Spatial planning is rarely a primary focus when tackling violent extremism (VE). VE remains overwhelmingly perceived as a social process, one limited to psychosocial factors enmeshed in political, socio-economic, and ideological realities. However, we should view VE as a dynamic process that manifests in particular spaces and communities. Thus, an effective Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) strategy should take into account components such as spatial production and management, which can foster environments conducive to violent extremism.
The spatial dimension of violent extremism and its prevention can be viewed in at least two ways. First, violent extremist groups seek territorial control and community support to politically legitimize their actions, acquire resources, and create safe havens or bases from which to launch their operations and/or prepare for attacks. In the same way, counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategies and tactical operations rely heavily on spatial control to undermine violent extremist group action. Second, the feelings of victimization that fuel extremism are linked to grievances regarding quality of life and injustices in urban spaces, including access to housing, services, jobs, and the presence of communal identities.
Lebanon can be described as a laissez-faire country with weak zoning and planning laws. Public planning frameworks are outdated and collective urban and territorial action is fragmented and uncoordinated. However, it would be incorrect to describe planning as haphazard. This weak-intervention planning “regime” is deliberate, conforms to a particular neoliberal ideology, and heavily impacts urban and territorial policies. In fact, this planning regime is clearly affecting and limiting PVE in Lebanon.
First, the country’s planning regime corresponds with what some researchers call new military urbanism—a form of city design that puts security at its center. This militarization is manifest in the massive deployment of the country’s security apparatus and in the reconfiguration of space, mobility, and infrastructure in urban areas. A heavy military presence in an urban space is an entrenched feature in Lebanon. Under French occupation in the 1920s, colonial authorities developed a ring of barracks and security points in and around Beirut to control it. The civil war from 1975-1990 exacerbated this phenomenon, with the transformation of whole urban spaces into military operation zones. While the post-war period saw a demilitarization of urban space, post-2005 events (political assassinations, bombings, armed confrontations between militant groups, etc.) led to a resurgence of military deployments and the closing off of neighborhoods and urban areas.
A map detailing where these security measures were implemented in Beirut produced by AUB professors Mona Harb, Mona Fawaz, and Ahmad Gharbieh in 2012, shows such methods are now ubiquitous in the city and its suburbs, and are concentrated around certain areas that have become “fortresses” or demarcation lines. However, the efficacy of such security methods must be questioned. Rather than deterring violent extremist attacks, these methods allow for the control of populations and the restriction of personal movement, in addition to impeding people's capacity to mobilize against extremism.
Second, this planning regime enforces a modernist “anti-social” urban form, as contemporary construction and urban planning laws are embedded in modernist planning ideology. This has led to a landscape of separate multi-story buildings on individual plots linked by road networks—an arrangement that tends to produce concentrations of sprawling residential areas, but not neighborhoods. Such a planning regime does not encourage the development of community life, does not provide local “natural” meeting spaces, and exacerbates feelings of insecurity. This has led, mainly in peripheral areas, to the development of gated communities and, in periods of crisis, local vigilante groups. It should be considered—as posited by certain urban design currents (e.g. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design)—that the urban fabric can itself be a source of securitization by deterring crime and encouraging community life.
Third, this planning regime is communitarian and corporatist, with decision-making heavily affected by defined communities and social groups and their vested interests. Influential communitarian groups have a strong impact on the way planning is carried out. As communitarian equilibrium is a core-defining characteristic of the Lebanese political system, redistribution of wealth and power must respect this continuously contested equilibrium. Consequently, planning, as a process of orienting spatial and territorial production and management, becomes the object of continuous confrontation between self-proclaimed communitarian representative groups. Thus, an infrastructure project or a land construction ratio in a given area can become an object of fierce communitarian mobilization.
Beyond the main communitarian groups, planning is undermined and continuously renegotiated at the local level, with other actors controlling areas and consolidating de facto “local sovereignties.” These actors are usually—when not large communitarian political parties—local notables, communitarian religious institutions, and large family clans. In some cases, as in some informal neighborhoods and refugee camps, these actors may even be organized crime groups or refugee political groups. Moreover, many aspects of public territorial and social development (provision of infrastructure healthcare, education, etc.) are left to these non-state actors. It is in such areas that violent extremist groups tend to concentrate their presence. In fact, they benefit from playing a double game. First, they present themselves as part of the local fabric of these areas and as protectors of the community’s interests. This provides them with local social and political recognition and support. They also recurrently challenge the dominant actors in these areas, accusing them of leniency in defense of “community interests.” They also condemn corruption and promise better management of local services. In essence, they seek to make the local area/neighborhood a citadel, literally and metaphorically. It symbolizes a haven and materializes the expression of a communitarian, regimented solidarity, which will radicalize the community in the face of perceived external danger.
Fourth, this planning regime is neoliberal. With postwar reconstruction in the 1990s, a new type of public planning replaced the traditional laissez-faire “limited planning” approach. This new neoliberal approach was extensive in scale and the number of projects it involved. It was aimed at making Beirut—the city where these projects are concentrated—a regional business platform by integrating it into global networks. It actively encouraged and accommodated private capital investment in high-end development projects in urban areas across the country and through the de facto privatization of services. The idea was that this urban dynamic would result in a trickle-down effect of development and wealth to other social groups and geographic areas. Twenty-five years later, this trickle remains very limited. In reality, such planning has heavily contributed to Lebanon exhibiting one of the highest levels of social and economic inequality in the region. Today, we observe the existence of “multi-speed” urban areas: High-end securitized and privately serviced developments, gated communities, leisure clubs, businesses, and commercial centers—all situated next to poor quality housing in underprivileged informal and poor under-equipped neighborhoods and a sprawling suburbia of a diminishing and over-indebted middle-class. The intentional neglect of common public goods (public spaces, cultural heritage sites, the seashore, public transportation, etc.) is accentuating this social polarization, leading more people to be disillusioned by the political system and demanding radical change. The failure of the Lebanese state to provide a decent and inclusive urban environment is surely one of the most tangible and demonstrative expressions of the failure of this system. It is not trivial that the call for the fall of the political system was audible at demonstrations during the waste crisis of 2015. Protesters at these events chose democratic contestation paths, but others may be attracted to more radical and extremist ideologies that preach violence as a means for political change.
Planning is both a systemic cause and potential remedy to the growth of VE. Undeniably, PVE has much to gain in integrating reflections on planning and VE. In Lebanon, the planning regime contributes to the consolidation of violent extremist groups and only marginally limits their action. It is apparent that another planning regime, built on more social urbanism, is urgently needed if violence and violent extremism are to be contained.
This article was originally part of a series published by LCPS with the support of the Embassy of Switzerland on Preventing Violent Extremism in Lebanon.