The Syrian War Is Creating a Massive Kidnapping Crisis in Lebanon

My father, Terry Anderson, was kidnapped during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s. Now, history is repeating itself as members of Lebanon’s various sects escalate tit-for-tat abductions.
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Shi'ite masked gunmen from the Meqdad clan, gather at the Meqdad family's association headquarters in the southern suburbs in Beirut. (Khalil Hassan/Reuters)

I’m talking to perhaps one of the most dangerous criminals in Lebanon, but he’s being unexpectedly polite.

My fixer and I drove through impossibly winding roads in the Bekaa Valley to get to his house, a squat, bunker-like building with a brand-new Hummer in the driveway. We announced ourselves to the child that opened the door; a little boy who looked to be about eight or nine. He led us into a small room to wait. There was a machine gun on a stand pointed at the window and a large block of hashish wrapped in plastic on the coffee table. The boy calmly picked up the hash and carried it out of the room. The machine gun stayed.

"They take ours, we take theirs."

His father, a well-known narcotics dealer and member of the Jaafar family, one of Lebanon’s notorious Shi’ite clans, eventually came in and greeted us. He now sits next to me, solicitously asking what I would like to drink and whether I could use some food. His English isn’t good, so my fixer does most of the talking.

“The Sunni people are acting like thugs,” the man says. “They’re trying to make a sectarian war. They’re the ones who are kidnapping and killing people, throwing bombs, eating hearts.”

He switches to broken English for a moment and smiles.

“They are weak. Because of this, they do crazy things to make the world believe they are strong.”

My reasons for talking to this man are complicated. My father, Terry Anderson, was Middle East bureau chief of the Associated Press in Beirut during the 1980s. Like most of the Westerners in Lebanon at the time, he was covering the civil war that ravaged the country. He met my Lebanese mother, also a journalist. They were engaged, she became pregnant with me, and on March 16, 1985—three months before I was born—my father was kidnapped by a militant Shi’ite group calling itself the Islamic Jihad. He was held for almost seven years. Along with other such groups, the Islamic Jihad eventually coalesced into what is now Hezbollah, the powerful militia currently fighting to maintain control of the Lebanese government.

21 years after my father came home, I’m a freelance feature writer working in Beirut. Lebanon is suffering intense fallout from the war in neighboring Syria, and kidnappings have become a common occurrence again. The Lebanese state is hopelessly deadlocked in a struggle between the country’s opposing sects—the larger Sunni and Shia Muslim populations and the Christian and Druze minorities. Shifting alliances aside, Lebanon appears to be fracturing. Incidents such as rocket attacks, bombings, and assassinations have occurred over the past year, threatening the fragile peace that’s held since the civil war ended in 1990.

Hezbollah is now deeply and militarily invested in helping Syrian president Bashar al-Assad stay in power. While the U.S. seriously debates military intervention in Syria, tit-for-tat sectarian kidnappings related to the Syrian conflict occur almost weekly along the Lebanese border, and ransom kidnappings have also become more frequent. Everything points towards a disastrous repetition of history—perhaps not on the same scale as the previous strife, but certainly the drums of war have begun to beat with increasing volume.

The Jaafar name has come up in many recent hostage-taking incidents. They claim Lebanese Sunnis and members of the Free Syrian Army kidnapped members of their clan, and they’ve openly participated in retaliatory kidnappings of Sunni residents in the border town of Arsal. I’m here to ask this drug dealer about his family’s involvement in an effort to discover whether kidnappings in Lebanon threaten to become the kind of epidemic that plagued the country during the civil war and irrevocably altered my life.

The Jaafar clansman, who for obvious reasons prefers to remain anonymous, says his family is humane in their treatment of hostages.

“I can assure you that people copy human rights from us,” he says proudly. “You can ask the men we kidnapped. They will say we treated them as if they were at home.”

I ask when these retaliatory kidnappings are going to end, or whether he thinks they’ve snowballed out of control.

“Who knows when it’s going to stop?” he says circumspectly. “After the men from Arsal kidnapped one of us, they handed him over to the FSA in Syria…there’s no government in Lebanon, forget about Syria. They kidnapped one of us, and Arsal is one big gang. They’re all from the same group, the same family. So they take ours, we take theirs.

