BEIRUT: The Internal Security Forces and the Army are planning a major joint operation to apprehend the ringleaders behind the rash of kidnappings for ransom that have plagued the country since 2011, an authoritative source told The Daily Star.
The source said security forces had files on at least 41 kidnappings that have taken place over the past year and a half, but the actual number could be much higher. Many families, particularly those of Syrian victims with no contacts in Lebanon, are too afraid to call the authorities when the life of a loved one is at stake.
“The idea started after the kidnapping of the seven Estonians in March 2011, because the government of Estonia paid between 5 and 6 million euros [for the hostages],” the source explained. “The wanted guys in Lebanon, especially in the Bekaa [Valley], really liked this idea. In the past they stole cars, and then they would call the car’s owner and say ‘bring me $5,000.’ Now the car thefts have stopped. Why? Because if they take a rich man they can get $200,000.”
The source denied any political motivation behind the kidnappings, describing them as “purely criminal.” He went on to shed light on the inner workings of these shadowy groups, and how they have managed to evade arrest.
The kidnapping of the Estonians was orchestrated by a local gang based in the Bekaa Valley and allegedly led by the fugitive Hussein Hujeiri on behalf of a “big boss” in Iraq, who specifically instructed his local counterparts to go after foreigners.
“They didn’t know they were Estonian; they just saw them riding bicycles,” a sure sign they were not locals, said the source. “The Estonian government paid the money outside of Lebanon without telling anybody, and we found out later.”
Shortly after the release of the Estonians in exchange for an impressive ransom, gangs based largely in the Bekaa Valley city of Baalbek, and the nearby village of Brital and surrounding areas, began targeting rich Syrian businessmen on the Masnaa-Chtaura road further south, according to the source. Soon, they expanded their operations to other parts of the country, relying on a network of local informants who scouted potential targets in exchange for money. In some cases, these informants turned out to be neighbors or even family members of the victim.
Last March, the Internal Security Forces scored a victory when they managed to apprehend Mohammad Fayyad Ismail, a notorious gang leader and the alleged mastermind behind “five or six” lucrative kidnappings.
But one gang, perhaps emboldened by past successes, went to too far when they snatched 12-year-old Mohammad Nabil Awada, the son of a wealthy businessman, while he was waiting for the school bus outside his home in Beirut in late February. The child’s kidnapping sparked a media storm and was roundly condemned by top politicians and religious figures, including Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
“This means they [Hezbollah] are giving the green light to the security forces and Army to put a stop to this phenomenon,” said the source.
The kidnappers initially demanded $1 million in ransom, but eventually settled for $100,000. With the permission of the boy’s father, the ISF tapped the family’s phones and prepared to spring the trap. Sensing something was wrong, however, the kidnappers changed tactics, asking the father to drop the bag with the money off the Cola Bridge in Beirut. A man on a motorcycle grabbed the bag and raced away, while the boy was released unharmed on the other side of the capital.
“They were in our hands [...] but we were obliged to wait so we didn’t succeed,” said the source. “They were very clever and they didn’t release the boy until they were in a safe place.”
“They are very careful,” he went on. “They use public phones from all over the country. They know the phone is dangerous and they never use the same number twice.”
The source emphasized the importance of all the country’s political factions coming together to deny the kidnappers political cover, noting that Brital and the surrounding area, while predominantly Shiite, were only nominally under Hezbollah control.
“Not all these guys obey Nasrallah,” he said. “When you go to a town that has about 300 to 400 wanted individuals, if you go in, everyone will attack you, so it’s very difficult to arrest anyone inside the town.”
The government, the Interior Ministry and the security forces and Army are currently formulating a plan the source hopes will put a stop to string of kidnappings. So far, the security forces and Army have arrested 54 suspects, with about 90 more still at large.
“It’s a very hard mission, but we will try and catch the key figures. ... We are trying to protect the Lebanese and put a stop to this phenomenon,” the source said.
In the meantime, he said, there is little anyone can do to protect themselves. Even refraining from the ostentatious displays of wealth for which a certain segment of the population is known is unlikely to deter kidnappers.
“In Lebanon, there are no secrets. You know the rich guys very well.”