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Giving Hope and Goals to the Lebanese Youth to prevent Radicalization

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Lebanese army soldiers driving vehicles bearing the Lebanese flag on a hill they recently took from the Islamic State (IS) group on the Syrian-Lebanese border on August 28, 2017. Photo AFP

Radicalization among young civilians is not an uncommon phenomenon in Lebanon. The army regularly intervenes against radicalized groups. In October 2014, there were fights between Lebanese army troops and jihadists in Tripoli, North Lebanon. More recently, in August 2017, the army pushed IS militants away from the country, retaking IS militant posts located about ten kilometers away from the Syrian border. Yet some IS fighters still remain in Lebanon, as well as numerous young Lebanese people who are part of radical groups. Many others may be tempted by it. To prevent more youth from radicalizing and joining IS, some associations are trying to put the ones at risk back in the right track.

For the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), radicalization in Lebanon is mainly due to the presence of the Syrian refugees. According to the UNCHR, as of April 2018, there are 986,942 registered Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. “If we assume that 10 percent of Syrians residing in Lebanon become radicalized, that is 100,000 people. That exceeds the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah’s army, and they [radicalized Syrians] know how to fight or they have nothing to lose,” said Dr. Ferhat Pirinççi, an associate professor at Uludag University.

But it is impossible to boil down the issue of radicalization to Syrian refugees. Already in 2014, Raphaël Lefèvre, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, published an article about the radicalization of Lebanese Sunnis. Studying the roots of Sunni extremism, he wrote: “In 2013, the Islamic State and the Nusra Front inaugurated their Lebanese chapters, which have since been responsible for a string of terrorist attacks in the capital Beirut as well as in the Beqaa Valley. Both groups have appealed to a growing number of Lebanese Sunnis, some of whom have gone to fight amid their ranks in Syria and Iraq and returned to wage attacks in Lebanon.” While many academic articles on the topic of radicalization available online focus on the cases of Sunni Muslims, there is almost no mention of Christians or Shiite Muslims, except for the presence of Alawite Muslims in Tripoli.

Far from concluding that radicalization in Lebanon was a phenomenon imported from the neighboring countries, Lefèvre established that “the roots of Sunni radicalization are local and run deep, thus making it unlikely that a military solution alone will reduce the appeal of extremist groups”. Among the reasons for radicalization, he listed the Sunnis’ resentment against the Shiite Hezbollah and its intervention in Syria, the marginalization of the majority of Sunni Lebanese citizens, a weak Sunni religious leadership, and “viewing the refugee issue through the lens of national security”, which leads to confusion about refugees and seeing them as a security threat.

To prevent this dangerous situation from worsening, Lefèvre concluded that : “in the medium and long term, countering the growth of extremism in Lebanon [would] require improving the state of public infrastructure and the economy in marginalized areas such as the Beqaa Valley and northern Lebanon, where the bulk of the country’s Sunni population lives, as well as kick-starting the process of administrative decentralization in order to empower local communities.”

But so far, the official reaction has only been to turn to military solutions, with numerous arrests and fights against jihadists in cities and areas held by radical groups.

On the ground, civilian associations and groups are offering alternatives to the Lebanese authorities’ approach: in small communities or specific areas, they are targeting young people who have already joined and fought for a radical group, as well as those who could be tempted to do so. It is not a process of deradicalization per se, but operations of peace building and prevention in specific communities The NGO Nabaa, which describes its mission as “enabling young people to play an active and healthy role within their society”, works with the marginalized youth in the south city of Saida. In the North, the NGO Peace Labs focuses on poor communities.

The most famous example of a successful initiative to prevent radicalization in Lebanon is a project by the NGO MARCH in Tripoli. It started from 2014 and brought together young people from two rival neighborhoods: the Alawite minority from the Jabal Mohsen area and the Sunni community of Bab el-Tebbaneh. The groups, who live in poor quarters of the city, separated by Syria Street, are known for their sporadic clashes and armed battles in the streets of Tripoli.

“All we heard about Tripoli back then were news of violence, radicalization and poverty, and especially a certain ideological fight”, Lea Baroudi, the founder of MARCH Lebanon, told Fanack Chronicle. “My team and me had some doubts about the reasons for young people to join the fights, so we went there to recruit 16 young people from the two neighborhoods for a theater play. It was very hard to convince people to help but eventually, around 200 kids came out of curiosity. We selected 16 young people and of course, it was very hard at first. Some wouldn’t come at all to work, some were coming with weapons. With time, they started talking to each other, developing friendships, whereas they had fought against each other before!”

Baroudi said these friendships grew stronger when they toured Lebanon with their play, written and directed by civil activist and artist Lucien Bou Rjeily. “On stage, they got a voice, they were listened to, applauded, and they realized they had a value”, Baroudi added. “We realized that these young people were becoming radicalized because they didn’t feel that they existed at all. Of course, poverty plays a role, but especially the lack of identity, value and hope in the future. Radical groups give them all that.”

After the play, the theater group decided to launch  a cultural cafe, called Our Cafe: Hand in Hand, at the intersection of their two neighborhoods, on Syria Street, the “border” between the rival areas. They run it themselves and also organize concerts, workshops and lessons. It is a safe space where they can meet and express themselves. One of the other reasons for radicalization among the youth observed by Baroudi was their feeling of powerlessness: not being able to change things around them. So MARCH decided to hire and train young men and women from the neighborhoods to fix the shops previously damaged in the fights.

“Some have been to jail, some have fought in Lebanon and elsewhere, so it takes time depending on the situation to really help a person”, Baroudi said to Fanack Chronicle. “But it’s not that hard either. The scariest thing is to realize it is as easy to brainwash them and recruit them. But radicalization is reversible, because most of these kids are not convinced ideologically. Us [the NGOs], as small organizations, we do what we can, but we need the government to act properly and develop employment for them.”

According to Baroudi, the best way to help prevent a young person to turn towards violence and radicalization seems to be very simple, in the end: “It’s enough to listen, and react accordingly.” A simple step that the Lebanese government doesn’t seem to consider yet, despite the constant threat on the national stability.

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