Middle East

A Sunni-Shia Love Story Imperiled by al Qaeda

Sabrine and her soldier husband managed to marry against all odds, including her family’s wrath. Now, their love story faces an even bigger threat—his abduction by the Nusra Front.

BEIRUT—It is December, but Sabrine Omar is still wearing her summer clothes. She knows that her husband, Ziad, is still wearing his summer uniform, likely shivering from the mountain cold in the border region that blurs the line between Lebanon and Syria. “I want to feel what he feels,” she says, her hand gently stroking the thin black fabric of her cotton abaya. Underneath it, she still wears a tank top and trousers. “Sometimes I don’t put the heating on in our house because I feel too guilty. How can I be warm when he isn’t?”

Ziad, a soldier with the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, was part of a group of an estimated 33 hostages captured by Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State during a fierce battle for the town of Arsal in August. Ziad’s capture followed a five-day battle among the Lebanese armed forces, ISIS, and the Nusra Front to regain control of Arsal, which sits just west of the mountain range that straddles the ill-defined border between the two countries. The battle left an estimated 50 civilians dead and 400 wounded, as well as many dead among both the LAF and the militants themselves. Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate, released all five of their Sunni Muslim hostages at the end of August, although one of the freed men told local outlet The Daily Star that Shia Muslim hostages, such as Ziad, were in “a more difficult position.” Major General Jean Kahwaji of the Lebanese armed forces recently declared an “open-ended war” with the militants.

The case of the captured servicemen has become a perfect storm, combining the threat of ISIS and Nusra on the Lebanese border with the power vacuum that persists within, fueled by the inability of warring political factions to elect a new president. The result is a situation that has gripped Lebanon, as the two jihadist groups are now able to exert political pull on Beirut from a hideout less than 100 miles away from the capital.

Ziad’s family home is a cozy squat cement house in the town of Majdaloon, in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. A picture of Ziad sits in a brown frame in the corner, a muscular profile shot in a white T-shirt blended with a picture of him in uniform brandishing an assault rifle. Twin girls, Greta and Grace, run around the floor in circles, wearing pink playsuits with tiny pink wings attached. “Papa!” they shout, every time someone brandishes a phone or a photo of anyone who might be Ziad. “They were in the car the other day, and they saw someone who looked like Ziad and started to cry,” says Sabrine, her own eyes welling up as she looks at them. Next to the house is the site where Ziad began building a home for his family before his capture. Sabrine won’t allow anyone else to work on it while he’s away, so for now it remains a concrete skeleton, the floors a little flooded from recent rain.

Sabrine regularly tries to verify that Ziad is still alive by employing a relative to visit Arsal, to relay messages from his captors. The last confirmation was in early December. Sabrine is Sunni Muslim, unlike her husband, which affords her more connections to her husband’s captors. She also tracks his deteriorating health through the harrowing videos of the captives regularly released by the Nusra Front. One showed the hostages sitting in front of a black and white flag decorated with the Shahada, with Ziad commenting on political arrests in October in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli, where the Lebanese armed forces drove out Nusra militants from the center of the town. In the video his face is a little thinner, his beard ever so slightly longer.

A more recent video shows Ziad, wearing no shoes, while he and the other hostages walk up a craggy hillside. The footage then shows the hostages cursing the Shia militant faction Hezbollah, before begging for their lives as they sob, wrenching their clothes and raising their arms to beg for mercy. The camera passes to each hostage in turn to allow them to plead with the Lebanese government to let them live. When it reaches Ziad, he turns his face away from the camera, showing a clear view of the purple and green marks of heavy bruising under his cheekbone. The now-inaccessible spot in the hills around Arsal where it is believed the hostages are held is only 25 miles from Baalbek, the town where Sabrine lives.

