Lebanese security forces warn of rise in kidnappings for ransom

Lebanese security forces warn of rise in kidnappings for ransom
The town of Arsal in Baalbek district, Baalbek-Hermel province, Lebanon. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 28 April 2022

Lebanese security forces warn of rise in kidnappings for ransom

Lebanese security forces warn of rise in kidnappings for ransom
  • Gangs sell, buy victims in Lebanon, hold them in Syria
  • 53 cases since January, with perpetrators using social media to ‘lure victims, claiming they can help with emigration’

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s security forces have warned citizens and residents that there has been a rise in kidnappings in the country, with perpetrators seeking large sums of money for the safe return of their victims.

The General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces, or ISF, said that these gangs have been using social media to lure their victims, often through ads on TikTok, claiming they can help with emigration applications.

The gangs are mostly active in the Baalbek-Hermel area and on the Lebanese-Syrian border, but also operate deep in Syrian territory.

A security source told Arab News that between Jan. 1 and April 20, the security services in Lebanon recorded 53 cases of kidnapping in Lebanon.

A few days ago, the Lebanese army’s intelligence officers managed to liberate local businessman Akram Jomaa seven hours after he was kidnapped in the town of Lala in the western Bekaa.

The kidnappers had fled with him to the Baalbek-Hermel area in the northern part of Bekaa and tried to sell him to another gang.

They demanded that his family pay a ransom for his return, but he was eventually released between the towns of Dar Al-Waseah and Bouday, in the vicinity of Baalbek.

The army’s intelligence officers also managed to free Sadiq Roli, an Egyptian national working for the Al-Sabbah Media Corporation, after he had been detained by his kidnappers for about a month and a half.

On April 16, unidentified gunmen intercepted a car transporting Roli and crew members of a TV company filming a series in Baalbek, near the town of Brital on the Baalbek-Hermel road.

They fired at the car to stop, and kidnapped Roli, while the other passenger managed to escape. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of more than $1 million in exchange for his release but at midnight on Tuesday, Roli’s kidnappers released him in Baalbek.

Hassan Atoui, 32, was kidnapped by two Syrian men who sold him to a gang for LBP3 million ($1,975.50).

Atoui was kidnapped in early April in the town of Nabatiyeh, south of Lebanon, after returning home from working in an African country.

Atoui had communicated via social media with a travel agency based in the Hermel region, which had offered to process a visa to the US in exchange for a sum of money.

He agreed to meet the person who claimed he was running the agency, but was subsequently ambushed by unknown persons who took him to the Baalbek-Hermel area where they sold him to another gang. They also stole the money he had in his possession.

The new gang demanded his relatives pay a ransom of $25,000 in exchange for his release, and sent his family video footage of him being beaten up.

The family’s attorney, Ashraf Al-Moussawi, told Arab News: “The Baalbek-Hermel region is witnessing an unprecedented state of security chaos.”

“There are organized gangs that include fugitives and others that have been formed recently, and find it easy to earn money through kidnappings, in the absence of (security provided by the) state.”

“I have noticed that many gangs are now using women, mostly related to gang members, whom they train … to lure victims and blackmail them.”

“The security services know the members of these gangs by name … some of them have no previous arrest warrants against them, which means that they are new to the world of kidnapping and crime, but are making a lot of money through this.”

Despite the successful release of some victims, no kidnappers have yet been arrested, with the exception of three women suspected of being involved in Jomaa’s kidnapping.

The security source noted: “Some of these kidnapping schemes are clever, but what is most dangerous, is that these gangs gather a lot of information about their victims, and have many accomplices helping them in various regions.”

“The security services know the members of these gangs by name but cannot arrest them because they are hiding inside Syrian territory (from where they) are running their operations.”

The source said Roli was taken into Syrian territory, and Jomaa would have ended up there as well.

Meanwhile, the source said Lebanese citizen George Mufrej, who was the first person to be kidnapped by these gangs, while he was traveling on the road to Beirut airport, was transferred by his kidnappers to Syrian territory and is still missing.

The border areas in the Hermel region with Syria are not subject to state control, as illegal crossings for smuggling abound, along with those controlled by Hezbollah, which have multiplied since the war began in Syria.

The source said that the Lebanese security services have been placing pressure on the families of the kidnappers to force their sons to comply.

“We need to use the same methods they are using, perhaps it would help in freeing the kidnappees,” said the source.

“Roli and Jomaa have been released thanks to this method; we detained the mothers of the kidnappers, raided their homes, and forced the families to contact them and tell them to let the kidnappees go,” said the source.

