BEIRUT: Relatives of 1st. Adj. Kamal Mohammad Hujeiri waited in eager anticipation for his release Thursday, having received assurances that he would be discharged from Army custody before Eid al-Adha.
The kidnapping of the soldier, who was freed earlier this week after a Qatari-led delegation held protracted talks with Islamist militants in Arsal’s outskirts, might indicate to what extent ISIS makes use of local Arsali gangs to do their bidding.
“Kamal has not arrived yet, but we expect him to be reunited with his family tomorrow at the latest,” Khaled Hujeiri, an uncle, told The Daily Star. General Security transferred the released man to Army officials Thursday, where he underwent questioning.
“The family has been reassured that Kamal is free and with Lebanese government officials,” Hujeiri said. Prior to this week the family had not heard from their captured member since his abduction two weeks ago.
When the 35-year-old Hujeiri was snatched by gunmen in two pickup trucks Sept. 17, according to eye-witness accounts, he was on a visit home from service and tending to the family farm in Wadi Hmeid, an area of Arsal that since March has seen Syrian air raids and violent altercations between militants and the Army.
“We are 80 percent sure the Nusra Front did not kidnap Kamal that day, they never admitted to it,” Hujeiri’s uncle said. “We know that if they had, Nusra would have told us, but they didn’t.”
In a statement posted to an affiliated Twitter account, the Nusra Front denied releasing any hostages Wednesday, after reports claimed Hujeiri had been freed by the extremist group Tuesday night. ISIS for its part, has not issued a statement clarifying whether Hujeiri was their captive, but his relatives have reason to believe militants from this group were tipped off that Hujieri was an Army member by local thugs.
According to the uncle, Kamal’s cousin is a member of a gang known to roam the border town’s outskirts. “He’s not normal,” Hujeiri said, “He has mental issues.” Kamal, by contrast, was described by relatives as wise and considerate. “He was an active member of the Army, and socially, he was dynamic.”
Prior to the militant infiltration of Arsal’s outskirts, the Wadi Hmeid area was slowly becoming industrialized with 10 gas stations and stone quarries. The Hujeiri family farm was right in the middle of developments.
Four years ago, Kamal, who was still an officer in the Army, was rumored to have been offered a position with the Army intelligence.
“People in Arsal were worried, because you know people don’t like to keep in touch with people from the intelligence, so many people stopped speaking to him.”
According to Arsal’s deputy mayor Ahmad Fliti, locals in the town draw a distinction between the military and its intelligence wing – the latter is perceived to be a “tool” of Hezbollah, Fliti said.
The exclusion proved too taxing for Kamal’s father, a man with “high social status” in Arsal, so he asked his son to resign, according to Hujeiri. “But someone from Arsal might have told a group of thugs in the outskirts about him,” he said. “His cousin is with that group so they might have lured him.”
The gang in question, Hujeiri said, was comprised of 25 delinquents between the ages of 25 and 40. “They are lost,” he said. “They don’t have any religious or political goals. However, they might be cooperating with ISIS.”
He said the gang was responsible for carrying out numerous kidnapping-for-ransom operations in the past in the Wadi Hmeid area in particular. “Some spent time fighting with ISIS or Nusra [but are not militants themselves],” he said. “Their aims are mostly financial.”
The family farm in Wadi Hmeid was ransacked after Kamal’s kidnapping. In two weeks the armed men gradually took the chickens, along with their eggs, livestock, which included a few cows and lambs. “They took everything,” Hujeiri said.
Hujeiri ruled out the possibility that Kamal’s cousin could have helped to negotiate for his release, but acknowledged that Qatari-mediation to free the soldier implied that the kidnappers might have been, if not under directives, then cooperating with militants.
“There’s no way his cousin could have helped with Kamal’s release, I think the efforts of the Qatari delegation and Lebanese security were responsible for Kamal’s freedom,” he said.
His relatives maintain they believe the men who took Kamal initially had two aims in mind: to use his military background as a cover and to make a profit by looting the farm.
“They were trying to hit two birds with one stone.”