FNAYDEQ, Lebanon: Grocer Mahmoud Saoud was reading his Quran by the road, vegetable crates by his side to entice drivers along the street leading up to the northern town of Fnaydeq, the site of four Army raids in less than two weeks.
The raids, part of a nationwide crackdown on terrorism, came in response to confessions made by two suspects, locals Mahmoud Khaled and Alaa Kanaan. The fruits of the operation – 42 dynamite sticks, 34 mortar bombs, 14 mortal propellant charges and 36 hand grenades – were put out on display upon seizure for all to see.
“Everyone denounces terrorism and terrorist groups, but the Lebanese government is giving people here the incentive to become terrorists by openly favoring one party over another,” Saoud said, in a veiled reference to Hezbollah.
The Army came and went, he added, but the results of their forays don’t interest him. “I don’t follow up with their operations, because they aren’t doing what they are supposed to.”
Saoud’s acerbic take on the military establishment mirrors that of Fnaydeq’s residents, who with every security gain announced by the government from mainly-Sunni areas, feel increasingly disenfranchised. Local hostility toward the Army peaked after the raids, with many discrediting the discovery of the weapons stash as local authorities, namely their mayor and mukhtar, were absent as witnesses.
Shortly after detaining Khaled and Kanaan, on June 28 the Army said the former’s confession had led them to a cave in the outskirts of Fnaydeq, purportedly used by militants to make explosives. Instructive materials about bomb-making were confiscated, according to the Army, as were weapons, CDs and cellphones.
Khaled had already confessed to burying rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition beneath his rented property in Al-Azer Farm, where the 25-year-old lived with his wife, according to Fnaydeq’s mayor. Weapons were also confiscated from Kanaan’s home. Raids continued for days in the village, leaving many embittered residents to line up outside the office of Khaldoun Taleb, Fnaydeq’s mayor, to complain.
“Although the Army statement said they found dynamite and hand grenades, the people don’t believe it,” he told The Daily Star.
In Fnaydeq, Mahmoud Khaled is known as Zahraman, the friendly electrician with a penchant for fixing appliances. Residents are unanimous when questioned about his general comportment: “He was religious,” they all said.
“He was especially keen on being a ‘true’ Muslim,” explained Taleb.
But he was also a keen handyman. From air conditioners, to fridges and washing machines, everyone would walk into Khaled’s rented shop to ask for repairs.
By the time of his arrest, Khaled’s vision was uninocular; he had lost an eye fighting among Syrian rebel ranks in Qalaat al-Hosn. About 15 young men from the town are known to have ventured to Syria to do the same. Of that number some died, some, like Khaled, returned injured, and others remain fighting, according to Taleb.
Khaled resumed work as an electrician, but residents gave him a hero’s welcome.
“They perceive Mahmoud as being a strong fighter, if the Army wants to call him a terrorist, they don’t care,” Taleb said. “For them a real fighter is a person who protects others from injustice.”
The majority of Fnaydeq supports the rebel Syrian opposition.
For Alaa Kanaan, history appears to be repeating itself. In 2011, he was arrested and charged with being part of a terrorist organization but later released for lack of evidence.
“I won’t deny the Army’s charges, it’s an institution I respect,” the mayor said. “However, I think it’s highly unlikely that those two were preparing terrorist attacks or belonged to an organization. They are very religious people, but that doesn’t make them terrorists.”
At Fnaydeq’s entrance is an outsized ceramic dallah tilted toward a painted sign informing visitors they are about to enter the town. Along with 77 percent of Fnaydeq’s households, Kanaan and Khaled grew up in relatively impoverished households. The mayor’s diplomatic stance toward the Army’s security measures were with reason, he said, the institution employs 3,000 of Fnaydeq’s 30,000 residents.
Residents reacted incredulously to the raids at first, the mayor said, complaining that the measures were being done because they were “weak” in terms of self-security.
But the root of the matter, he added, was that the Army failed to include the local government in its security measures. Typically, before a raid is conducted, either the mayor or the mukhtar must be present to act as an approving witness. Taleb was not called and left to piece things together for himself.
“Every one still respects the Army, they can do whatever they want, but I still believe that if someone from the town had accompanied the security forces during the raids, it would lessen tensions and make people feel safer,” he said. “We aren’t going to interfere, but we hope this [the raids] will end eventually.”