On a cold Sunday in December, the families of the hostages gathered at their protest camp in Riad al Solh Square in downtown Beirut. Rows of blue and white tents sit crammed on the pavement, adorned with posters of the faces of the captured policemen and soldiers. Some have beds and heaters inside for the family members who want to stay all night. Under a chilly gray sky, the families and friends gather on rows of plastic chairs to share tea and chat away the strained looks on their faces. In their midst stands a soldier with the Lebanese armed forces in a red beret, sporting an assault rifle and an unblinking stare.

Under the instruction of the militants, the families have taken to blocking roads and burning tires in downtown Beirut, often causing complete chaos and gridlock. In one incident in late November, where the families blocked a main road that joins Baalbek to Beirut, they were sprayed with water cannons by the police. Sabrine speaks openly about the militants’ instructions to families, where some are told to block roads and others are told to speak to the media. In her case, a message was relayed via intermediaries with the families that she was part of a group instructed to contact politicians and force the issue.

“This is my mission. We will do anything they ask for,” says Sabrine, “they could slit [the hostages’] throats at any minute.”

She has met with many key political figures, including Druze renegade Walid Joumblatt, parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, and the Maronite leader Michel Aoun, but so far none among them is taking the initiative to spearhead efforts to negotiate with the militants.

The families had gathered that Sunday to remember Ali Bazzal, a soldier whom the Nusra Front declared they had executed on Dec. 6. The execution was reportedly in retaliation for the capture of Saja al-Dulaimi and Ola Mithqal al-Oqaily, respectively the ex-wife and wife of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and commander Anas Sharkas. The women had both tried to cross into Lebanon two weeks earlier on forged papers. Sabrine quietly voiced suspicions that Bazzal isn’t really dead, as a photo was released to declare his execution, but not a video showing his death, as has tragically become common practice among jihadist militant groups.

Sharkas later released a video threatening to kidnap women and children, and the Nusra Front also released threats to strike at the Lebanese government, whom they say is arm-in-arm with Hezbollah. The audio message featured the words, “the real battle in Lebanon is yet to begin.”

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Sabrine shields herself from the wind and the view of a TV camera behind a poster showing her husband’s face, and settles on a chair. She jokes a little with the silver-haired cameramen, Walid Jaber, with whom she’s developed a friendship; they see each other at least three times a week at the camp. Jaber describes Sabrine as a kind of “leader of the camp, due to her good character. She is a friendly person,” he says, emphasizing several times how he admires her level of education. Sabrine is a trained lawyer, likely a helpful quality when your task is to push politicians. “She lets you see her emotions,” he says. “I hope to God someone helps her husband.”

Sabrine visits the camp at least three times each week, making what is often a six-hour round trip journey from her house in Baalbek to Riad Al-Solh Square in Beirut. She chooses not to stay at the camp, knowing that Ziad wouldn’t like her sleeping in the open. Most mornings Sabrine arrives between 8 and 9 a.m., walking to each of the tents in turn to greet their inhabitants and ask about their families, or if there’s been news. Throughout the day she speaks with local journalists and families in Baalbek to get updates via a WhatsApp group they named Baalbek News 3. Often, she hears tips and shouts to other tents to verify it against what other families have heard. Journalists from Lebanese TV stations often turn up, and she gives speeches and interviews to keep the issue of the hostages in the news. On the Sunday when the families commemorated Bazzal, she gave an impassioned speech, asking everyone to see the scene of Bazzal’s death through her husband’s eyes. “He is borrowing my voice to tell you this story,” she told the crowd.

The camp itself has also been subject to internal politics. After squabbles about people representing themselves as the leaders of the group, the 26 families sat down and elected five leaders of the committee. In a mirror of Lebanon’s concessional system, the families chose four members, each representing the Christian, Druze, Sunni, and Shia communities in the camp. The fifth is a local sheikh, Omar Haydar. The hope is that as a more organized force, they will be able to get their message heard more clearly by local politicians, and push them to at least start the negotiations.

