21st September 2021
By Lama Awad, Ghida El-Assaad & Nicolas Gholam
The following opinion piece and the views expressed in it are the author’s own and cannot be attributed to the Strong Cities Network.
The U.S. military-led response to 9/11 and the beginning of the ‘Global War on Terror’ in 2001 became a flashpoint for counter-terrorism efforts around the world, perhaps nowhere more so than in the wider Middle East. The interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq had inevitable and intractable consequences for the region and became a rallying call for Islamist jihadist movements in the 2000s whose shockwaves continue to shape the political and security landscape today.
Lebanon’s position in the region has always been precarious, and the country has frequently fallen victim to its seemingly constant political upheavals. Since 2001, the country has experienced, among other things, the assassination of its prime minister, the withdrawal of the Syrian military occupation, an internal conflict between Sunnis and Shia, the infiltration of ISIS in several rural areas, and two major protests against the unending internal corruption. The country’s 15-year civil war from 1975-1990 remains to this day a powerful reminder of the fragility of its sectarian and confessional balance. In 2018, the Lebanese National Prevention of Violent Extremism (PVE) Unit painted a bleak picture, underscoring how the country ‘is living amidst a regional and international environment tormented by conflicts and intra-state wars that pose the risk of national state collapse and the disintegration and dismantling of societies’.
Despite, and perhaps because of these challenges therefore, Lebanon has always remained especially sensitive to the limitations of an overly-securitized response to violence and the need for robust and sustainable initiatives that seek to address its root causes. Thus, the Lebanese government was an early supporter of the global P/CVE agenda given its focus on the ‘conditions conducive’ to the spread of terrorism and violent extremism and the role of sub-national actors in addressing them. In fact, the Lebanese 2018 National Strategy for PVE includes specific mention of the role of municipalities and local communities.
Against this backdrop, the bottom-up, prevention-focused approach to addressing extremism promoted by the Strong Cities Network has begun to take root in the country, with the support of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and Denmark. This led to the creation of the Local Prevention Networks (LPNs) in 2017 in three municipalities: Tripoli, Saida and Majdal Anjar.
The LPNs in these localities have enabled local actors, including mayors, governors and local practitioners, to begin working together to build social cohesion and community resilience against extremist and other forms of violence. Since then, the LPNs have forged new connections between civil society and local authorities, while allowing cities to design, deploy and deliver responses to local threats, and identify and react to early signs of radicalisation to violence within communities. As a mark of their success, a further two new cities are expected to develop their own LPNs in the coming months and the Lebanese National PVE Action Plan envisages these platforms being replicated in still other parts of the country.
The bottom-up approach of the LPNs, being led, driven and owned by local communities rather than imposed by the national government has meant they have been able not only to reflect the particular needs and priorities of community members, while building social cohesion and promoting active, positive citizenship, but to adapt to address new developments and challenges as they emerge. Part of this success can be attributed to the fact that the country’s PVE Unit, while developing Lebanon’s National PVE Action Plan, has allowed the LPNs to develop organically with little direction or obstruction from national government.
“There is perhaps a greater need than ever to invest in local P/CVE efforts that address all forms of violent extremism.”
This is not to say the LPNs have been without their challenges, however, and given the dire state of Lebanon’s current political and economic stability, there is perhaps a greater need than ever to invest in local P/CVE efforts that address all forms of violent extremism.
One challenge that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency relates to the capacities of local actors. Municipal personnel, practitioners and civil society need more training to detect early signs of potential violence regardless of its ideological origins, whether Sunni, Shia, Christian, or other. While many LPN groups have been engaged in P/CVE activities, there is a considerable gap between engagement in, and independently leading, these activities, which could potentially impact the long-term sustainability of the LPNs and their effectiveness.
Another is to ensure that LPN initiatives and priorities are both sustainable and able to weather local political changes. Municipal reshuffles and restructures have threatened to harm relations between LPN members and municipal personnel, leading to delays and uncertainties over their collective direction, as well as a loss of momentum of activities and engagement with members. The risk that political changes slow down or derail the work of LPNs could be mitigated by enshrining a set of key principles and structures that are collectively agreed upon and are not affected by political changes.
A third challenge is ensuring LPNs focus on all forms of violent extremism affecting the community and look beyond just Sunni Islamist extremism – the priority of Western governments. This narrow focus not only ignores other forms of extremism, which may be more prevalent in the particular community, but other reasons why young people might become radicalised to violence.
For example, a community consultation conducted by the Beirut office this year with five municipalities found that youth vulnerability to violent extremism was alarmingly high, but intriguingly that it was triggered, not by religious fundamentalism, but by the 2019 financial crash that continues to devastate the country. Financial hardship and unemployment have historically proven to be significant push factors towards extremism, and which are often neglected in PVE.
LPNs have great potential to serve as a model for how to operationalise multi-actor P/CVE collaboration at a community level, and allow for more locally-led, flexible, and multi-dimensional responses to diverse forms of violent extremism. As we begin the third decade of the post-9/11 era, they in many ways serve as the antithesis, and perhaps even the antidote, to the kind of military-dominated, national government-led approach that defined much of the first two.
Lama Awad is a Regional Manager at ISD for the Strong Cities Network (SCN) in Lebanon and Jordan, working across both countries to provide support to SCN, subnational entities and local prevention networks to prevent and counter violent extremism.
Ghida El-Assaad is a Project Coordinator for the Strong Cities Network (SCN) in Lebanon and Jordan. She is responsible for coordinating the implementation of community based activities and capacity building activities for local stakeholders and partners.