ROUEISS, Lebanon: Though known for their armed clashes and running vendettas, a veil of intrigue surrounds the clans of Lebanon’s northeast region of Baalbek-Hermel.
The Meqdad family, which in the last two days snatched dozens of Syrians in retaliation for the kidnapping of a relative in Syria, is no exception. In the first floor apartment of a building on the Meqdad Street of the Beirut southern suburb of Roueiss, family members, relatives, neighbors and journalists crowd the reception area and the large terrace.
They all wait for updates from Maher Meqdad, the clan’s spokesperson, who is in constant contact with the family’s so-called “military wing.” The wing, made up of the men who appeared on television Wednesday wearing masks and armed to the teeth, is tasked with carrying out the kidnappings.
The families of Baalbek-Hermel are organized into clans, known in Arabic as the “ashair,” and these include, to name a few, the families of Jaafar, Zeaiter, Hamiyeh, Hamadeh, Dandash, Shamas, Meqdad, Moussawi and Allaw. The dynamics of the Baalbek clans follow classic tribal feuds, shifting alliances and vendettas.
“Dealing with [the Baalbek] clans is a highly subtle endeavor,” says a senior security source, who was once in charge of maintaining law and order in the Baalbek-Hermel region.
Several Baalbek clans including the Jaafars and Zeaiters have expressed support for the Meqdads in their endeavor to free their captured relative.
The source explains that the clans are ordinarily compliant unless they feel threatened, in which case they do not stand idle. “Those clans will not rest until they wreak vengeance on their foes.”
In the Hezbollah-dominated Roueiss suburb, neighbors speak of the “courage and loyalty” of the Meqdad clan. “If anyone is in need, they will help them and they are always present in difficult times or to pay condolences,” says Abu Ahmad, the owner of a snack shop in the area.
The organization and efficiency displayed by the military wing of the Meqdads is reminiscent of Hezbollah’s modus operandi and has left many wondering whether the party was playing a behind-the-scenes role. But the Meqdads have a long history of conflict with the powerful party.
In June, the Meqdad family and Hezbollah clashed with arms in Roueiss, an area they share, and according to a resident of the neighborhood who wished to remain anonymous, these fights are regular occurrences.
A security source from the southern suburbs explains that the clashes usually take place after the clan has rejected Hezbollah’s mediation efforts to persuade them to surrender wanted family members to authorities.
The Meqdads, who live – in addition to Baalbek – across Lebanon in Jbeil, Koura and south Lebanon, have not maintained good ties with the Lebanese state either.
Last year, the family breached a court order forbidding construction on disputed property in the majority Shiite Jbeil village of Lassa, considered the homeland of the Meqdads.
“Clan solidarity is primordial,” says the senior source, formerly in charge of security in the Baalbek region. “Regardless of disagreements the clan always comes first.”
The source also dismisses claims that Hezbollah orchestrates the behavior of the 17,000-member strong clan. “Baalbek clans have kept arms for centuries and fought Ottoman rule and later on French forces during the mandate era,” the source says. “They are never short of weapons.”
While families in Baalbek-Hermel support Hezbollah, and resistance against Israel, they prioritize the interests of their individual clans, the source continues. “In Baalbek, a clan signifies protection and immunity.”
The only way Hezbollah could have intervened with the Meqdads was to convince them not to abduct Gulf nationals, he adds.
“Hezbollah is very sensitive when it comes to Arab countries.”
Later Thursday, Maher Meqdad admits to having made mistakes the day before and says the military wing operated in a rather “rash and chaotic” manner. But he adds that the first person to die will be abducted Turkish national Aidan Toufan if Hasan Meqdad is killed.
As for the intelligence information needed to carry out the kidnappings, a source from the clan says several family members occupy top posts in security bodies “and are willing to give us all the information we need.”
The man says that Hezbollah had no intention to clash with the Meqdads at this point “because they do not want blood spilled and they do not want to lose the votes of the Meqdad family in the next election.”
The senior source, for his part, explains that the Meqdad kidnapping spree was not without precedent.
In response to the kidnapping of two of their relatives, the Jaafar clan in May abducted 13 Syrian men from Hermel and nearby Zeita. A hostage swap deal was successfully brokered shortly afterward.
The source argues that the Meqdads chose to follow the example of the Jaafars to ensure the release of Hasan Meqdad rather than the path of “patience and diplomacy” that both Hezbollah and Amal had “imposed on the families of the 11 Lebanese” who were abducted near Aleppo in May on their way back from a pilgrimage to Iran’s Mashhad.
“The Meqdads realized that the Jaafars were able to solve the problem in 24 hours, while the families of the pilgrims have been suffering for the last four months,” the source says.
Meanwhile, in the “quartier general” of the clan in Roueiss, civilian members of the Meqdad family that has risen to notoriety in the last few days mull future steps.
Amid the hustle and bustle, a bald man sits in his corner observing. He hesitantly divulges that he is a university professor but categorically refuses to give his name.
“They are crazy,” he confides in broken English. “I can’t believe what they are doing; it’s against all human rights principles. But I have to stay here and show solidarity.”