Kidnapping in Syria: An Economy of War
By: Marah Mashi
Published Friday, September 28, 2012
Across Syria a vicious culture of kidnapping is spreading. The victims are sometimes taken for political, sectarian, or revenge reasons, but more often than not, the motive is nothing but money.
Damascus - “Who’s next?” is the question on many Syrians’ minds today, especially when they travel between two cities or have to commute to work.
On social networking sites, one can often find images of the missing posted by desperate relatives.
In Syria, no one is immune to abduction. The examples are countless. First, there was the businessman Salim Daboul, son of President Bashar al-Assad’s office director, who was kidnapped and then later freed. Then Syrian television anchor Mohammad Said was also abducted, and his fate remains unknown.
Even ordinary citizens are at risk: Ahmad, who supports the opposition, gave us details about the tragic kidnapping of his 16 year old brother. He did not rule out any suspects. His brother had nothing to do with politics and vendettas. He said that the family has since received conflicting news from here and there.
At times, they were told that it was regime thugs who were behind his abduction, seeking revenge on the pro-opposition family. But they also received reports purporting that members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had kidnapped the teenager for sectarian reasons.
Recently, the kidnappers made contact with the family and demanded 4 million Syrian liras (SL) (nearly $60,000) in ransom payment. It has given hos parents hope that their son is still alive, although now they are faced with the arduous task of raising the money.
Ahmad went through a lot of effort to contact the various wings of the FSA in Turkey and Syria in his quest to find his brother. Everyone promised to help bring back the abducted boy or at least some news about him, but to no avail.
Kidnappings in Syria are no longer only politically motivated, they have become a way to make money amidst the chaos unfolding in many parts of the country. Those who survive such ordeals are indeed very lucky.
Haitham (not his real name) explained how he was abducted by a gang of robbers, causing great stress to his family and his staff. He occupies a sensitive post in the government. If the kidnapping had been politically motivated, he would have been executed on the spot.
Recounting what had happened, he said, “They were not from the FSA. They took me to a farm where six people were staying. I think they were convicts.”
Afterwards, the kidnappers contacted Haitham’s family, asking SL5 million ($73,500) in return for his release. After some negotiations, the ransom was lowered to SL2 million ($30,000). He was returned to the same spot he had been seized from after the money was given to two masked men on a motorcycle.
Kidnappings are rampant along the roads between Latakia, Jisr al-Shughur and Aleppo. There, people are mostly abducted for sectarian reasons, and are only returned to their families as dead bodies.
Some of the groups carrying out these acts claim they are affiliated to the FSA or the “mujahidin.” If an abductee is proven to be loyal to the regime by virtue of his or her religious affiliation, this would mean certain death.
There is yet another kind of kidnappings taking place in Syria these days, where people trying to save their abducted relatives are resorting to counter-kidnapping, especially along the coastal area.
Here, Abu Zuhair explains how he managed to free his son, who had been abducted by the “Rebels of al-Haffa,” as he calls them. He said that 12 people belonging to the community that supports the armed opposition were kidnapped, which led to the immediate release of his son.
The number of abductees in Syria is anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000. Their fate remains unknown, ever since the start of the protest movement and the uprising in mid-March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
But politically-motivated abductions are by far the worst in Syria. There are so-called lists of shame than can be found on Facebook, containing threats to pro-regime figures, mostly in the military. They are threatened with kidnapping and execution if they refuse to defect from the Syrian army.
One officer, identified as Khalid O., was shown on YouTube after he had been kidnapped, with clear signs of torture on his face. He was being detained by a group that dubs itself the “Swords of al-Shahbaa Battalion,” which is affiliated with the FSA in Aleppo.
The officer’s family refused to talk to us for fear for his life. But Sameh, a neighbor, said that in the beginning, the family called Khalid’s mobile phone, which was answered by a stranger who called himself Abul Ghadanfar. The man said that Khalid was being held by the FSA, and told them that the battalion will be executing him because he had not defected as their statements demanded.
The kidnappers then responded to the family’s pleas, and gave the officer a few more hours to live, “until a list of individuals detained by the Syrian regime was prepared, with a view to have them exchanged with the prisoner,” according to the neighbor.
“A short time later, the kidnappers contacted the family, and gave them two options: Either provide them with weapons, including Russian rifles, ammunition and RPGs, or pay SL10 million ($147,000),” Sameh continued.
Sometimes, kidnappers show “compassion” by reducing the ransom to a tenth of the original amount.
In Khalid’s case, the ransom was lowered to a million, then to SL300,000 ($4,500). One of his relatives then took the money to Aleppo's Salahuddin district, where the kidnapped officer was being held. There, the money was given to a young man, who was barely 18 years old.
But the kidnapper, Abul Ghadanfar, refused to hand over Khalid despite receiving the money, which he said is the cost of keeping him alive, and nothing more. Nevertheless, he allowed the relative who brought the money to see Khalid for half an hour. The meeting took place in a small house, where 14 people were staying.
When the Syrian army reentered Salahuddin, Khalid was taken to Tal Rifaat, where he recently appeared on YouTube to declare his defection.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.