For nearly three weeks, kidnappers held Leban-ese pharmacist Wissam Khatib, threatening to kill him and his children if his family didn’t pay a ransom of tens of thousands of dollars.
During his captivity, Khatib — often shackled and blindfolded — went through depression, terror, pain. But, he says, the trauma was not a surprise. A well-to-do pharmacist in the eastern Lebanese city of Zahleh, the 40-year-old Khatib knew he was a target.
He had escaped one kidnapping attempt in August, when he saw masked gunmen approaching his pharmacy and fled before they saw him. He expected them to return, knowing that Lebanon’s weak security forces couldn’t help him.
“The state knew, security forces knew, but they didn’t help me at all,” Khatib told The Associated Press.
Hostage-taking of wealthy businessmen in Lebanon has risen more than seven-fold in an unlikely knock-on effect from Syria’s civil war. Security officials say gangs who once made their money smuggling fuel and contraband through the porous Syria-Lebanon border have watched their trade wither because of the violence, so they are turning to kidnapping to make a profit.
Lebanon is suffering multiple woes from the war next door. The tiny country, with a population of 4.5 million, has been flooded with an estimated 1 million Syrians fleeing the conflict. Also, tensions between its Sunni and Shiite communities have spiked, sometimes exploding into deadly clashes, mirroring the sectarian hatreds in Syria, where Sunnis largely support the rebellion, and Shiites and the Alawite sect back President Bashar Al Assad.
In the latest violence, a Sunni shaikh, Saad Al Deen Ghieh, was shot to death in his car Tuesday by gunmen in the northern city of Tripoli, scene of frequent clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in connection with Syria’s war.
In contrast, the kidnapping wave — a more indirect repercussion — illustrates the multiple, unexpected ways that Lebanon, with its fragile hold on security, is vulnerable to the turmoil across the border. There are fears the problem could spread — and that abductions could spread beyond criminal activity and into political motives — as Syria’s war, which began in March 2011, continues.
“The reason why there are so many kidnappings is because the state is failing. State security is unable and cannot work,” warned Lebanese security analyst Nizar-Qader.
Security officials acknowledge they are overwhelmed by the mounting problems rooted in Syria’s conflict.
“The weight on the state is heavy — it’s above what the state can handle,” said one official in the Interior Ministry. He said such kidnappings for ransom in the past were “very, very rare.”
Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces recorded 73 kidnappings between August 2011 and September 2013. In contrast, there were 14 cases total in the previous five years.
Most of the abductions take place in eastern Bekaa Valley, where heavily armed clans hold sway, some of them involved in the smuggling trade.
Sense of panic
Gangs once made their money sneaking cheap cigarettes, fuel, clothes and other items into Lebanon from Syria. But now, unable to freely pass through areas in Syria that have become war zones, they’ve turned their hand to kidnappings at home, three security officials said. They’ve found accomplices among Syrian and Lebanese men struggling in Lebanon’s economy, hit hard by the war next door, the officials said.
The kidnapping is creating a sense of panic. Lebanese media routinely runs pleas from families of abducted.
On October 12, the family of one seized man, Ramez Bahnam, went on TV to plead with the kidnappers to release him, saying his health would deteriorate. Hours later, they asked the kidnappers “to ensure he is taking his medicine regularly.” Bahnam was released eight days later.
The security officials said most kidnappings end with ransoms being paid, usually less than the high initial demands made by kidnappers, though families are usually reluctant to acknowledge paying, in part of out of fears of becoming repeat targets.
Khatib, the pharmacist, said he was snatched in late September. As he opened his pharmacy in the early morning, masked gunmen screeched up in a car and forced him in. During 17 days in captivity, he was blindfolded and shackled, with the gunmen telling him they would kill his children if his family didn’t pay the ransom. They also called his family, threatening to kill him.
“I said, ‘Kill me. Shred me to bits. But my family, nobody touches them,’” Khatib said.