Kidnapping, ransom, release … these words paint a realistic picture of a day in Lebanon's Bekaa valley, where bold crime has become all too common and the situation escalates day after day.
A Kuwaiti citizen, Issam Ibrahim al-Houti, was kidnapped by criminal gangs [Aug. 25]. The kidnapping, which occurred in the village of Hawsh al-Ganam in the Zahle governorate, was particularly brutal. It occurred in front of Houti’s house in plain view of neighbors and passers-by, who stood by unable to help because of gunfire on the part of the kidnappers in light of a security vacuum.
Houti is the director of an oil company in Kuwait and is married to a Lebanese citizen, Fawzia Arafat. The two have a daughter who is not even 3 years old.
The kidnapping occurred in a similar manner to previous kidnappings. It happened in broad daylight, or "in front [of] their eyes," as his wife described it, in reference to a Lebanese army outpost that was only a few meters from where the kidnapping took place.
The nature of the kidnapping showed growing indifference and recklessness on the part of the kidnappers. The unmasked perpetrators ambushed Houti near the house he rents in Hawsh al-Ghanam. The kidnappers had blocked the road with their Mercedes, and there were three armed men inside the car. When Houti tried to escape, two of the gunmen began beating and assaulting him and tried to force him into the car. As he tried to fight back, they fired gunshots between his legs. They eventually forced a black mask over his face, but he removed it from his head and the assailants began assaulting him again, this time with the butt of a pistol. As a result of this beating, his shirt — which he removed during the fight — was covered in blood. A clergy member tried to dissuade the gunmen from assaulting Houti, believing that the fight was the result of a traffic dispute. However, the third gunmen prevented the clergy member from approaching, providing cover for his companions as they forced Houti into the Mercedes and then fled in the direction of Baalbek.
Following the kidnapping, security forces and the army began routine procedures, inspecting the location of the kidnapping and setting up a number of army checkpoints to check the identity of those passing through on the Baalbek highway. Forensic evidence was collected at the scene and dozens of security patrols were established to investigate. The members of these patrols whispered names of well-known kidnappers among one another, yet despite this no one was turned over to security forces and the Lebanese army did not raid any of the suspected locations.
On the other hand, the Kuwaiti Embassy in Beirut was quick to act. Embassy staff traveled to Houti's house, met with his family and emphasized that they would fully support them. Furthermore, the Kuwaiti ambassador to Lebanon, Abdulaal al-Qinai, made a number of telephone calls, including one to Houti's wife. Sources also say that Qinai contacted a number of high-ranking security officials in an attempt to secure Houti's release. The security forces are closely investigating all of the details surrounding the kidnapping, although the kidnappers have not yet contacted Houti's wife or relatives regarding a ransom.
A sit-in near the army outpost
Houti’s wife said that "he doesn't deserve this, and Kuwait doesn't deserve to be treated this way,” while speaking to As-Safir yesterday afternoon during the sit-in. The sit-in was aimed at "informing the public about this crime," and to express solidarity with Houti and his wife. Fawzia was holding up her husband's shirt, which still had clear traces of blood on it. Fawzia and her mother, Sarah Audi — along with her brothers, sisters and a number of relatives — chose to demonstrate near the Lebanese army outpost located near her house. They held photos of the kidnapped man, along with banners that spoke about this crime that occurred in broad daylight. Some of the other signs noted that Houti had helped dozens of Bekaa residents secure employment in Kuwait, "a state that will not be silent about this event," said Audi.
His mother appealed to the kidnappers to "be afraid of God," because Houti is "diabetic and has high blood pressure. He has never hurt anyone." Moreover, Ahmed Arafat — the brother of Houti's wife — asked the kidnappers to announce their demands and make known the purpose of the kidnapping. He referred to the clans and families in the Baalbek region, saying that "this is not characteristic of these families, you do not treat a guest this way."
Fawzia urged the kidnappers not to harm her husband, and to make their demands known so that the family can respond to them.