Before we leave, I casually reference the 1980s hostage crisis and ask if he thinks Lebanon could experience something similar again. He says it’s a possibility, if one of the foreign governments with a stake in Lebanese politics decides kidnapping Westerners would be in their interest. Lebanon has always been a platform for the proxy wars of outside nations, and in recent years, countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia seem bent on continuing this trend. Any group kidnapping Westerners would have to receive the green light from their foreign backers.

“All the people who kidnap, even now, have big people backing them,” he says. “No small gang has the balls to kidnap anyone. These are all strong political messages. The people who actually do the kidnapping are trash; shoe shiners. It’s the people behind them that matter.”

I know the Shi’ite clans have a complicated relationship with Hezbollah, and to find out more, I meet with Timur Goksel, former spokesman for UNIFEL, the United Nations peace-keeping force charged with maintaining security on the southern border with Israel, with which Lebanon is still officially at war. Goksel, who now looks to be in his seventies, is an old acquaintance of my father’s and was involved in attempting to negotiate his release.

“Hezbollah doesn’t have complete control over the clans,” says Goksel. “They need [the clans] as a source of manpower in case trouble starts, so they don’t want to provoke them…but the clans also try not to implicate Hezbollah in anything that might have political ramifications. Those are the rules of the game: I scratch your back; you scratch mine.”

According to Goksel, kidnapping is a long-standing tribal practice, not just in Lebanon, but across the globe.

“That’s the way tribes sort out their problems,” he says. “In normal tribal relationships, kidnapping is not seen as a criminal act. It’s seen as an instrument of justice. That’s the ideal part of it, but that’s not what often takes place. This tradition can be abused and exploited…in Lebanon’s recent past, kidnapping became a political act, which often led to violence. People started kidnapping to gain something from the other side, not to resolve disputes.”

I ask if the Syrian war has played as big a role in the recent spate of kidnappings as people say, and Goksel nods his agreement.

“The spillover from Syria is more than political at this point,” he says. “It’s become a matter of law and order. There are hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon right now…and if they can’t find a way to survive, some of them get involved in crimes such as these.”

This is consistent with what I’ve heard; that while Shi’ites like the Jaafars have been behind some of these incidents, loosely organized Sunni groups, both Lebanese and Syrian, are committing many of the kidnappings, if not the majority at the moment. Goksel says this makes it extremely difficult to resolve these issues through law enforcement.

“The Shia are organized, at least,” he says. “They have an umbrella organization they report to—Hezbollah. These Sunnis don’t…you are dealing with groups that are small and very hard to penetrate, intelligence-wise. They’re small, but they have good money. They’ll never tell you where they get it, but I think most of it comes from private donations that act as filters for other governments. And most of the criminal acts they participate in, they contract out.”

So far, all evidence suggests most of the hostages taken recently in Lebanon haven’t been treated with the kind of brutality my father experienced, and Goksel believes that’s because local hostage-takers have actually become more sophisticated.

“At the time your father was taken, they didn’t know the value of hostages,” he says. “Sad as it is to say, your father and the others were guinea pigs in that area. The men who were entrusted with their care were low-level, had no cohesive ideology, no leadership, nothing. They were doing it for money or for family. There was a structural deficiency.”

From what I know of radical Sunni groups, and I’ve encountered them a few times while reporting stories in Lebanese cities like Tripoli and Arsal, that description seems to fit their members rather well. I ask Goksel if he believes groups like these could eventually decide to kidnap foreigners, even Westerners. He shakes his head emphatically.

“No one wants to kidnap a Westerner, because everyone would get involved…the minute you kidnap a foreigner, then it becomes a national issue,” he says. “All the groups that are looking the other way regarding these minor kidnappings; they would not look away from that, because their interests are at stake. There would be sanctions, problems travelling. So everyone would gang up against the one group that did it.”

Not all foreigners in Lebanon agree with this assessment. A journalist friend of mine, who prefers I don’t use his name, points out that everything indicates Westerners may very well become the next kidnapping victims. If the U.S. does strike assets of Assad’s regime, he says, Hezbollah, or individual members of the group, might become angry enough to target Americans and Europeans. According to him, journalists would be most at risk in this scenario.

