The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East: Northern Lebanon from al-Qaeda to ISIS

Book Review

Reviewer: Wouter Jansen

Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2017 ISBN: 9780691177939
Author's page: Bernard Rougier

The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East: Northern Lebanon from al-Qaeda to ISIS

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In The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East: Northern Lebanon from al-Qaeda to ISIS, Bernard Rougier provides a very detailed and well-structured account of different historical events, including the Lebanese civil war and the struggle between Lebanon and Syria from the early 1960s until the 1990s, when Northern Lebanon served as the battleground between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Syrian regime. Rougier divided his book in multiple chapters, each focusing on a specific event in history that leads up to a better understanding of the situation in the Middle East today.

Large parts of this book discuss the city of Tripoli and its surroundings in Northern Lebanon. Tripoli, once saw itself as a new, Arab version of modernity and is now a broken town, fragmented into multiple militant spheres. In the early 1990s, those who supported a Salafi conception of Islam set their sights on Tripoli as a site for their missionary activities. When the Syrian army occupied Tripoli in 1985, a lot of young people fled the city and moved to Saudi Arabia where they were educated at the University of Medina. After receiving Salafi education, they returned to spread the ‘true Islam.’ Now, north Lebanon hosts a multitude of militant Sunni Islamist ideological currents such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a Salafi network, Jihadi networks, Al-Qaeda affiliates, Tawhid and others. Rougier provides in-depth information on many different militant groups, their history, goals and actions in Lebanon that paint a clearer picture and helps to understand the regional conflicts from the 1980s until today.

For many in Europe, radicalisation is mostly known as being against the West. Rougier argues however that radicalisation and terrorism are very much present within Muslim majority countries, such as Lebanon, where Sunni and Shia affiliated groups fight each other for religious, political and geographical reasons and where influences from foreign countries such as Syria and Iran are present and often further ignite tensions. On the international stage, Middle Eastern countries often deny that they support terrorism, however, as Rougier shows, multiple countries in the region have backed and supported militant groups in Lebanon as a proxy to their own goals. Iran and Syria have backed Shia groups such as Hezbollah in order to retain a strong foothold in Lebanon’s northern parts and help the ‘resistance’ against Israeli occupation from the south, while Saudi Arabia supported Rafiq al-Hariri who aided the Syrian revolt (of which some groups involved are considered terrorist groups) in order to topple the Assad regime and form a stronger Sunni dominated position. Some of these Sunni groups, like Tahrir al-Sham are still actively fighting the Syrian regime with Western backing. Interestingly, Rougier also points out the change in terrorist attacks over the years. Hezbollah used political assassinations - such as the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri - to achieve political goals. The attacks on Western fast-food chains by other groups were used as a statement against American foreign policy. These kinds of attacks were more common in the 1980s and 1990s. Opposed to what we are used to today, both did not yet include the aim of causing mass casualties to achieve their goals. That policy changed after 9/11 where maximising the number of victims became the goal to achieve global media coverage, the spreading of fear and achieving political change. 

At the beginning the book might seem a bit overwhelming due to the many names of people, events, parties, places, groups and dates. But Rougier does a good job at guiding the reader through the information. It must be stated however that some previously contained knowledge is very much recommended. The different events described in the book are already very complicated and intertwined. For someone without much knowledge on the history, structure and goals of the different players involved in Lebanon’s history, it might be hard to understand or follow. Nevertheless, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the groups active in Lebanon such as Hezbollah, ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Sunni/Shia divide and the events that formed the surrounding region and Lebanon as it is today. Scholars and students and anyone else wanting to broaden their knowledge on terrorist groups and Middle-Eastern conflicts would do very good by consulting this book. It is a very useful, broad and well written account of history and a fantastic source of information.

2018 - Volume 12, Issue 2