front and other violent groups that their brutality is sanctioned by Allah.

“Definitely there is a certain cultural belief system that encourages this behavior,” Kreidie said. “Religion is often the easiest tool to take ideas to the extreme ... But you can’t say it’s only Islam or Christianity or whatever, people can choose any religion and go to the extreme with it.”

Of course, it would be impossible to ignore the fact that the Middle East is a less tolerant place than it has been for centuries, a situation aggravated every day by the ongoing Syrian civil war. In Lebanon, this has fueled the existing sectarianism to a worrying extent; derogatory words such as takfiri, kouffar, mortadeen and the like have become commonplace, further entrenching that sense of “us versus them” that allows extremism to take root.

The Syrian refugee community, which numbers more than 1.1 million in Lebanon according to UNHCR, is seen as particularly at risk of being targeted by extremist groups due to various factors.

“It’s not only poverty, it’s also PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome],” she said. “The rates among Syrians are enormous.”

“The north is like a volcano waiting to erupt,” she added, referring to the presence of some 130,000 refugees in Akkar and neighboring districts in north Lebanon, areas that are historically the country’s poorest and offer few job opportunities.

A survey of youth in Lebanon affected by the Syrian crisis, conducted earlier this year by several major U.N. agencies along with Save the Children, backs up this conclusion.

“Some 32 percent of male Syrian youth in Lebanon aged 19-24 reported knowing people who have returned to Syria to join the fighting because of a) economic conditions, b) the inability to find work, c) tension within the family, d) pressure from the host community,” said Miriam Azar, an emergency communication specialist at UNICEF.

“Poverty, lack of access to basic services and unemployment are all potential factors that parties [groups] could use to draw youth into violent activities.”

By Venetia Rainey

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