MASHARIH AL-QAA, Lebanon: In the early evening hours of Jan. 6, Milad Rizk, the mayor of the sleepy border town of Al-Qaa, was in a meeting when he felt his mobile phone vibrate; the number was Syrian and unfamiliar. He decided to let the call go.
A few minutes later, at 7:26 p.m. he received a text message from the same number. “Listen carefully Mayor of Qaa, if you harm any of our relatives in Masharih al-Qaa, I will drive you out of your homes before I destroy them over your head,” it said.
The caller referred to himself as “Abu Hasan al-Mhajer,” an “emir of ISIS.”
“Don’t think that it will cost us much. It’s just a few rockets,” the message concluded.
Rizk stared at the message impassively for a few minutes, unaware of what to make of the apparent threat. Then at 7:29 p.m., he received yet another ominous text message from the Syrian caller. “Show this message to your state, which we are going to step on just as we stepped over Bashar,” it said, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Upon reading the second message, Rizk called members of the municipal council to take a look. Then a few minutes later, at 7:57 p.m. came yet another: “I will tell you something, we don’t make threats on television, and we don’t promise anything we can’t deliver. I repeat, I will destroy your homes over your heads if you dare harm your masters.”
In the following weeks the town was engulfed in a frenzied whirlwind; housewives made plaintive calls to their neighbors, fearing their homes would be looted by fanatic Islamist militants; those with relatives in other towns packed their belongings and left. Townsmen downloaded videos supposedly showing militants beheading Syrian regime rivals in the battlefield and watched them over and over again.
“They’ll do to us what they did to Maaloula,” says Dalila, the wife of the town’s mukhtar, Samir Awad, recalling the general sentiment at the hectic time.
For his part, Rizk boosted the town’s voluntary civilian patrols, comprised of some 30 former Army soldiers. They still make nightly rounds, about four to one vehicle and communicating to other voluntary units using walkie-talkies.
The patrols, dubbed the “Hawks of Al-Qaa” were formed a year ago, when tensions along the border with Syria began to surface. In addition to the civilian patrols, the town is protected by municipal police, paid by the Interior Ministry and the Army.
Local resident Antoinette said she was ready to leave her home in the mostly Christian Al-Qaa for good. But once the hysteria had subsided, she decided to stay.
“It just didn’t make sense,” she added retrospectively.
The legitimacy of the messages and the authenticity of the ISIS threat soon came under fire by certain members of the municipal council, all of whom happen to oppose Rizk’s administration.
Rizk maintains that he has received more warnings from the same Syrian number since Jan. 6, accusing him of conspiring with Hezbollah. He believes they came in response to an interview he gave to Al-Jadeed TV on Jan. 3, when he said that there were “hundreds” of unlicensed motorcycles and cars in Masharih Al-Qaa. Many members of the Syrian opposition travel freely between Lebanon and Syria using such unlicensed vehicles, and authorities have recently started cracking down on unregistered cars and motorbikes following several car bombings using stolen vehicles.
The mayor says his revelation prompted an Army crackdown.
Rizk’s rivals in the town believe the threats are specious, and part of a plan concocted by the mayor to divert attention away from what they say are illegal building activities in Masharih al-Qaa, an issue that has divided the town for some time.
“The mayor fabricated the threats to serve certain personal interests,” said Awad, the mukhtar. “If ISIS really wanted to attack the town, they would have made the threat publicly, like they always do.”
He also offered an alternative theory regarding the identity of the Syrian caller. “Anyone can use a Syrian number and call someone. You can never know if the threat is real or not,” he said.
The Daily Star attempted to call the number in question but received an out of service signal every time.
Asked what the mayor would have to gain from such a scheme, Awad, and municipal council member Assaf Daher, also responsible for organizing the civilian patrols, could only speculate it might be financial in nature.
Deconstructing the puzzle of allegations and retorts over the issue of the ISIS threats in Al-Qaa inevitably brings one back to the land issue in Masharih al-Qaa, a matter in which virtually everyone in the town has a stake. For instance, Rizk’s most vocal critic, Awad, is also a landowner who lost several plots in Masharih al-Qaa after the mayor approved construction permits that effectively arrogated areas Awad claims were rightfully his.
“When the Interior Ministry asked the municipality to control construction violations in the village, he [Rizk] didn’t comply; he let people build illegally and turned a blind eye to others,” Awad alleges. “In order to cover up for this he said he was threatened to divert attention away from these activities.”
In between the speculative claims, which could not be verified by The Daily Star, is the opinion of the Army intelligence officer in charge of the area that the text message threats were “not serious.”
“If they [ISIS] wanted to do something, they would have done it already,” he said.
“They might have threatened him because the people who own unlicensed vehicles, whom we have arrested, think that the mayor was responsible for taking such measures,” he says.
“We have been confiscating illegal vehicles regardless of the threats because we fear they might be used in attacks in the region,” he adds. “This is the most important issue.”
About 10 kilometers separates the residential area of Al-Qaa from embattled regions in Syria. Residents say they can hear the sounds of bombings from the other side of the border by night, and fear that they might be the victim of stray rockets and shelling. Masharih al-Qaa is a vast agricultural tract separating the border town from the Syrian frontier, and has been hit by several rockets presumably intended for nearby Hermel.
Awad says he worries more that infighting between rebel groups in Syria might spill over the border into the town.
“The losing group might cross the border to take refuge, maybe in areas in Al-Qaa,” he says. “This is what we fear the most.”
The Army Intelligence officer accompanied The Daily Star across the last checkpoint leading to Masharih Al-Qaa. A paved road spanning 6 kilometers leads straight to the Syrian checkpoint.
“It’s alright now,” the officer says. “But it might not be in the next five minutes.”
The Army has erected 22 posts between Ras Baalbek and Al-Qaa, obstructing every possible entry way into Lebanon that militants could take, he says. “Don’t tell ISIS, though,” he smirks.