From one extreme to the next?

The threat to peace posed by the Islamic State group has been described as "unprecedented in the modern age", yet research on the rise and fall of an extremist group in 1980s Lebanon suggests that we may have seen this all before.

While it’s important to keep in mind that history does not necessarily repeat itself, the parallels are great between the history of the rise and fall of Tawheed’s emirate in Tripoli and the current rule of the Islamic State
Raphael Lefevre

A radical Islamist group has exploited the vacuum created by civil war to capture cities, towns and oil fields across Syria and Iraq - leaving horror and destruction in their wake. Although this might seem unique to a post-9/11 world, religious radicalism exploiting a power vacuum is not new, as research going back 30 years to a different civil war in the same region is showing. 

Since April 2013, the Sunni jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, referred to as the ’Islamic State’ (IS, or Isis), has taken control of vast swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory, bringing with it an onslaught of appalling atrocities and acts of cruelty. "It will take some time before its full impact is determined... [the threat it poses] is unprecedented in the modern age," stated a recent report by the Soufan Group, a security intelligence firm in New York.

Meanwhile, Syrian refugees, fleeing IS and the bitter civil war, continue to spill across the borders of neighbouring states, straining their own societies and resources. Lebanon in particular has been greatly affected - almost a quarter of its current population are Syrian refugees.

Yet, while the sudden appearance of reports about the barbarity of IS makes this seem like an unprecedented shock, new research is starting to show that parallels may exist in the recent past.

In the 1980s, Lebanon itself witnessed the ascent of one such precursor Islamic movement, known as ’Tawheed’, during the country’s civil war. Raphaël Lefèvre, a Gates Cambridge Scholar and PhD candidate working with Professor George Joffe in the Department of Politics and International Studies, and until recently a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, is researching its rise and fall.

His work investigates the ways in which the group seized control of the northern port city of Tripoli and imposed its conservative agenda on locals, before being largely rejected and marginalised by civil society and leftist militants. "While it’s important to keep in mind that history does not necessarily repeat itself, the parallels are great between the history of the rise and fall of Tawheed’s emirate in Tripoli and the current rule of the Islamic State," he said.

IS may have few obvious antecedents in terms of the way in which its members practise their extremism, but because the pattern of its emergence presents a striking echo of those of earlier radical forces, says researcher Lefèvre, this pattern may provide pointers as to the direction and trajectory of IS.

He also hopes that his research on the events of the 1980s in Lebanon will focus attention on the roots of an increasingly unstable situation in the country. The timing of his research is poignant, given that street violence is rising, sectarianism is reaching boiling point and IS has now inaugurated a Lebanese chapter in Tripoli.

Today, references to the failed ’Tawheed phenomenon’ are common among the citizens of Tripoli. During a year-long visit to Lebanon, where he has now returned, Lefèvre spoke to many who remember the events of the 1980s, and he finds commonalities between Tawheed and IS.

When Tawheed seized control, it imposed its ideological and religious norms on the people, but it also began to fill the socioeconomic gap left by the absence of a Lebanese state during the civil war. "They filled a void - provided security, ran hospitals and even gave education to the kids," he explained.

Likewise, IS has both imposed a harsh conservative social agenda on the population who live under its sway and used resources such as oil and gas fields to win over locals. "They distribute subsidies and provide state-like services to a population in severe need given the quasi-absence of the Syrian state in remote areas outside of Damascus."

Just like IS, Tripoli’s Tawheed movement was led by a charismatic figure, the Sunni cleric Said Shaaban. He gathered under his wing three Islamist groups that merged together to form Tawheed. Their aim was to struggle against impurities in society - the warlords and drug dealers - in accordance with Sharia law.

"But, once Tawheed seized control of the city in 1983, all of these grand goals very quickly disappeared. People started realising that there wasn’t much that was Islamic about the group; it was just another political faction trying to rule their city instead of Syria and Israel, and in increasingly corrupt and murky ways."

After three years, and in the face of pressure from the Syrian regime, internal disagreements over deciding the group’s next steps led to its collapse from within.

IS, too, has been linked with corruption, including suggestions that the organisation has been selling looted antiquities and earning significant amounts from the oil fields it controls in eastern Syria by selling supplies to the Syrian government and across the borders into Turkish and Jordanian underworlds.

Tawheed lost legitimacy when it began to be perceived as a militia using a religious discourse to mobilise people. Lefèvre believes that movements collapse when they try to force society to adapt to their norms: "very often, civil society resists and in the end strikes back."

In Lebanon today, he sees an increasing feeling of socioeconomic and political marginalisation on the part of Lebanon’s Sunni community - a "highly toxic cocktail", he calls it, of unemployment, low literacy rates and poverty, leading many to turn away from the state and look for alternative sources of support and protection, including joining Islamic groups. He fears that the current situation may lead back to a situation not dissimilar to that witnessed in the 1980s.

"The influence of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon is very real. Ultimately, whether the country is able to weather the storm, or fall prey to civil war and the rise of extremism, will depend on the ability of Lebanese policymakers to address issues that have long been ignored."

As for the future of IS, Lefèvre says: "It is unpopular in the cities it is controlling, but we are not yet seeing so much resistance - possibly because of the socioeconomic help they currently provide. While the same collapse may not necessarily happen to IS, the rise and fall of Tawheed shows that internal tensions within a group - whether about the group’s leadership or its priorities - are an important factor that should be taken into account to understand how such movements operate. The ’IS phenomenon’ is in fact far from being a new one."

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