Houti's wife said that "he paid the price for his faith in Lebanon. He did not listen to neighbors when they warned him that he needed to change the license plate on his car. He has a great love for Lebanon, especially his family members, his wife's relatives and the Baalbek region. He wanted to be a part of this region." She added that "his attachment to Lebanon is what drove him to build a house in the town of Talya, near my parents' home, at a time when even Lebanese citizens were fleeing the country. This country is no longer safe for any Lebanese citizen."
For the past seven years, Houti and his wife have spent their summer vacation in a rented apartment in Hawsh al-Ghanam. Houti was known for helping others, and had extended a helping hand to dozens of Bekaa residents, helping them find employment in Kuwait. He helped anyone who knocked on his door.
There is no limit to the kidnappings
Kidnappings have returned to the Bekaa region. The real danger of these crimes is that the kidnappers have no limits, there are no red lines, the only thing that is important is money. Anyone who is wealthy is a target, without regards to his or her religion or nationality. Kidnappers had no reservations about kidnapping Hossam Khashroum, a Syrian who holds Lebanese citizenship, and they had no qualms with kidnapping French citizen Mohammed Hasan Sabra. Furthermore, these perpetrators did not think about the fate of hundreds of Lebanese families living in Kuwait when they abducted Houti; for them the ransom money makes everything permissible.
Until yesterday, it has been ransom money that brings a happy ending to all of these kidnappings. Khashroum's family paid $60,000 in exchange for his release, and Sabra — who was released last Saturday night — was only freed after his family paid $40,000. The kidnappers had originally demanded $400,000, but after negotiations with local families the kidnappers reluctantly agreed to reduce the ransom by 90%. They released Sabra near the Imam Musa al-Sadar Insitute on the Baalbek highway. In similar news, Syrian citizen Khaled al-Shahdani — who was kidnapped in the town of Badaniya, where he resides — was released early Saturday morning. Shahdani owns a shop for selling housewares, and, according to his family, was released "without paying ransom, because he didn't have any money."
Yesterday Houti's family was waiting for a call from the kidnappers demanding a ransom, so that they could gather the money and write a "happy ending" to this kidnapping story, while the area prepares for another incident. The cycles goes on and on.
Perhaps most worrisome is that in previous kidnappings the security services' work has been limited to lifting fingerprints, listening to abductees after they are released and then closing the file, only to quickly open another file. It is notable that all of the recent kidnappings have occurred in areas bordering villages in the northern Bekaa region, unlike previous incidents, which primarily occurred on the Masnaa-Chatoura international highway. Despite all of the security measures, the kidnappers are moving around freely, particularly as a result of the waning security presence in the villages of the Northern Bekaa region.
The Lebanese army carried out a number of raids yesterday [Aug. 26], searching dozens of suspected locations in and around the town of Brital.
Moreover, the Union of Islamic Institutions issued a statement yesterday, saying that "following the kidnapping of a Kuwaiti citizen in the Bekaa valley, there has been communication between Lebanese charities and social organizations and the union's president, Mohammed Ali Danawi. They are coordinating with one another to learn more about the kidnapping and to work toward Houti's release. Danawi called Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and was briefed on the events. Mikati informed Danawi that the kidnapping was not motivated by politics, and that the PM is very concerned with securing Houti's release. Like others in Lebanon, Mikati considers Houti to be a Lebanese citizen in addition to being a Kuwaiti. Kuwait is a close ally of Lebanon, and has always treated the Lebanese people well. Mikati emphasized that he is working as hard as possible to secure Houti's quick release."
Lebanese parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, has been following Houti's kidnapping since yesterday, hoping for the release of "this citizen who represents the true relationship between the Kuwaiti and Lebanese people, as he has lived half of his life here in Lebanon and the other half in Kuwait." Berri added that "Kuwait has always been with us through thick and thin, the least we can do is ensure his immediate release and then offer a sincere apology."