“Basically, we all have to watch our backs,” he says.

In fact, foreign nationals, if not Westerners, have been kidnapped in Lebanon recently. In the wave of tit-for-tat kidnappings that swept the country in the fall of 2012, a Turkish man was captured and held in the Shi’ite Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, along with a number of Syrians. A member of the Meqdad family, another Shi’ite clan and a local arms dealer, claims to have been directly involved with capturing the Turk a year ago.

I meet him in his “office,” a small room on the ground floor of a crumbling building. Almost every available inch of wall space is lined with guns. As we talk, we’re frequently interrupted by customers who want to buy ammunition or trade in their weapons.

The gun dealer, who we’ll call Hussein, says he and the other Meqdads decided to kidnap a Turk in retaliation for the capture of one of their clan members, Hassan Meqdad, allegedly by the FSA in Syria. He believes the Turkish government is able to pressure the Syrian rebels to release his relative, who remains unaccounted for.

“We went to the airport and said, ‘we want a Turkish guy,’” he explains. “He was a businessman. So we took him. We were trying to make the Turks put pressure on the Syrians so they wouldn’t kidnap Lebanese anymore. It didn’t work because our government took their side.”

Hussein shows me a photograph of the Turkish man they kidnapped. In it, the hostage is smiling broadly, flanked by Meqdads brandishing machine guns.

“We treated him very well,” Hussein says with some pride. “Every day we’d bring him food, cigarettes. We never hit him, not once. You can ask him.”

Hussein and other members of the Meqdad clan were eventually forced to release their Turkish prisoner and even spent some time in jail for their crime. He says that’s because Hezbollah was displeased with their actions, which were damaging to the group’s interests.

“Some of us went to prison,” he says with a shrug. “But the government let us all go, because they knew they were going to feel the consequences if they didn’t. Hezbollah is using their brains…they’ve come this far. It doesn’t make sense that they would go backwards and kidnap people again.”

I ask what he and the Meqdads plan to do now, since Hassan Meqdad remains in Syria and may well have been killed at this point.

“We’re going to wait a little while to see if anything happens with Hassan,” he replies. “If not, we’re going to take somebody very big.”

I inquire whether now might not be the best time to contribute to the general atmosphere of chaos and violence in a country teetering on the brink of war, and he laughs.

“Everything in its own time is good,” he says, quoting a well-known Lebanese proverb.

***

In Bekaa, I meet with a Sunni man we’ll call Mahmoud, who says he was kidnapped and taken to Syria by people claiming to be FSA fighters and their cohorts in Arsal. We meet in a public park near the town. It’s a beautiful day, and the calm of the park provides an odd setting for Mahmoud’s story.

“We went to Arsal to do some business,” he begins. I interrupt, asking the nature of this transaction. At first, he won’t reveal specifics. When pressed, he says they were selling sheep.

“Our customers there realized we were carrying money,” he continues. “They told us to meet them in a remote area. When we reached the bottom of the mountain, we saw a small shack. Some of the customers were in our car; some were leading in another car…we went into the room, and there were around 20 people there, holding machine guns. They attacked us, tied us up and searched us, then put us in a Jeep and took us to Syria, to a town called Yabroud.”

Mahmoud says the men, demanding money in exchange for their release, allowed the hostages to call their families so they could provide a ransom. According to him, the kidnappers treated them quite brutally.

“They beat all of us,” he says. “They would cock their guns, point them at us, and tell us they were going to kill us.”

Mahmoud explains that phone calls were then made; local officials, and supposedly even members of the Syrian National Council, applied pressure to the kidnappers. Eventually, a ransom much smaller than the amount originally demanded was paid, and he and the others were released after a few weeks of captivity. But Mahmoud laughs scornfully when asked if the Lebanese government helped facilitate his release.

“We don’t have a government,” he says. “We have a bunch of thieves. They’re liars, they don’t care about us, and they don’t care about our safety…they fight with each other just to make sure they and their sects stay on top. When trouble happens, this bunch of warlords takes advantage of it. When the Lebanese people need support and security, they’re nowhere to be found…there’s no safety anymore, and this can happen to anyone, at anytime.”

