In spite of its ongoing political crisis, an institutionally crippled Lebanon is performing well on a front it ironically has little experience in: counterterrorism.
Five months after the Lebanese army s bloody though ultimately successful battle in the North against the al Qaeda-inspired group, Fatah al Islam, Lebanese are still concerned about a repeat of the scenario of Nahr Al Bared in another Palestinian refugee camp. And they have every right to worry.
The militant Salafi current in Lebanon may have suffered a heavy blow in Nahr Al Bared, but given its fluidity and the favorable circumstances it operates in – an acutely polarized political environment with heightened sectarian tensions – it is capable of regrouping and finding new leaders. Al Qaeda in Iraq still has its eyes on Lebanon and the Syrian-Lebanese borders are yet to be secured.
But there is stronger reason for optimism. The recent efforts and initiatives by Lebanese public officials, civil society groups, and official religious institutions aimed at curbing the radicalization current in the North suggest that the country as a whole is starting to think strategically about the threat of Salafi militancy.
The healthy consensus inside the Lebanese military and security institutions on the limitations of the use of force as a means to neutralize the threat of militant radicalism suggests that the counterterrorism campaign is moving in the right direction. Most Lebanese public officials are becoming aware of the tenet that Lebanon s most potent antidote to extremist and militant ideology involves a socio-economic vision that is rooted in policies of balanced development.
A few weeks ago, Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri announced the launch of $52 million worth of major developmental, educational and health projects in Tripoli, Akkar and other regions in the North (initially, those projects were slated to be carried out by the Lebanese state, but funding was severely lacking due to the budget deficit).
Meanwhile, the newly-elected Lebanese Mufti of Tripoli and the North, Sheikh Malek Al Shaar (the highest ranking Sunni religious scholar), declared the promulgation of a new comprehensive program for Dar Al Ifta , the Sunni religious establishment in Lebanon, which aims at creating a directorate for religious education tasked with supervising Islamic schools, colleges and institutes, and an advisory board consisting of all Islamic parties and groups in the North. This directorate should be of great help in making sure Islamic groups activity in the North does not stray or flirt with extremism.
At the Lebanese internal security forces (ISF) directorate, Major General Ashraf Rifi met with a large delegation of Sunni preachers and religious scholars as well as directors and presidents of Salafist organizations and institutes in the North. The purpose was to start a dialogue and form a cooperative relationship with these individuals and bodies, whose access to Sunni Muslim constituencies and role in convincing extremist elements to snub extremism and militancy is critical.
The international community s efforts in helping Lebanon recover from the Nahr Al Bared fiasco should not be discounted either. The most important actor is UNRWA, which has been working with some 20 non-governmental organizations to implement preventive measures for the children of Nahr Al Bared, such as psychological and recreational activities. UNRWA has also trained about 200 teachers to identify the signs of trauma and refer students for help.
A donor conference is expected to be held in the second half of April to raise money for the reconstruction of Nahr Al Bared. Foreign governments such as Saudi Arabia and Norway, and Lebanese political parties, including Hariri s Future Movement, have also provided substantial financial and logistical assistance to Nahr Al Bared s reconstruction process.
Shocked by the eye-opening experience of Nahr Al Bared, Lebanese society seems determined to erase the memory of last summer and make sure that scenario never happens again. While some praiseworthy preventive measures have been devised since then by an amalgam of local and foreign actors, they remain largely outside the boundaries of the Lebanese state.
To tap its full potential, the counter-terrorism campaign must be owned by the Lebanese state. Such a campaign should be viewed by all Lebanese (and the international community) as a collective, as opposed to a particularistic effort. Only the state and the large resources it can offer in terms of employment, education, social security and general welfare can neutralize and ultimately eliminate the threat of militant religious extremism in Lebanon. Hence the critical need to break the current political stalemate and immediately reactivate all Lebanese state institutions.
If the Iraqi experience is of any lesson, Al Qaeda thrives on political vacuums and looks to exploit societal fault lines. Lebanon should know better.
Bilal Y. Saab is a senior research assistant at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.