“If you come across an old lady lying on the ocean road, don’t stop to see what’s wrong with her. It’ll be an ambush to rob you.” These were the parting words of a mukhtar [village chief] in one Akkar town before he proceeded to tells me all about the banditry, protection racketeering, and theft that occurs along the ocean-border road, especially at night.
This was one of many warnings I heard during my fieldwork in Akkar, where I had felt very safe during all my previous visits. I needed only to remember a joke the geography teacher at school told when we asked where Akkar is on a map of Lebanon: “In the Army”. During my repeated wanderings, I felt at ease when I saw the military uniforms decorating clotheslines in the region’s towns and cities. The presence of a serviceman in every home – or three to four in every family, as the locals say, because Akkar has the highest fertility rates in Lebanon – made me feel like I was among people of the state, which meant compliance with the law and public order and therefore security.
Banditry and Protection Rackets
Lawyer Wissam Khalid says that Akkar used to witness occasional security problems, but the situation became “something else” after 2019 and has “reached rock bottom today”. He describes how the opposing party in one of his cases ambushed him, severely beating him and stealing money and legal files: “I knew each one of them, but they were only arrested after the Bar Association pressured Army Command”. One officer told him, “You have to bring them out of their area, or else we can’t arrest them”.
The lawlessness is particularly apparent in the crimes of organized banditry, “especially those that target refugees, who are the most vulnerable”, as Khalid says. One Bebnine notable corroborates, “For example, they rob Syrians of money and motorcycles. A Syrian doesn’t file a complaint because his residency or his motorcycle’s papers aren’t valid”. It is also apparent in the fighting among individuals and families, the increase of blood feud crimes, and the daily thefts and gunfire on occasions of joy and sorrow, and the protection money demanded from businesses, cafes, restaurants, bakeries, and even street coffee sellers and stall owners.
In Bebnine, the “Akki Gang” – named after its leader al-Akki – comes up repeatedly. Witnesses tell me that al-Akki would call restaurants and order meals for him, his entire posse, and his guests and pay nothing. He would also organize motorcycle robberies primarily targeting Syrian refugees: “His gang would go out in a van, and whenever they found a Syrian on a motorcycle, they’d get out, beat him, take the motorcycle, put it in the van, and leave. They’d return from every trip with at least 20 motorcycles”, I am told. “Al-Akki and his gang would also demand protection money from shops along the coast from Abdeh to Berqayel, as well as people from Bebnine”.
One young man from Bebnine tells the Legal Agenda that he continued to pay protection money even after al-Akki’s arrest: “True, Akki was notorious. But the others do their share, and the protection payments are still occurring”. Generally, Bebnine, along with Qarqaf to its east and Wadi al-Jamous to its north, is at the forefront of discussion about the region’s lawlessness – i.e. the banditry, thefts, protection rackets, drugs, inter-family fighting, and shooting for the most trivial of reasons. For example, in mid-2022 a traffic incident in Wadi al-Jamous involving the Tartusi and al-Sayyid families sparked a clash that lasted hours and claimed six lives from the former. Al-Sayyid family members accused of involvement then had their homes set ablaze and were expelled from the town. One Wadi al-Jamous notable tells the Legal Agenda that the security forces were called during the clashes but only arrived after they ended.
Not far from Bebnine, a source in the security forces relates what happens on the ocean road toward the Syrian border in the Arida area: “The people no longer fear anything. Now they want to make a penny by any means possible”. Hence, young men from the town stand on the Lebanese side of the border and demand 10 to 20 dollars from taxi drivers for stopping on “their” land. The worst occurs between 10 PM and 3 AM. Young men stand in the five-kilometer stretch between the Qlayaat airport and Qobet Chamra and “rob and strip some of the passing cars”, according to police reports. “What’s strange is that the area is teeming with security forces – are all these people unable to police this space and end the danger?” the source asks. He then answers himself: “There is a decision not to clash with the people”.
Also striking is the phenomenon of “guard groups”, which numerous people tell the Legal Agenda amounts to protection money, particularly in the areas with many businesses such as Halba and along the road from Halba to Abdeh. While several business owners in Halba say that they pay monthly sums in exchange for “guarding”, one lawyer doubted the motivations of these groups, which operate of their own accord without any agreed-upon regulation: “There is a fine line between guarding and a protection racket. The people fear that if they don’t pay, they’ll be robbed or vandalized, perhaps by the same people”. This was corroborated by the owner of one business along the Abdeh-Halba road: “Young men come to us claiming to protect our businesses from theft at night, and we pay out of fear”.
Organized Crime: Cross-Governorate Car Theft Networks and Captagon Factories
Other crimes leave little doubt that crime in the region is organized.