“The kidnappers did not like the taste of their own medicine and have been threatening the army intelligence official in the area, Col. Mohammed Al-Amin,” he explained.

The source estimated the age of the kidnappers to range between 25 and 35 years of age.

“These people will one day have to come back from Syria to their homes in the Al-Sharwana neighborhood in Baalbek and Dar Al-Waseah. Some are from the Jaafar, Zeaiter, Mardi, and Saab families, and we will be waiting for them when they return.”

The source noted that they have cooperated with the Syrian army where necessary.

“We will tirelessly continue pressuring these gangs. This is the only way to get to them and curb their crimes,” said the source.

“We are doing the best we can with the available capabilities; stopping kidnappers is a priority but we have a million tasks … every day, and fighting terrorism is one of them.”


Turkey captures the new leader of Daesh in Istanbul raid

Turkey is keen to up the ante against its NATO allies in order to show its commitment to counterterrorism efforts. (AFP)
Turkey is keen to up the ante against its NATO allies in order to show its commitment to counterterrorism efforts. (AFP)
Updated 28 May 2022

Turkey captures the new leader of Daesh in Istanbul raid

Turkey is keen to up the ante against its NATO allies in order to show its commitment to counterterrorism efforts. (AFP)
  • Ankara aligning with Western security priorities to remind NATO allies of common terror threats, analyst tells Arab News

ANKARA: Turkey captured the new leader of the militant group Daesh in a raid in Istanbul, local media claimed on Thursday.

Turkish dissident news website Oda TV claimed Abu Al-Hasan Al-Hashimi Al-Qurayshi was caught in an operation directed by Istanbul’s police chief, Zafer Aktas, after days of surveillance and preparation, though no official statement has yet been made.
According to Turkish press reports, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to unveil details of the operation in the coming days.
The previous leader of Daesh, Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurayshi, was killed in northwestern Syria on Feb. 3 by US forces.
In recent months, Turkish police have systematically carried out raids against Daesh cells across the country. Earlier in May, a prospective suicide bomber allegedly linked to the group was arrested in Urfa on the Syrian border, while three more people were detained the same week in Bursa.
On Thursday, another Daesh member was shot dead by police while allegedly trying to blow himself up in front of the police department in the southeastern province of Gaziantep.
Experts note that this most recent operation could be used as leverage by Ankara to up the ante against its NATO allies in order to show its commitment to counterterrorism efforts.

It is not a coincidence that Ankara allegedly captured the top figure of Daesh amid ongoing debates about NATO enlargement and Turkey’s accusations against some Nordic countries about their alleged support of terror groups.

Soner Cagaptay, Analyst

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, thinks that the timing of the operation in Istanbul is telling.
“It is not a coincidence that Ankara allegedly captured the top figure of Daesh amid ongoing debates about NATO enlargement and Turkey’s accusations against some Nordic countries about their alleged support of terror groups,” he told Arab News.
According to Cagaptay, Turkey is aligning with Western security priorities and trying to remind its NATO allies that it helps them against common terror threats.
Turkey is also part of the large international coalition of nations that has spent years fighting Daesh.
During the latest ministerial meeting of the coalition in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also brought up Turkey’s own concerns, saying the fight against Daesh cannot be won with the help of other terror groups.
This was widely interpreted as a reference to Kurdish groups such as the People’s Protection Forces, or YPG, which has received some support from Sweden, which is applying to join NATO — a move Turkey is, as a result, opposing.
“This latest operation in Istanbul is instrumental for Ankara to urge the Western alliance that it is now their turn to understand Turkey’s domestic terrorism concerns that cover not only Daesh but also other terror groups including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — PKK — and its Syrian offshoot YPG,” Cagaptay said.
The reported capture of Al-Qurayshi also coincided with the gathering of the National Security Council, chaired by Erdogan, on Thursday, where details of Turkey’s impending operation against YPG militants in northern Syria was discussed.   
“The operations currently carried out, or to be carried out, in order to clear our southern borders from the threat of terrorism, do not in any way target the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our neighbors and they pose a necessity for our national security needs,” the meeting’s final communique said.
Ankara believes it faces security threats from Manbij, Ain Al-Arab and the Tal Rifat district of Aleppo, which it considers bases for hostile groups.
Erdogan announced on Monday that he would launch the offensive into northern Syria to push back the YPG, and secure a 30 kilometer safe zone to settle Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.
However, a potential military operation — after three previous offensives — does not seem to have received approval from the US for the time being.
“We recognize Turkey’s legitimate security concerns on Turkey’s southern border, but any new offensive would further undermine regional stability and put at risk US forces and the coalition’s campaign against ISIS (Daesh),” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on May 24 in a press briefing.
Colin P. Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group, thinks that anti-Daesh operations in Turkey can have a significant impact on the group’s presence in the region.
“Even when Daesh still held its territorial ‘caliphate,’ it was dispatching operatives to Turkey to lay the groundwork for financial and logistical support networks. Those networks have paid off for Daesh, as it’s allowed the leadership consistent access to money,” he told Arab News.
According to Clarke, the Turkish government should be incentivized to crack down even harder on Daesh, but there is some concern about a backlash, including terror attacks inside Turkey.
Daesh members have carried out a number of attacks across the country, including at least 10 suicide bombings, seven bombings, and four armed attacks, which have killed 315 people and injured hundreds of others to date.


