BEIRUT: Ahmad Zeidan, the owner of Lebanon’s largest dairy farm, Liban Lait, was abducted in December of last year, near his factory in Bekaa’s Talia Valley by masked gunmen. The 60-year-old’s captors demanded ransom at first, but released him after four days under pressure from political leaders, particularly Speaker Nabih Berri.
Zeidan’s abduction was one of at least 30 kidnappings in the Bekaa in the past year. Although state security institutions have launched a number of campaigns to combat the trend, kidnapping operations have multiplied, spreading to other parts of the country.
Like Zeidan, Youssef Beshara is a wealthy man – his family owns a popular chain of bakeries across the country – who was abducted for ransom.
His captors, who kidnapped him in the Metn town of Bsalim, released him in return for a $400,000 ransom, though the Lebanese Army’s Intelligence units soon caught one of the kidnappers and returned most of the money to the Beshara family.
Military and security experts say that kidnapping, carjacking and other crime will continue to increase amid ongoing unrest in Syria and a decentralization of security authority in Lebanon that has led security bodies to align with rival sects.
Experts also say that as long as the security measures adopted by the state institutions are reactionary and not preventive, such incidents will spread throughout the country.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel says a turbulent political situation in the country and the ongoing violence in Syria are fueling the incidents. “The state would be stronger and able to prevent such kidnappings if the Lebanese were united,” Charbel says.
The interior minister says the success of some gangs in the Bekaa in making money from abductions has encouraged others to take up the practice.
Retired Gen. Elias Hanna agrees with Charbel’s assessment that the apparent success of one kidnapping operation had led to “spillover,” but says the state must go beyond operations to free the abducted to develop a campaign to deter kidnappings.
“The lack of deterrence has allowed the emergence of the kidnapping phenomenon in the country,” says Hanna, a military analyst.
Hanna believes that the absence of a common strategy among Lebanese security bodies has left the country vulnerable. “You have state police, judicial police, Internal Security Forces, the Information Branch, the Lebanese Army and its Intelligence Unit, and then you have General Security: Who is the authority over all these agencies?” Hanna asks.
“Each security agency is subject to the authority of a certain Lebanese sect and they do not have a modus operandi to deal with the country’s security.”
Although state security institutions are officially under the authority of ministries, some of them are under the patronage or closer to certain sects.
The Internal Security Forces and its Information Branch and the General Security are under the authority of the Interior Ministry, but the ISF leans toward the Sunnis while the General Security leans toward the Shiites.
“When armed Shiite clans agreed to release two Turkish citizens who were kidnapped last month, they handed them to the General Security because there is a popular distrust of the ISF in handling such sensitive issues,” one security official says.
“It’s as if there is a battle between different security forces. Even when the Internal Security Forces has information on a kidnapping, they won’t share it with Army Intelligence because these days, they are being asked not to conduct investigations,” says the security official, who refused to be identified.
The official also notes that professional criminal gangs involved in car thefts have shifted their focus to abducting wealthy individuals as this is more lucrative.
Echoing the official, Hanna believes that the abductions are the work of well-organized gangs and not amateur individuals. “These things require an active organization with communication skills and proper hideouts. Let’s not forget that Lebanon has changed: Communications in the country have become advanced and the perpetrators have more room to operate,” he says.
Hanna refuses to compare the present spate of kidnappings with those that took place at the height of the Civil War.
“There was no state back then. Today there is a state, but the laws that provide the security forces with the authority to act are not being implemented properly,” he says. “Who said that the Army or the police need the approval of Speaker Nabih Berri or Prime Minister Najib Mikati to carry out a crackdown on armed individuals in Tripoli and the Bekaa?”
“The law speaks before Berri, the law gives the Army the authority to act when necessary ... Acting only when a battle starts or when kidnappings increase makes the Army and the police look like militias,” he adds.
Aram Nerguizian, a Fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Study, says the rash of kidnappings is part of a political and security pattern that has recently emerged.
“You have a pattern emerging in Lebanon in the past 18 months that is driven mainly by the sudden government change and the increasing violence in Syria ... These have definitely affected the security situation,” Nerguizian adds.
According to Nerguizian, the unrest in Syria has a great negative impact on Lebanon’s security, and the longer the violence in the neighboring country continues, the more unstable Lebanon will become.
“Any assumption that Lebanon won’t be destabilized by the continuing unrest in Syria is naive,” says Nerguizian.
“The unrest in Syria will create a very unstable and precarious environment in a country where there is already a battle among different communities over who will inherit the country’s state institutions in the post-Taif era,” he says.
Increasing crime, from theft to kidnappings to murder, is one of the outcomes of the spillover of the Syrian crisis, adds Nerguizian, who agrees with Hanna that many state institutions are aligned with sects.
The withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005 led to an upheaval among states institutions that had all been under their centralized control, he explains.
“From 1990 to 2005, the Syrian security apparatus ‘froze’ Lebanon and they were the gatekeepers of the country,” he says
“After the Syrian withdrawal, the struggle of who will control the country’s state institutions has resumed.”
Meanwhile, the Army – the security institution with the strongest support across sects – is struggling to convert this support into action on the ground.
“Before the Lebanese Civil War the Lebanese Army enjoyed high morale, but it struggled on the level of representation among the Lebanese.”
Now the trend has been reversed, Nerguizian says. “Today you have an environment in which the Army is more representative but has little morale on the ground.”