One of the most important of these organized crimes is car theft. Multiple security force sources tell us that the gangs operating in this realm include people from Akkar and other areas in Bekaa where their people are trained in how to break into cars. According to these sources, the gang’s activity is organized as follows: There are gang leaders in Qabaait, Ain al-Zahab, and Fnaidek. Cars are stolen from Akkar’s various areas. They are then brought to Berqayel, and then to the jord [Fnaidek’s highland] and the Lebanese-Syrian border via Hermel. The operation has three stages: The person who steals the car isn’t the one who drives it. Someone receives it from the thief and brings it to Berqayel. A third person drives it to Akkar’s jord, and a fourth takes it from the jord to the Syrian border in Hermel. Then a fifth takes it into Syria. The municipal mayor says, “All these people have arrest warrants, but nobody arrests them. They come and go, and nobody accosts them”.
The gangs are also active in the realm of drugs. According to several testimonies, drug use, dealing, and trafficking is flourishing like never before in Akkar, even in some of the governorate’s villages according to one cleric. There is much talk of places for dealing and using, and even of drug dealers attacking municipal facilities, such as an electrical transformer that was set alight. Worse, multiple undercover agents say that there are six or seven Captagon factories in three border towns (they named the towns, but we were unable to verify the information). The source in the security forces says, “These people are protected because they are either subordinates of notables and influential officials or affiliated with them and protected by them”.
Other gangs steal electrical and television cables and seize common and state lands. There are also networks for smuggling migrants and goods through the Syrian border, which have become particularly active during the crisis.
Gangs Grow Because of the Crisis and the Flow of Weapons
Of course, whenever Akkar residents are asked about the breakdown of security, they talk all about its chronic deprivation, which worsened when military personnel’s salaries lost their value due to the collapse of the national currency. This is confirmed by the increase in crime particularly in the “distressed” areas, which suffer from low education rates and high unemployment. We could not obtain clear statistics about prosecutions in these areas, but a security forces official explains to the Legal Agenda that drug, human trafficking, and smuggling crimes alone attract large numbers of youth. These crimes generate relatively significant income and give perpetrators a sense of clout and power, sometimes excess power, especially when they manage to get away with it. This goes for even the lowest person in the chain of responsibility. The result is a cohort of previously unemployed people who now consider themselves gangsters, which influences their behavior in the direction of illegal activity, even in their relationships with people. One mukhtar emphasizes the rise of a new cohort in Akkar comprising thousands of people with arrest warrants (a number that was corroborated by officials in the security forces and Dar al-Ifta but we were unable to confirm officially). This factor, which promotes the formation of gangs, is reminiscent of the phenomenon of outlaws in Baalbek-Hermel – all in a governorate once known for having a good relationship with the state because thousands of its inhabitants serve in the military.
In addition to these troublesome facts, a high-level source in the security forces tells the Legal Agenda that the security situation will derail: “We fear the arms trade and its abnormal activity. There are stockpiles of MAG, Vepr-12, and DShK machine guns”. The source says the demand for weapons exists across the board, but high demand is driven by big dealers: “when we talk about big dealers, we are talking about MPs and official figures”.
Another factor encouraging these crimes is the military and security forces’ inability to confront them. When they do confront crime, they do so selectively or only because of exceptional pressure.
According to lawyer Wissam Khalid, one problem preventing the security forces from performing their role is their dire material situation: “Most stations in Akkar don’t have roadworthy vehicles because of breakdowns and insufficient maintenance funds. Some need paper and pens. There are no cleaning supplies, toilet paper, or even water in many instances. If we request an officer to take a report from a complainant or defendant in the hospital, he asks whether we will provide a car because if not, he can’t come”. This talk is corroborated by an officer working in one station. He adds, “Now there are olive thefts. When they call me at the station, if I were to go arrest the thief in the olive garden, chasing after him, I might hit my head on a tree or fall and sustain an injury that requires hospitalization. Who will treat me and pay my bill when my military medical cover has ceased or is ineffective? Of course I’m not going. Better the olives than me”. He adds, “Consider that as an indicator. There are many tasks we handle in this spirit”.
Worse than the resource scarcity is the corruption increasing within the security agencies because of the escalating crisis. “Security agency personnel are also taking bribes because of the devaluation of their salaries and deteriorating economic conditions. A junior officer sees his boss eating and not feeding him, so he wants to eat too and has come to see this thing [taking bribes] as normal”, says a source in the security forces. He then mentions that recently, several officers from multiple security agencies were arrested for taking bribes to turn a blind eye to the human-trafficking boats.