Sudan women’s activist wins human rights prize

Amira Osman Hamed. (AFP file photo)
Amira Osman Hamed. (AFP file photo)
Updated 28 May 2022

Sudan women’s activist wins human rights prize

Amira Osman Hamed. (AFP file photo)
  • In 2009, she established “No to Women Oppression,” an initiative to advocate against the much-derided Public Order Law

KHARTOUM: Sudanese women’s activist Amira Osman Hamed has won a Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk, the organization announced.
The activist and engineer, now in her forties, has been advocating for Sudanese women for two decades, and was detained this year in a crackdown following the country’s latest coup.
She was among defenders from Afghanistan, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Mexico who also received the 2022 award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk.
Osman “never deterred from her mission,” Dublin-based Front Line Defenders said in its awards announcement, “consistently (advocating) for democracy, human rights, and women’s rights.”
After first being charged for wearing trousers in 2002, she drew international support in 2013 when she was detained and threatened with flogging for refusing to wear a headscarf.
Both charges fell under morality laws during the rule of former President Omar Bashir who took power in a coup. Osman told AFP at the time that the morality laws had “changed Sudanese women from victims to criminals” and targeted “the dignity of Sudanese people.”
In 2009, she established “No to Women Oppression,” an initiative to advocate against the much-derided Public Order Law. It was finally repealed in 2019 after Bashir’s ouster following a mass uprising.
Women were at the forefront of protests that toppled Bashir, and hopes were high for a more liberal Sudan as restrictions were removed that had stifled their actions and public lives.
But many fear for the hard-won liberties gained since his ouster, after the October coup led by army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan derailed a fragile transition to civilian rule.
A crackdown on civilian pro-democracy figures has followed, with at least 96 people killed in protests and hundreds detained.
In late January 2022, Osman’s team told AFP that “30 masked armed men” had stormed into her house in Khartoum in the middle of the night, “taking her to an unknown location.”
The UN mission to Sudan called for her release, tweeting that “Amira’s arrest and pattern of violence against women’s rights activists severely risks reducing their political participation in Sudan.”
She was freed in early February and an AFP correspondent saw her participating in a demonstration, kneeling on crutches due to a prior back injury.
The award has honored human rights defenders annually since 2005.


How artificial rain can make a difference to Saudi Arabia and Gulf region’s water situation

How artificial rain can make a difference to Saudi Arabia and Gulf region’s water situation
Updated 28 May 2022

How artificial rain can make a difference to Saudi Arabia and Gulf region’s water situation

How artificial rain can make a difference to Saudi Arabia and Gulf region’s water situation
  • Drought-hit nations turning to cloud seeding to supplement their water supplies
  • Saudi Arabia has become the second Gulf country to adopt the advanced technology

JEDDAH: To meet the growing demand for fresh water in Saudi Arabia, authorities have launched a project that will alter the structure of clouds to increase rainfall; a technique known as cloud seeding.

With long-term average rainfall of less than 100 millimeters a year, a rising population and a growing agricultural sector, there is an immense thirst for more fresh water in Saudi Arabia. That is why, in early April, the Kingdom began the first phase of a cloud-seeding program to change the amount and type of precipitation.

Following the approval of the plan by the Saudi government, an aircraft was deployed in the skies over the vast rocky Najd plateau in the Kingdom’s central region, where it released plumes of silver iodide into the clouds. This caused ice crystals to form in the clouds, stimulating precipitation over targeted areas. The process began in the Riyadh region and will soon expand to other sites in Asir, Baha and Taif.

“The Kingdom is considered one of the countries with the least rainfall, with an average of 100 mm annually,” Ayman Ghulam, chief executive officer of the National Center of Meteorology, said during a conference in Riyadh in March. “Cloud seeding is one of the most promising solutions in Saudi Arabia.”

