Lebanon in the past year has emerged as the latest terrain where Islamist militants and terrorists have taken root and, literally, exploded onto the political landscape. The three-month-old battle in the Nahr al-Bared camp in North Lebanon, near Tripoli, is the most dramatic manifestation of this phenomenon, in this case pitting the Lebanese armed forces against a Salafist-Jihadist group that calls itself Fatah al-Islam. This battle appears to be nearing its end, but the war between such militants and their societies is in its early days.
The 30,000 or so Nahr al-Bared refugee camp residents long ago left the area for safer ground. The wives and children of the Fatah al-Islam fighters were evacuated a few days ago, and the remaining militants - anywhere between 50 and 100 is the general estimate - now seem ready for the final battle against the Lebanese Army. Fatah al-Islam has threatened to take the battle beyond the camp to other parts of Lebanon, and officials and analysts alike assume that sleeper cells and sympathizers are waiting to carry out attacks once they get the signal.
Fatah al-Islam fighters have already carried out attacks in other parts of Lebanon, including firing rockets into North Lebanon communities from Nahr al-Bared and bombing civilian targets in Mount Lebanon earlier this year. Their capabilities are not to be frowned upon. Everyone has been taken by surprise by the ability of the several hundred militants in Nahr al-Bared to continue fighting for three months and more, as well as by their logistical supply capability and technical proficiency.
This is not your run-of-the-mill local terrorist cell that formed spontaneously in the afterglow of Osama bin Laden's grand and monstrous entry onto the world's ideological stage in September 2001. The Fatah al-Islam phenomenon raises important and urgent questions about the exact nature, provenance and implications of this sort of tightly organized group.
This is the latest analytical challenge to those in the Middle East and abroad who spend their time trying to understand the political, social and religious currents that flow through this region and drive its politics and public opinion. It is vitally important not to get this one wrong, given the high stakes involved. When faced with understanding other such challenges in recent decades, many Arabs and foreign colleagues alike have tended to focus on the surface manifestations and analytical superficialities of such phenomena - whether mainstream Arab nationalism, tribalism, or non-violent, Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamism, or more marginal and deviant drug-, militia-, warlord- and gang-based cultures.
A new danger today is that our capacity to understand these movements for what they really represent may be clouded by the overarching ideological emotionalism that distorts the minds of both indigenous and Western actors. Many in the West allow themselves to see militant Salafist-Jihadists like Fatah al-Islam only through US President George W. Bush's "global war on terror," without sufficiently grasping the local and global root causes of radicalism - including American, British and other Western powers' policies - that are easily traceable in the modern history of the Middle East. On the other hand, those in the Middle East who delight at any sign of indigenous resistance to American-European-Israeli-Arab regime dominance are prone to put up with Salafist-Jihadist criminality as an inevitable reaction to the many malaises of the modern Arab-Iranian-Muslim world.
Neither approach is very useful and only condemns us all to more confrontation, destruction and death. We must understand correctly the root causes that drive the continuing proliferation of groups like Fatah al-Islam, if we hope to nip such criminality in the bud. This particular group will soon be defeated or killed in Nahr al-Bared, but what happens after that? Will their demise spur a reaction that generates new adherents to their cause? Can these groups be eliminated by military force? Are they playing by Bush's slightly fantastic "global war on terror" rules, or do they operate in a totally different universe according to other criteria?
Various Arab and Western scholars and journalists have examined some of these issues seriously in recent years, so we do not have to be either mystified or terrorized by the Salafist-Jihadist groups cropping up in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, Asia and, increasingly, Western Europe. In my next column I will explore some of the pertinent findings of three such scholars - French university professor and researcher Bernard Rougier, Washington-based Lebanese researcher Bilal Saab, and Swedish analyst Magnus Ranstorp - who have provided timely texts that help us clearly understand why and how Salafist-Jihadist movements proliferated in Lebanon in the past generation.
Because their works are available in English, they offer the non-Arabic-speaking world excellent windows into a complex world defined by a constantly evolving mixture of politics, identity,
religion and nationalism that is often misunderstood at home and abroad, or willfully distorted by foreign ideologues with an agenda.
* Published in Lebanon's THE DAILY STAR on August 29, 2007.