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.”

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Sulome Anderson

Sulome Anderson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.

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