The National Artificial Rain program is expected to continue for five years, with the aim of increasing rainfall by up to 20 percent. It is part of the Saudi Green Initiative, launched in March 2021 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to promote sustainable development and environmental preservation and to secure natural water sources in the Kingdom.

Roelof Bruintjes, who leads the weather modification group at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, said the Kingdom is using a well-established method of cloud seeding that is harmless to the environment.

The two seeding agents used in the Saudi operation are hygroscopic (which means substances that tend to absorb moisture from the air) materials such as salts and silver iodide. They are employed in such small concentrations so as to be largely undetectable, and have been used for almost 40 years in cloud-seeding projects in the western US, where droughts are prevalent.

The success of cloud-seeding operations, Bruintjes said, depends to some degree on the characteristics of the clouds themselves.

“No cloud is the same as another cloud and no cloud will ever be the same as another cloud,” he told Arab News.

“In Saudi Arabia, most of your clouds that occur in the central region and southwest are more convective kinds of clouds. In that way, we mostly use hygroscopic cells to create larger droplets so they can more easily collide with each other and hold rain, so you could get more of the water that is processed in the cloud down to the surface.

 Cloud seeding is seen as a viable, environmentally friendly way to increase water supplies in Saudi Arabia in future, as climate change makes the precious resource even more scarce. (Saudi National Center of Meteorology)

“You’re basically trying to get more water from the clouds to increase the percentage of water the cloud processes that comes down to the surface.”

Water covers about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface but the Middle East and North Africa region has precious little of the life-giving resource. According to the UN, it is the most water-scarce region in the world, with 17 countries considered to be below the water-poverty line.

The situation is made worse by rapid population growth, poor infrastructure and the overexploitation of limited resources. Agriculture alone accounts for about 80 percent of water usage in the Middle East and North Africa region, according to the World Bank.

INNUMBERS

50 - Countries looking to establish rain-enhancement programs.

20% - Targeted increase in KSA’s rainfall through cloud seeding.

18% - Saudi share of global production of desalinated seawater.

This overuse means the region’s natural groundwater reserves are not replenished fast enough to keep pace with demand. Shortages can have wide-reaching humanitarian consequences, with droughts destroying livelihoods and displacing populations from rural to urban areas.

About 1.1 billion people worldwide lack reliable access to water, and 2.7 billion endure scarcity for at least one month of the year. By 2025, an estimated two-thirds of the global population might face water shortages.

Forecasts suggest water supplies will drop dramatically by 2030 and that rationing could become the new normal unless sustainable solutions are implemented.

The UN has classified Saudi Arabia and most other Gulf nations as water scarce. The exception is Oman, which sits slightly above the severe scarcity threshold of 500 cubic meters of water per capita per year.

Studies have found that the Middle East could be among the regions worst affected by climate change. They warn that the conditions are conducive to a process known as photochemical air pollution, which adds to the increase and high concentration of aerosol particles from sources both natural, such as desert dust, and artificial, such as pollution.

Aerosols are blamed as among the causes of climate change, which affect the way clouds form. (Shutterstock photo)

“The Middle East is the crossroads of the world,” said Bruintjes. “You get the pollution from India in the summertime, due to easterly winds, and in the winter you probably get some of the frontal systems from eastern Europe and from the Mediterranean.

“Aerosols don’t know borders, clouds don’t know borders, pollution doesn’t know borders.”

It is because of these man-made and environmental factors that cloud seeding is seen as an especially effective solution for this particular region.

“The influence of biomass smoke from Africa, the Sahara dust penetration in that region, those are the kind of things we will be evaluating as part of any cloud seeding experiment,” said Bruintjes.

“Dust particles only interact with clouds to form ice crystals, not droplets. However, outgassing in the oil industry produces sulfates more than nitrate — smaller particles that can usually inhibit precipitation — and that’s where cloud seeding may come in.”

An Emiratie pilot prepares his plane for a cloud-seeding operation. (AN file photo)

Saudi Arabia has no permanent natural lakes or rivers, nor does it have areas of abundant natural vegetation, with the exception of its southwestern Asir highlands.

Over the past three decades, the Kingdom had been tapping its underground reserves, known as aquifers, for agricultural purposes. As a result, they have been depleted from 166 cubic meters of renewable internal freshwater resources per capita in 1987 to just 71 cubic meters in 2018.

The country has therefore been forced to rely on imports and the desalination of seawater on a massive scale to meet demand.

A 2018 UN study found that there are 16,000 desalination plants operating in 177 countries producing a volume of freshwater equivalent to almost half the average flow of Niagara Falls. Saudi Arabia is home to one of the world’s largest desalination plants.