Another former security official mentions that the Public Prosecution offices intervene to halt prosecutions: “When an agency arrests a smuggler, human trafficker, protection racket leader, or some other criminal, the intercessions and interventions from senior judicial officials begin, and an order is issued to release the detainee”. He then emphasizes that, “This occurs on all levels: shooting in the air, at homes, or at people, theft, protection racketeering, murder, organized crime, encroachment on state common lands. The perpetrators find people to intervene and get them released. The MP – instead of proving himself by legislating and monitoring the government – intervenes to protect offenders from his area from accountability. Nobody is held accountable”. The official gives evidence of political figures’ role and influence over security: “The elections witnessed no violence because that was in the interest of all of them. When they want to enforce security, they enforce it”.
In reality, the stronger the organized gangs and their connections with influential political forces, the weaker the security agencies’ ability to fight the crimes they commit becomes. Several recurring incidents that suggest the security agencies avoid clashing with the gangs have been documented. This is especially true in the border regions, where smugglers have much clout: “During the petrol queues crisis, the cars used for smuggling would come at night and fill up from the petrol stations. The complaint would reach State Security, and they would respond that they don’t go out at night”. The same goes for encroachment on public property, according to one gendarmerie officer: “We received a report that people had seized state property between Qarqaf and Wadi al-Jamous. We went to the area to curb the infringement, and they attacked us, firing at us and preventing us from carrying out our task… It’s all bereft of consequence. We can’t do anything”.
Bebnine Mayor Kifah Kassar reports that one officer would tell whoever asked him to send personnel, “Take the sheikhs and mukhtars. I don’t have many men”. This response perfectly encapsulates the security agencies’ situation and aversion to combating crime.
Following the increase of security problems and decline of the security agencies’ ability to address them, signs are emerging of a trend toward self- or alternative security. A prominent security force official tells the Legal Agenda, “Citizens across Lebanon, not just in Akkar, are trying to protect themselves and, of course, acquire weapons. Gun ownership was common but has risen sharply, as indicated by the activity of the arms trade”. However, he promptly mentions another phenomenon that could have structural effects in the area: the growing role of family agglomerations in providing the missing security. “Suppose that the state plus the families equals 1. If the state is 0.8, then the families are 0.2. If the state becomes 0.3, the families become 0.7, which is what is happening now. The families are the ones playing the largest role on the ground. This promotes blood feuding and family agglomerations. People are once again seeing a united and close-knit family as their protection”.
According to the official, this development has been accompanied by a broad proliferation of “reconciliation committees” and increase in their role, usually with encouragement from MPs and security force officers. We managed to monitor the work of one such committee following a gunfight between two families on state common lands that resulted in the accidental killing of a woman from a third family. The reconciliation committee’s work led to an agreement on “dividing the state common lands between the fighting families, compensation for the arson of fruit trees, and absolving the fighters of the blood of the woman killed”. One lawyer reports that, “The settlement was definitely proposed in coordination with the security forces, which favored avoiding further bloodshed over arresting all the people involved from each side, trying them, and protecting state common lands”. We also monitored reconciliation committees’ work on resolving various equally serious issues that arose after a father murdered his daughter for meeting her fiancé without his permission.
For his part, Kassar tells the Legal Agenda that he backs youth initiatives to put an end to quarrels and retaliations among Bebnine’s families. He is involving several religious authorities (Mufti Abdul Latif Derian) and security authorities (General Security and Military Intelligence) to make these initiatives a success. To this end, he has provided them with a complete dossier about “family issues”. This suggests that a variety of means are being used to solve security problems amidst the breakdown of the official routes, although it is too early to determine how effective they are.
 The reconciliation committees intervened and ruled that the daughter’s fiancé must pay her blood money, holding him responsible for her murder because her father had refused to allow him to meet with her before traveling. The father went on the run, sheltering with a clan in Bekaa. One day, he snuck into Akkar and killed his daughter’s fiancé, who had paid LL25 million as her blood money (USD4,000 at the time). The father of the murdered fiancé, who belongs to the Sawfan family, gave in to his family’s incessant criticism and murdered the nephew of his son’s murderer. He then fled to the south as he is married to a southern woman. Months later, an elderly man from the Barghal family died. The Sawfans refused his burial in the Bebnine cemetery, and a bloodbath nearly occurred between the two families. The Barghals left the body on the ground and went home, only to return armed. A gunfight between the two families broke out, wounding the deceased man’s nephew and two others from the Khalaf and Talib families. The firefight ended more than an hour later, when all the families of Bebnine intervened and the conciliators convinced the Sawfans to allow the burial of the deceased Barghal man. After the agreement was signed and everything was over, the security forces arrived.