Sabrine chose not to stand for election in the camp, as she already spends several nights a week away from her girls, who stay at their grandparents’ house in Majdaloon while she is away. Often she doesn’t return to Baalbek until almost 9 p.m., and so sleeps alone in the house she has shared with Ziad for the six years of their marriage.

Ziad and Sabrine’s marriage is also the reason Sabrine hasn’t spoken to her mother in six years. The pair met on a bus taking university students from the Beqaa to Beirut in 1999; he was a psychology student at the Lebanese University in Baabda, and she was a law major at the American University of Beirut. Sabrine was the outgoing, sociable type, and had many friends, while Ziad was shy and a little more introverted. Their friends noticed, and asked Sabrine to talk to him to bring him out of his shell a little. “A few words and we fell in love,” she says, the smile of her teenage years returning to her face.

Ziad and Sabrine dated in secret during their time at university. They made quiet plans together, saying that when they had a child together, they wanted a girl called Grace. He bought her a stuffed rabbit as a present. They had three years together before Ziad left to do his compulsory military service, leaving on her birthday, April 4, 2001. Before leaving, he went to Sabrine’s mother to ask to marry her daughter, as her father had died when Sabrine was 2, making her mother the head of the household. “My mother hates Shias,” explained Sabrine, “when he came to our house to propose, she didn’t accept it.”

With Ziad away, Sabrine mother forced her to marry another man, a Sunni Muslim and her mother’s cousin. “She told me I had no choice, even though this man was illiterate and didn’t work. He was just an awful person. He beat me every day, even when I was seven months pregnant. The placenta separated from my baby’s body and killed the child.” Sabrine says that despite the private horror of what she was going through, she was too ashamed to tell her family.

After five years of marriage, Sabrine pushed for a divorce. Her husband forced her to give him her car, access to the entire house including the furniture, the equivalent of $6,500— and to leave their daughter, Jouliana, who is now 9 years old. Sabrine has been forbidden from seeing Jouliana since she left the house, taking nothing with her apart from the stuffed rabbit Ziad gave her.

By this time, Ziad and Sabrine hadn’t seen each other in seven years. Just a week after her divorce, she was invited to a wedding by her sister-in-law. Ziad’s friend had invited him along to the same event. They locked eyes across the room but they initially said nothing to one another. “I remembered this thin guy with curly hair,” said Sabrine, “and now here was this strong man with broad shoulders and a shaved head.” When Ziad asked a friend to show him Sabrine’s husband and found out she was recently divorced, he asked to be taken straight to her mother to request to marry her once again. Sabrine’s mother decided that marrying off a divorcée would be tough, and reluctantly agreed. “After we got engaged, she only made things harder,” explains Sabrine. Her mother made demands about a big ceremony and caused a rift between them. Sabrine’s brothers and sisters pushed her to stop. Eventually, she kicked Sabrine out of her house 10 days before her wedding to Ziad, scheduled for Sabrine’s birthday—April 4. Sabrine and her mother haven’t spoken since.

Sabrine knows that her mother has seen her appearances on Lebanese TV, on local radio and in the Arabic press, and has yet to reach out to her. “She has never tried to talk to me, and neither have my three sisters,” she says, “and I won’t talk to her without the presence of my husband, as she never accepted him. My husband is my whole life. No compromises.”

Sabrine has found a new family, in the form of Ziad’s parents. She and Fatima, Ziad’s mother, smile warmly at each other with tears in their eyes and their arms around each other as they speak of their relationship. Ziad told his parents he’d married Sabrine three days after the ceremony. His mother came to accept it, “as I know my son, he’ll do what he wants even if everyone is against him,” says Fatima. Ziad’s father, Mohammed, initially refused to accept their marriage, but now spends his days with his grandchildren on his knees, or cradling them in his arms. He speaks with a hoarse voice as he describes how he has stopped sleeping since Ziad was captured. “I can’t close my eyes, because then I picture a knife on the neck of my son,” he says.