With no natural, permanent rivers or lakes, Saudi Arabia has pioneered water desalination, including at its plant at the Jubail Industrial City. (AFP)

However, research has shown that desalination plants are inevitably associated with environmental issues, including air pollution, making their long-term use unsustainable if the world hopes to reduce harmful greenhouse-gas emissions.

Saudi Arabia has decades of experience in water desalination, beginning with the opening of the country’s first facility in the 1950s. As new technologies have been developed to minimize emissions, the Kingdom has adopted solar power and other renewables to power its desalination plants.

Nevertheless, if the country is to meet the ever-growing demand for water and replenish its aquifers, alternatives must be developed at an appropriate scale. Along with ground-based seeding generators, cloud seeding is viewed as one possible way to top up dwindling reserves.

Saudi Arabia is only the second nation in the Gulf region, after the UAE, to launch a cloud-seeding program. However, many other drought-affected nations around the world have embraced the technology to modify the weather and help supplement their supplies of natural water.

The ability to predict the distribution and intensity of rainfall in the Gulf and wider MENA regions could prove critical in the years to come as climate change results in more frequent droughts.

 


Blinken stresses importance of concluding Israeli probe into reporter’s killing

Blinken stresses importance of concluding Israeli probe into reporter’s killing
Updated 27 May 2022

Blinken stresses importance of concluding Israeli probe into reporter’s killing

Blinken stresses importance of concluding Israeli probe into reporter’s killing
  • Secretary Blinken underscored the importance of concluding the investigations into the death of Palestinian-American Shireen Abu Akleh

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Friday to Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and stressed the importance of concluding the probes into the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the State Department said.
“Secretary Blinken underscored the importance of concluding the investigations into the death of Palestinian-American Shireen Abu Akleh,” the State Department said in a statement.
The Palestinian Authority said on Thursday its investigation showed that Abu Akleh was shot by an Israeli soldier in a “deliberate murder.” Israel denied the accusation and said it was continuing its own investigations.


Lebanon central bank move shocks black market traders

A view of Lebanon's Central Bank building in Beirut, Lebanon. (REUTERS)
A view of Lebanon's Central Bank building in Beirut, Lebanon. (REUTERS)
Updated 28 May 2022

Lebanon central bank move shocks black market traders

A view of Lebanon's Central Bank building in Beirut, Lebanon. (REUTERS)
  • The governor’s statement on Friday shook the black market, which brought the dollar exchange rate on Friday to 38,000 pounds

BEIRUT: The dollar exchange rate on Lebanon’s black market was expected to continue its fall in the wake of measures announced by central bank Gov. Riad Salameh on Friday, a senior banker told Arab News.

The banker expects the exchange rate to drop further until it is almost equal to the exchange rate on the central bank’s Sayrafa platform, which on Friday recorded a price of 24,600 pounds against the dollar.

The banker’s comment came as the governor issued a surprise statement late on Friday asking banks to keep their branches and funds open until 6 p.m. for three consecutive days from next Monday in order to meet citizens’ requests to buy dollars at the Sayrafa price.

Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh’s statement on Friday shook the black market, which brought the dollar exchange rate on Friday to 38,000 pounds. (AFP)

He also issued instructions to pay the salaries of public sector employees in dollars at the Sayrafa rate.

The depreciation of the local currency has created a ripple effect, creating even more economic difficulty for the country, and the central bank had previously asked banks to give part of their dues in dollars at the Sayrafa exchange rate.

However, banks began to limit the amount of dollars given to people, leading to a black market revival in the past week.

The governor’s statement on Friday shook the black market, which brought the dollar exchange rate on Friday to 38,000 pounds.

Confusion mounted in the exchange shops immediately after the governor’s statement, as people rushed to exchange the US currency, with the dollar’s exchange rate dramatically slipping within a few minutes from 37,700 pounds to 29,000 pounds.

Black-market money changers, who are spread out in the main streets of Beirut, especially in the gold markets and near money exchange shops, were stunned and started making calls.

Banking expert Louis Hobeika told Arab News: “What is happening is the result of people’s fear. The problem in Lebanon is not monetary, but rather economic and political.”

He added: “Within a week, the dollar exchange rate rose about 11,000 pounds, but the dramatic drop in the price in less than an hour is certainly for political reasons.”

Hobeika said that the central bank appears to have been subjected to political pressure to force it to do something to reduce the rate, amid fears of social upheaval.

The bank governor resorted to the latest statement, he said. “But it’s like treating a cancer patient with Panadol.”