RAS BAALBEK, Lebanon: Leaning back in his chair, Nidal Mechref pointed to a framed photo on his office wall. “That’s her,” he said, referring affectionately to the family-owned quarry depicted in the photo.
This quarry is the furthest one from Mechref’s village of Ras Baalbek, a Greek Catholic town in northeastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley that is separated from Syria by a mountain range. The quarry attracted national attention earlier this year when eight workers – all Mechref’s employees – were kidnapped by a group claiming to be part of ISIS.
The mountainous borderlands have long been a source of profit for locals who are in the quarrying business such as Mechref. But the Anti-Lebanon range is now also a cause for fear, as Islamist militants from radical groups such as the Nusra Front and ISIS roam the rocky terrain.
During that June kidnapping, seven of the men were hastily released, but the eighth, the Christian among them, was not so lucky. Makhoul Mrad, a man in his late 60s with a heart problem, was held for 22 days.
“I received a phone call from a guy who said he was with the Islamic State [ISIS] and that his name was Abu Hassan al-Filistini,” Mechref told The Daily Star, adding that Filistini – which means Palestinian – had an accent that sounded Syrian.
“He demanded I give $150,000 to the mayor of Arsal.”
Following the kidnapping, the townspeople worked their contacts in Arsal, who eventually found a way to reach Filistini and his group. Filistini has since died in the Arsal clashes that pitted militants against the Lebanese Army, Mechref said.
“They are just bad people, they aren’t even Daesh. They just do this for money,” Abdallah Mrad, Makhoul’s cousin said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
He added that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front even helped Mrad’s family with the negotiations.
However, some of Mrad’s claims were countered by a security source with an intimate knowledge of the area, who said ISIS was definitely behind the kidnapping.
Following the incident, Army units were deployed 4 kilometers beyond the Mechref quarry toward Syria, and there have been no similar incidents in Ras Baalbek since.
Nonetheless, Mechref said he visited the worksite as little as possible.
“We only go up there every two or three days now and when we do we go quickly and come back down,” Mechref said.
“There’s lots of fear there [in the quarry],” said an employee of the local municipality. The fragile security situation also prevented The Daily Star from venturing to the quarry.
Now all Mechref’s employees in the quarry are Syrians, with the exception of one Arsal resident. Mrad still works for him, but closer to headquarters in town, and is in good physical condition, Mechref said.
The whole town has been on edge for the last year or so due to the ongoing threat of incursions by Islamist militants. Residents have reacted by forming civilian patrol units – largely composed of retired Army soldiers and officers – that monitor the town and coordinate with the Lebanese security forces.
The increased security has helped ease concerns somewhat, but the risk of escalation is always there.
Last month Lebanese Army rockets flew over the town into Arsal’s mountains to strike Islamists holed up there, and the militants would often retaliate by firing their own poorly aimed rockets at Ras Baalbek and the neighboring towns.
However, due to the difficulty of infiltrating Ras Baalbek and the surrounding towns, ISIS instead seems to have turned its sights on the mainly Sunni border village of Arsal.
ISIS enjoys a strong presence there, according to the security source, with Syrians comprising most of the group and Arsal residents accounting for well under 1 percent.
But even if Ras Baalbek is no longer in the group’s crosshairs, the source said that ISIS’ presence had grown tenfold from the 300 or so members it had in the area when it kidnapped Mrad.
“ISIS now has around 3,000-4,000 fighters in the mountains,” the source said. The group uses these men to kidnap locals and extort them for money, he added.
As a result, Ras Baalbek residents still don’t feel safe in the shadow of the snowy peaks that tower over their town. “There is more security than before but the Army can’t patrol all the mountains,” Mechref said.