"It means that the rule of law isn’t established in Lebanon."

 

Joseph Mousellem, spokesman for the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, emailed me this statement on how the government is dealing with these kidnapping incidents:

“The recurrence of kidnapping operations in Lebanon is mainly money-linked, i.e. committed for ransom. Kidnapping operations erupted following the Syrian crisis and its security and political repercussions…however, political kidnapping does not represent until now a real phenomenon despite the occurrence of some kidnapping cases of political aspect…The Lebanese Armed Forces unveiled, in close cooperation with the ISF directorate general and all other Lebanese security forces, a large number of these operations and arrested perpetrators who were then referred to competent judicial authorities. Moreover, these forces pursued actors in different Lebanese regions regardless of any meaningful clannish or sectarian considerations. The ISF directorate general is carrying out, in cooperation with the LAF command and all other Lebanese security forces, its duties regarding achieving more accomplishments as to the said kidnapping phenomenon, and bringing it to a halt.”

But Sari Hanafi, an associate professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut who’s studied kidnapping in Lebanon for years, emphatically contradicts this claim.

“Kidnapping is an indicator of a failed state,” he says. “During the civil war, we had no central power, just militias. Now, 22 years later, when kidnapping is becoming common again, it means that the rule of law isn’t established in Lebanon. It’s very reminiscent of the civil war…The government’s reaction to what the Meqdads did was very mild, which sends the message that this family had the ability to undermine the state. The security forces in Lebanon are part of the problem, not the solution. They’re very sectarian. For example, General Security is run by people very close to Hezbollah, while the Internal Security Forces are loyal to the March 14 coalition.”

***

I keep hearing one constant theme—that Lebanon is still haunted by memories of the everyday violence and lawlessness of the civil war. The recent kidnappings seem to be awakening old ghosts, so I decide to speak with someone who can explain the psychological ramifications of past events such as my father’s kidnapping. I set up a meeting with Reina Sarkis, a psychotherapist who’s pioneering the mental health treatment of long-term kidnapping victims in Lebanon.

“You can’t compare the kidnappings that are happening now to the waves of kidnappings that happened during the war, because that was a sort of an ongoing, mainstream war practice,” she says. “But what’s happening now is a reminder of that; it’s taken people back in the collective perception. Probably the biggest obstacle to my work is that it’s not really the past. It’s still the present. Now, I work mostly with people who were taken by the Syrian government and disappeared into Syrian prisons for up to 18 years…so their whole destinies changed; their families changed. There are so many layers of trauma, and it goes very deep.”

I’ve already told her who my father is, and now she gives me a searching look.

“You know all about this,” she says. “But at least in your case, your father came back. He was one of the lucky ones. With all the mess and the problems, all the post-traumatic stress, they’re still lucky. Not to undermine your trauma…but there are those who are still disappeared, or died of torture in Syrian prisons. For the ones who’ve been kidnapped and are still gone, their families are in limbo…they’re in a no-man’s-land, psychologically and emotionally. They can’t move on, and they can’t bring themselves to admit the person is dead, because he might not be. It’s hope that turns sour. It’s an ongoing nightmare.”

Through an NGO, I’m informed that relatives of missing people who were taken during the war usually congregate at an ad hoc monument in Beirut’s Khalil Gibran Park on Tuesday mornings. When I arrive, there’s only one person there, a Palestinian woman almost bent in two with age. Her name is Um Ahmad, and she tells me her son was kidnapped by Amal troops in 1986 and taken to a prison in Syria. She never saw him again.

“I went to Syria many times to ask for permission to see my son,” she says in her cracked voice. “One official, he threw my application in the garbage. He threatened me and told me never to ask about seeing my son again.”

I ask her if she thinks he might still be alive.

“I don’t have any hope that he’s living,” she says. “I want to take his bones out of Syria and bring them to Lebanon.”

She begins to weep. At this point, I’m fighting to keep back my own tears. As she talks, I begin to cry silently, something that’s never happened to me during an interview.