The family home sits next to a tobacco farm, and Fatima and Mohammed say that Ziad’s absence has stopped their lives from functioning as normal. “We can’t make decisions without him here,” says Fatima “it has affected our whole lives.” They are also both angry at the government, which they say has lied to them about protecting their son, and has failed to do enough to bring him back. “The lies of the government shocked us,” says Fatima, as the tears flow slowly from her eyes and down her cheek. “Our son is a son of the state. This is their duty. We look at this situation and we feel helpless.”

Fatima says they were initially happy when Ziad joined the army, but that feeling has utterly faded. “We were so pleased he found a job, but now I wished he’d gone to work on the tobacco farm with his father—or anything else.”

Sabrine says that if Ziad returns, she will make him leave the army. “He has a psychology degree, but the army is a job for regular people, career jobs in those kinds of fields are for the children of politicians and important people,” she explains, laughing a little as she says: “This is the one job where you know that you get paid at the end of the month, without fail.” Reports of four LAF soldiers defecting to join jihadist militant groups themselves are complemented by fears that more soldiers will simply desert in fear of being captured like Ziad. For now, Sabrine and her family are living on Ziad’s wage of $1,000 per month. They will still receive a salary if something is to happen to Ziad, but she is trying to make sure she saves as much as possible. “No luxuries,” she says. “I also buy all the food that Ziad hates, like mortadella. I can’t eat the things he likes when he’s not around.”

The Nusra Front has released a list of demands, including three options for prisoner swaps: One Lebanese soldier for every 10 jihadi prisoners held by the Lebanese government, one Lebanese soldier for every seven male prisoners and 30 female prisoners imprisoned in Syria, or one Lebanese soldier for every five male prisoners and 50 women imprisoned in Syria. Sabrine reports that the latest demands by ISIS militants are three prisoners for every captive soldier. The release of al-Oqaily and al-Dulaimi are now also in the mix, with the Lebanese government hoping to use al-Oqaily as a political bargaining chip. On Tuesday, it was announced that the militants had presented a new offer to the government. The families announced along with it that they had entered a “phase of silence” surrounding the details of the new deal.

Yet meaningful negotiations to free the hostages have failed to get off the ground. Last week, Salafist Sheikh Wissam Masari, reportedly appointed by Nusra as their representative, withdrew his willingness to be a negotiator after the Lebanese government failed to recognize his position. The families say that health minister Wael Abu Faour, who has been appointed to mediate between the hostages’ families and the government, has shied away from the issue, although he recently stated publicly that “sacrifices must be made” in order to secure the hostages’ release. Abu Faour declined repeated requests to comment for this article.

After almost five months without a solution, the lack of initiative is starting to embarrass the Lebanese government. Debates around who should negotiate with the militants are rooted firmly in the rolling political vacuum that has occurred since April 23 this year, when no candidate gained enough votes to succeed former President Michel Suleiman. Both the ruling March 8th and opposition March 14th alliances have waged verbal battles in the media as to who is to blame for the impasse, with the hostage issue lost in the middle.

Druze leader Walid Joumblatt of the Progressive Socialist Party told The Daily Beast that the government needs to find someone to negotiate with the militants, and fast. “We need a delegation, the government somehow doesn’t want to give this responsibility to anyone,” he said. “But we need to negotiate with ISIS and Nusra. We have to negotiate with the peple that kidnap our soldiers, we cannot negotiate with ghosts.”

For now, Sabrine continues her daily routine of visits to the protest camp, to political leaders and taking care of the twins. Her phone rings at least once an hour with questions from journalists, which she answers in Arabic, English, and sometimes French. When her phone rings, it plays the song that she and Ziad chose as “their song” during their engagement—Tina Arena and Marc Anthony’s “I Want To Spend My Lifetime Loving You.” Sabrine doesn’t yet know when or if she will ever be able to change into her winter clothes, turn on the heating, or buy anything other than mortadella.