BEIRUT: It was a brisk January day when Rawad Ezzedine was kidnapped, beaten by a dozen militants, and left standing face-to-face with an elderly sheikh who asked him how often he prayed. The previous day the 21-year-old Ezzedine had engaged in a verbal exchange with a Syrian adolescent in which he lost his temper and used God’s name in vain. At noon the next day, a car pulled up next to his uncle’s sawmill in the Arsal area of Shbib where he worked. A group of men took him forcibly, put a bag over his head and hit him with sticks, asking him again and again why he had sworn. The Syrian adolescent had filed a complaint in ISIS’ religious court, and Ezzedine was about to be tried.
His trial was held on Jan. 30 in a bungalow-turned courthouse just 4 kilometers from the last Army checkpoint in Wadi Hmayyed. When taken to the courtroom, Ezzedine was instructed to greet the sheikh, his judge, in formal Arabic. Their conversation lasted six minutes, and a scribe recorded every word.
The presence of a rudimentary court system run by ISIS in Arsal’s outskirts was corroborated by half a dozen quarry workers who claim to have seen it, as well as two witnesses who were summoned to hearings, including Ezzedine.
While ISIS in Qalamoun have maintained a low-profile since August, the operations of the court are a sign that the militant group is attempting to consolidate power by giving Arsalis the one thing they need most – order.
In addition to the court, quarry workers told The Daily Star the group had set up mobile checkpoints in certain areas of Arsal’s barren range, asking for identification and on occasion, confiscating food stuffs and mobile phones. Workers, who are predominately male, said they were instructed to grow beards and were told smoking was forbidden beyond the Army checkpoint.
Ezzedine was released less than 24 hours after his capture. The sheikh listened to his account and compared it to that of the Syrian adolescent. He then turned to Ezzedine and asked him if he knew how to pray.
“I said I didn’t frequently, so he said he would teach me how before letting me go,” he told The Daily Star.
He slept in the room next door, and in the morning was given bread, yogurt and cheese. A militant then demonstrated how a “good Muslim” ought to pray.
“This is in line with what ISIS does when it comes to an area and starts to build its influence there,” said Hasan Hasan, an analyst at the Delma Institute and co-author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.”
“That’s how they always start: They try to establish a court system, and they start getting complaints and make connections with the community,” Hasan said.
In a July report, the Institute for the Study of War highlighted how the establishment of religious courts, which adhere to an austere interpretation of the Shariah, even in areas it does not fully control, is a core part of ISIS’ mode of governance.
According to Hasan, the militant group typically rents a small home, where a rudimentary courthouse is established to hear civil complaints. In Syria and Iraq, amid widespread anarchy and war, ISIS succeeded in maintaining a semblance of law and order in areas under its influence. “That has been their strategy of winning hearts and minds,” Hasan said.
But ISIS in Qalamoun has behaved differently from its units in Iraq and Syria, cooperating with its rival the Nusra Front, which occupies the area east of Wadi Hmayyed, and keeping a low profile.
The majority of Arsal’s 35,000 residents work on the outskirts of the town, in some 300 stone quarries, sawmills and factories, according to the municipality. Some believe industry in Arsal might benefit from the semblance of order promised by ISIS in an area long neglected by the government and prone to petty crime. Quarry worker Bilal Hujeiri, who filed a complaint with the religious court on Dec. 12, is of this persuasion.
“When the refugees came there was a lot of chaos, but now things are more controlled because everyone fears the Islamic State,” he said, using the group’s latest name.
Hujeiri was summoned to the court after an Arsal resident, another quarry worker, alleged he was collaborating with the Army. On Dec. 2, two of Hujeiri’s bulldozers were stolen by gangs that he believes were not affiliated with ISIS.
According to the worker, ISIS carried out its own investigation, recovered his bulldozers, and found him innocent after hearing his version of events.
After clearing him, the sheikh handed Hujeiri a slip of paper entitling him to retrieve his bulldozers. He was directed to a warehouse 500 meters away. There, Hujeiri handed a guard the slip and was reunited with his machinery.
“Anyone would do what I did to get their stuff back,” Hujeiri said. “Because after the Army checkpoint [in Wadi Hmayyed] they are the only authority there.”
Since its inception, only one death sentence was reportedly handed down by the court. The name Kayed Ghadadah, a quarry worker who was found guilty of collaborating with Hezbollah on Sept. 3 and promptly executed, was mentioned to The Daily Star by nearly every Arsali worker interviewed.
Ghadadah’s death has succeeded in instilling Arsalis with fear of crossing the militants. His cousin, Khaled, believes ISIS informants in the town tipped off the militants about Ghadadah’s alleged activities.
The night Ghadadah was taken, 10 days before his execution, Khaled said he was with his cousin when a car pulled up outside their home. Three men knocked on the door and asked for Ghadadah, who stepped outside with them. Khaled claimed his cousin was then driven away. “They kidnapped him,” he said.
Ten days later his body was found dumped near Arsal’s outskirts.
“People like me are scared by how it’s become possible for these people to apply laws in a place that is not theirs and judge us,” said Suham Ezzedine, a school teacher. “Most people are terrified of ISIS and wonder how they can be so brutal.”
“But I also have colleagues who are happy with their deeds, and they believe ISIS is punishing the right people,” she added.
Ezzedine, and countless other Arsalis said their fears would abate somewhat if the Army established a permanent presence in the town.
An Army source who acknowledged ISIS was holding court in Wadi Hmayyed said troops did not maintain a fixed position within the town because it would not be “militarily useful.” But another security source said the task was better suited to the Internal Security Forces, which operates west of Arsal.
But unlike Syria and Iraq, where a frenetic environment permitted ISIS to flourish, Lebanon is relatively stable. Hasan recognized the scenario in Qalamoun was substantially different. “If you have a functioning government it will be hard for ISIS to gain the trust of the local population.”
“As long as the government remains effective and the Army can face down any attack, Arsal and other areas should be fine.”