ARSAL, Lebanon: Three weeks ago, Khadija Awdeh found herself caught up in an alleged terrorist plot as a passenger in a rigged car driven by her aunt Joumana Hmeid, who was formally charged by Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr this week for involvement with Al-Qaeda-linked groups. Awdeh ’s family is in disbelief over the charges, claiming there was no indication Hmeid was involved in anything untoward. Even before the formal charges have been filed, the family says it hasn’t been permitted to communicate with her.
“They [the authorities] are not allowing anyone to see her. She has a lawyer, but he has not been able to speak with her either,” Awdeh ’s husband Mohammad says.
Describing Hmeid as “friendly” and “not religious at all,” Awdeh says she is still in shock that her aunt, the wife of her uncle, was implicated in a crime as serious as abetting a terrorist organization.
“I never expected this from her, and I still don’t believe she could have done this,” she says.
“How could she have been transporting explosives for extremist groups?” asks Majid, Awdeh ’s father. “Someone must have fooled her.”
The arrest and interrogation of Palestinian Naim Abbas, the alleged mastermind of several terrorist bombings in the Beirut southern suburbs, led to that of Hmeid. She along with 20 others was charged by Saqr with belonging to the Al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades and the Nusra Front in Lebanon.
The case has been referred to Military Investigative Judge Riyad Abu Ghayda for further investigation.
The owner of an antique shop in the town, Hmeid was known by locals for her love for driving.
“She was daring,” Awdeh says about her aunt’s method behind the wheel. After all, the day she was arrested, Hmeid had showed up on Awdeh ’s doorstep and asked if she wanted to go for a ride to Zahle.
On that sunny Feb. 13, Hmeid came to her niece’s home with another cousin, Hala Rayed, who was seven months pregnant.
“Joumana came for a visit that day,” Awdeh says, adjusting her pink leopard-print hijab, which compliments leopard-print sweatpants.
Awdeh told Hmeid she would go on condition her doctor in Zahle was available for a last-minute appointment. Her aunt made the call, and the three were off.
The Kia she drove that day was new, Awdeh remarks, “it was not her usual car, but we didn’t ask whose it was.”
They passed the first checkpoint out of Arsal without issue but were stopped at the Army Intelligence post in the town of Labweh.
“They were waiting for us, as though they had been informed that our car was coming,” Awdeh says.
The Army intelligence personnel ordered the three to vacate the vehicle, she recalls, and face the wall on the side of the street while they searched the car. The officers didn’t believe Rayed when she told them she was expecting, “they thought she was wearing an explosive belt at first,” Awdeh says.
The women were taken to Army Intelligence headquarters in Ablah, where they were interrogated for two hours.
“They were mean, they insulted us,” Awdeh says.
The three were then taken to the Defense Ministry in Beirut, where “we were treated well,” she adds.
Military experts dismantled 50 kilograms of explosives from the Kia in Labweh and said it had been initially rigged in Syria. Awdeh maintains that she never saw the authorities remove any explosives from the vehicle. “They took us to Ablah before they took the explosives out. We didn’t see them being taken out of the car,” she says. “We didn’t see any explosives [at the checkpoint], we all saw it on the TV.”
Eventually, Awdeh and Rayed were released by the authorities without charge. Hmeid was detained for further investigation until official charges were filed.
Hmeid’s lawyer Tareq Shandab says he will be able to visit his client for the first time Thursday, after her interrogation, and that he hasn’t had access to Hmeid since her arrest three weeks ago.
“Joumana hasn’t been interrogated since she was detained,” Shandab, who is also representing detained Sheikh Omar Atrash, tells The Daily Star.
He described the conditions of her detention at the Defense Ministry as “insulting.”
“The Army Intelligence is psychologically terrorizing the prisoners they keep at the Defense Ministry, so that they are vulnerable during the interrogation,” the lawyer alleges.
Hmeid is the first woman to be accused of complicity with a terrorist organization since the spate of suicide bombings targeting mostly Shiite areas of Lebanon, after Hezbollah announced its military involvement alongside the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Before her arrest, the prospect of women being recruited to execute such attacks was broached as a hypothetical scenario; now, it is a reality that requires the Army to improve its surveillance.
According to Mario Abou Zeid of the Carnegie Middle East Center, women are being recruited for suicide missions because of their remarkable effectiveness when it comes to carrying them out.
“Terrorist groups [around the world] are increasingly enlisting women as suicide bombers because of their higher effectiveness. It’s a new tactic used to infiltrate army inspection,” he says. “As a female they [the Army] wouldn’t dare inspect them in the same way they do with males.”
Responding to accusations that Hmeid was tricked into driving the Kia out of Arsal, Abou Zeid was doubtful: “There are suspicions that she might have been forced to drive the car, but I really doubt this woman was fooled.”
He says that while the involvement of women in terrorist cells is relatively “new in Lebanon,” it is a regular occurrence in Iraq and Syria.
“After the arrest of Joumana Hmeid, [the idea that women can be involved in suicide missions] is no longer a possibility, it’s a fact,” an Army source told The Daily Star. “That is why we will be careful when dealing with both men and women.”
The source concedes that there are complications involved in checking suspicious female suspects.
“It is easier and quicker to deal with men because you can search them on the spot,” he says.
To search a woman, protocol requires that soldiers ask the suspect to get out of the car, so that it can be searched first. The suspects must then wait for the arrival of female ISF officers, who are posted in select sensitive areas across the country.
“They have to wait for the female officers, who come and perform the search,” the source said.