“He was my only son,” she says. “I had twins that died when they were young, and my husband died in the war. I have nobody to take care of me…I live with a Palestinian family from Syria, but their house in Yarmouk camp was destroyed. They can barely afford food for themselves, let alone for me. I’m very sick; I can hardly walk. I get medication from an NGO, but it’s very hard.”

 “I have no one but God now,” she says.

***

The recent hostage-taking spree is definitely salting a wound that runs deep in this country, and one of the major events surrounding this issue is the kidnapping of 11 Shi’ite pilgrims in Syria over a year ago by rebel fighters. Negotiations to secure their release have largely proven futile, and their continued imprisonment has become increasingly politically fraught.

The son of one of these hostages, whom I’ll refer to as Khaled, agrees to meet me at a café. He explains the circumstances of his father’s abduction.

“There’s a pilgrimage we Shia do that goes through Syria,” he says. “Most of the people who go are old or sick…some of the pilgrims had their families with them; women, children. As they were passing through Syria, they were stopped in Azaz, which is a village on the Turkish border. The men who stopped them said they were looking for Syrian soldiers. Then they let them go, but they didn’t get far before cars blocked the bus and more men ordered them out at gunpoint.”

Although the women and children were immediately allowed to leave, Khaled says his father and the other hostages soon become bargaining tools in a complex political game. He blames the Turkish government for their kidnapping.

“The area in which they’re holding my father and the others is right on the Turkish border,” he says. “At first, the Turks said they had nothing to do with this, that they were only supporting the rebels. And we believed them. We even went to the Turkish government and asked them for help. But when we went to Syria, and they let us see our families, we realized that wasn’t the case. I saw the mayor of a Turkish town with the kidnappers myself…by the time we went back to Lebanon; we knew the Syrians who kidnapped them were just hired hands…this is mostly about creating chaos in Lebanon.”

According to Khaled, neither side of the escalating cold war in Lebanon has been of any assistance in attempting to negotiate the hostages’ release.

“Hezbollah has bigger things on their plate,” he says. “There’s no way they can help us. Our government is weak; they won’t do anything…we can’t take it anymore. Maybe we’ll last the month, maybe not. Every time we protest to ask for their release, we have to pay money out of our own pockets for transportation and food. No one is helping us—it’s all talk and lies and politics. We’re going to have to take care of this ourselves.”

I ask what he means by this.

“If my father dies, I’ll lose everything,” he says. “And we’ve decided our dignity comes first. We can lose our lives, but we can’t lose our dignity…we’re waiting until the end of Ramadan to see if some of them get released. If they aren’t, we’re done with protests. We’re going to make a big problem for the Turks here.”

“But isn’t that exactly what you say they want?” I interrupt. “If you create more chaos, aren’t you just letting them move you around like a pawn on a chessboard?

“What can we do? Only cry?” he asks.

I start to talk, and just can’t stop myself, even though I know I’m abandoning my objectivity.

“You know, my father was kidnapped for similar reasons, to put political pressure on a government,” I say. “But the way they treated him was very different. He was blindfolded, chained, beaten regularly. He was kidnapped before I was born, and they released him when I was seven. He came home broken. To this day, if you ask him whether he hates Hezbollah, he’ll say no. He forgives them. I understand the sentiment—an eye for an eye. But like Gandhi said, that leaves both people blind, doesn’t it?”

I stop in disbelief that I’ve said these things, but also that I just quoted Gandhi to this man. He looks at me for a moment, stunned.

“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” he says eventually. “But if chaos is coming, it’s coming. When it happens, you’re going to be calling me saying you need to speak to me immediately, because it’s going to be a big story.”

A few weeks later, men claiming to be members of a previously unknown Shia militant group calling itself Zuwar al Imam Reda kidnap two Turkish airline pilots in Beirut, demanding to exchange them for the release of the Shi’ite pilgrims in Syria. I immediately call Khaled on his mobile phone. It’s turned off, but I keep calling, maybe a dozen times over a two-week period. It never turns back on.

Khaled, along with other relatives of the Shi’ite pilgrims, was later charged with kidnapping the Turkish pilots. He remains at large.

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Sulome Anderson

Sulome Anderson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.

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