Researching the Crime-Terror Nexus in Tripoli

Researching the Crime-Terror Nexus in Tripoli

In July, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with the University of Oxford’s Dr Raphael Lefevre and the University of Kent’s Professor Caroline Rooney to discuss their work on the  ‘The Crime-Terror Nexus from Below: Criminal and Extremist Practices, Networks and Narratives in Deprived Neighbourhoods of Tripoli’. This project has received funding through the 2018 ESRC funding call on Transnational Organised Crime: Deepening and Broadening our Understanding.

This piece has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Q: Raphael, would you mind starting by telling me a little bit about your research background, and what brought you to this project?

Dr Raphael Lefevre: My background is in Middle Eastern politics, and I have spent time living in Syria and Lebanon, including time spent in Lebanon while conducting my doctoral and postdoctoral research. During this period, I realized there was a gap between the macro analysis of Middle Eastern politics and the local realities lived by many on the ground.

The themes and questions which have guided this research project have been centered on why and how transnational organized crime can sometimes become rooted so locally. We became interested in investigating the nature of the relationship between crime and terrorism after hearing about a resident of an impoverished part of Tripoli who had gained prominence as ‘public enemy number one’ of the Lebanese Government. He was part criminal and part terrorist, known to be smuggling weapons to Syria and with links to al Qaeda. While he was despised by many in Tripoli and Lebanon, he was a local hero in his neighborhood, where he was seen as a modern-day Robin Hood. Here, he was seen as a defender of the local community, an avenger of the poor, and a provider of goods and services. When he was arrested by the Lebanese army, they had to release him because there was such anger in his neighborhood over the arrest that the army feared there would be a mass uprising in the city.

Q: This work on the crime-terror nexus focuses on Tripoli. Why that city?

Dr Raphael Lefevre: Tripoli is the second city of Lebanon, and it is a main trading hub situated close to the border with Syria. While the city has a rich history, it has become portrayed in the media as a city of extremism, violence, and criminality. I wanted to investigate whether these outside perceptions matched the local reality, so I moved there to find out. And what I found was that Tripoli was a diverse city, which did not easily fit the stereotypes that it had earned. While there was a lot of criminal and extremist activities going on in the city, they were mostly centered in a small number of neighborhoods. My experiences there taught me that there is a need to bridge the gap between the perceptions of outsiders and the local complexities on the ground.

Professor Caroline Rooney: My recent work has focused on the Arab uprisings, and so it was of great interest to me when the Lebanese revolution began in October 2019. Tripoli was at the forefront of the 2019 Lebanese revolution, and the city has been called the bride of the revolution. The revolution showed Tripoli to be a significant creative hub of the movement characterized by inclusiveness and festiveness, reflecting the warmth, hospitality, and solidarity of the city. I was particularly interested in how the Tripoli uprisings conveyed their messages through things like graffiti and chants. For example, there is one image of a man holding a peace sign, which says he is fighting corruption, sectarianism, and violence.

Q: What gaps does this research seek to fill?

Dr Raphael Lefevre: Caroline and I are seeking to make contributions to the literature in security studies on transnational organized crime and on terrorism.  One contribution we want to make is to undertake a history and a sociology of crime and terrorism in Tripoli. We want to find out who the main criminal and terrorist actors are in the city, where they operate, and what contexts they operate in. Tripoli has remained an enigma for researchers and policymakers alike, and I hope that our work will help bring nuance to issues discussed those working on Tripoli. I also hope that by highlighting the local politics of a global phenomenon, we will be able to derive broader insights from our work on Tripoli which can help shed light on the role of the local in how extremist and transnational organized crime groups operate.

Q: How have you gone about conducting this research?

Dr Raphael Lefevre: We have used a combination of quantitative methods which map out the main hubs of crime and terror, and qualitative methods which seek to explore why those areas are the main hubs of crime and terror. We have collected data by collaborating with the Lebanese ministry of the interior, conducted interviews in neighborhoods where crime and terrorism thrive, and explored the neighborhood effect, as well as working to build local networks. Though our work has been disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic, our next step will be to organize workshops with local organizations which bring together local activists to generate impact, construct a network, and to discuss transnational organized crime and terrorism.

Q: What have you learned through your research thus far?

Dr Raphael Lefevre: We have identified strategies through which criminal and terrorist groups are able to root themselves in neighborhoods and draw on local solidarities. For example, it is common for senior officials in criminal and extremist organizations to marry the daughters and sisters of residents in local neighborhoods to set up local alliances, and we have also seen them work to become informal leaders of neighborhoods. Extremist groups are driven by a transnational agenda; but they are skilled at exploiting local solidarities and local grievances to root themselves and expand their influence.

Q: How has this project drawn on arts and culture?

Professor Caroline Rooney: I find that local writers often act as the scribes of their communities. They know the local history, troubles, aspirations, legends, and array of characters. For example, Robin Hood ganger types appear in Arabic fiction as the strong men of the alley. This archetype of a criminal who helps the community is a very specific phenomenon that’s interesting to look at in the context of recent writings about Tripoli. I’ve also just published a book called creative radicalism in the Middle East which traces how extremism and creative radicalism such as emerges with revolutions emerge out of the same conditions but take different trajectories. I’m interested in exploring what specific variations of these themes we find in the Tripoli context, and we’re hoping to be able to make a documentary exploring some of these themes.