Just across a snow-capped mountain range, in the Bekaa Valley, are weed fields tended mostly by poor, Assad-friendly Shia farmers. But business is business. They tell The Daily Beast they are selling their products to ISIS recruits, who are allegedly blazing Lebanese blond and reselling it to fund their atrocities.
“Last month we sold one ton of hash to ISIS,” says “Imad,” who farms a 15-acre cannabis plot in the shadow of the Qalamoun Mountains that separate the valley from Syria. (He declined to use his real name out of fear of arrest.) The 50-year-old father of six has fought in Syria with Hezbollah against the so-called Islamic State, often referred to as ISIS. And he was related to one of the Lebanese soldiers captured and beheaded by jihadists in the border town of Arsal, a key base of support in Lebanon for the Sunni sectarian fundamentalist movement that has used mass murder, torture, and rape to establish a self-proclaimed caliphate.
But none of that stopped Imad and some of his fellow farmers from brokering the drug deal with the holier than thou “caliphate” that he says also included “some coke and pills.”
Assad’s fighters, less surprisingly, also like to go to war with a buzz, and also want a piece of the action distributing one of Lebanon’s largest exports. “We sell a bit to people in the Syrian army, too,” said Imad, a little cautious on the subject. “It’s small scale, one to two kilos at a time.”
Imad, sporting a trim beard and green military fatigues, says he hates ISIS with a bitter passion and swears he will hunt down and kill those in Arsal who butchered his relative, but, again, business is business. The war, he says, has blocked the traditional trade routes through Syria to markets in Jordan and Turkey, so selling to militants is one of the ways to continue to turn a profit.
“Before the war in Syria we would cross the mountains with 200 kilos [of hash] each, get the cash and come back,” he told The Daily Beast. Nowadays the only exports to Syria happen when militants make orders.
Clouds hang low over the fertile valley where the earth is moist and warm with the coming of spring, and Imad bends down to inspect his recently planted crop. His calloused hand gently lifts a green pointed leaf to make sure it is healthy. He reads it like a printout, in ways farmers have passed down over centuries of cannabis cultivation in the region.
The Bekaa’s traditional dominance of the hash business is being challenged, however.
ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front are also able to develop their own hash-cash economy. According to Ahmad Moussalli, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut who specializes in Islamist movements, the vast territorial gains by ISIS around Syria’s border with Lebanon have given the jihadists control over significant areas of cannabis cultivation. They are “profiting from the trade,” says Moussalli, referring to accusations by the Lebanese army.
But those profits are getting harder to come by, at least in Lebanon. The war has created competition for Bekaa’s hash industry while an increase in the valley’s own production has sent prices plummeting. The war has altered the underground trade by blocking major routes, and it has also pulled the Lebanese security forces’ attention away from the Bekaa’s weed farmers.
The result is an exceptionally bountiful bud harvest with few places to go, says a major hash exporter who refers to himself as “Abu Hussein.”
Posters of Hezbollah martyrs and the party leader, Hassan Nasrallah, plaster the entrance to the hilly village.
“We had a good harvest this season but have a distribution problem,” Abu Hussein told The Daily Beast.
We met at one of Abu Hussein’s houses in the Bekaa town of Brital, known as a center of Lebanon’s underworld. The mostly Shia town of 20,000 has gained a reputation as a hash and weapons trade hub as well as a place to find counterfeit passports.
It is also known for its fierce opposition to ISIS. Posters of Hezbollah martyrs and the party leader, Hassan Nasrallah, plaster the entrance to the hilly village on the edge of the towering mountains. “When Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] attacked this area in August, the people of the town rose up to push them back,” says Abu Hussein. The battle on the outskirts was fought by village residents and Hezbollah fighters, he said.