THE BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon — They are killing Syrians and each other at an astronomical rate but there seems to be one thing that jihadist troops and Assad allies are working together on: getting high on Lebanon’s supply.
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.”
“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.
There is little attempt to hide the illicit trade here. As we sat in Abu Hussein’s living room, his friend dropped a 10-pound bag of reddish-brown hashish, still waiting to be compressed, on the coffee table. He then returned to puffing on a massive blunt that would make Snoop Dogg proud.
Abu Hussein’s hoodie bunches over his pot belly as he slumps into the couch, describing how this year’s yield should bring in $200 million for the valley. It will sell for much more on the street and the largest cut of the profits, he says, will go to about 100 major exporters.
While Shia farmers play a large role in the trade, Abu Hussein says Sunni villages in the area also grow cannabis, and the trade employs people across confessions and nationalities. Bekaa is a place where Sunni, Shia, and Christian communities live in close proximity, if not always as neighbors.
“Syrian workers here process [the hash] and Christian army officers smuggle it out,” says Abu Hussein. It’s a mass export industry that relies on bribing government and security officials.
The huge influx of over a million Syrian refugees into Lebanon, a country of 4 million, has created a pool of unemployed and exploitable workers that is now vast, but Abu Hussein says Syrians have been a cheap source of labor in hash production since the days when Lebanon was occupied by Syrian forces and Damascus tried to erase the borders.
Since the Syrian civil war started, Lebanese hash mostly ends up in Egypt, Syria, the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, But Abu Hussein notes that Israelis, too, get a small portion of Bekaa bud. It travels either via Jordan or in bags that are tossed over the closed border fence between Lebanon and northern Israel in exchange for bags of cash thrown back.
Only a sliver of these profits will make it back to the growers. Imad estimates he will get just over $4,000 per acre, a total of $60,000, from his last harvest. He says it will sell for 16 times that price on the street and suggests he would prefer to grow potatoes and vegetables. But that’s more or less a fantasy. He did try to grow potatoes, he says, and he lost almost $60,000.
“If the government supported us we wouldn’t be doing this,” he tells The Daily Beast. He says he is frustrated that government projects to support alternative agriculture have failed because of corruption.
As he sits with his family on the porch of his modest one-floor home, which accommodates his wife, six children, and his parents, it is clear why Imad’s situation, common in these parts, has the potential for political exploitation. On the one hand, he is on the ground floor of the drug trade, steeped in corruption that is heightened by Syria’s war. On the other, he is a farmer, the salt of the earth, in Lebanese terms, who is trying to eke out a living in an industry that has been a part of the valley for centuries.
It is a situation that led Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, head of Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party, to call for legalizing the cannabis trade. “It creates economic activity for poor people,” he tells The Daily Beast.
Moussalli points out that Jumblatt’s position hasn’t received much opposition and is part of increasing political competition for the support of Bekaa farmers. “Jumblatt is trying to soften his position with the Shia,” he says.
“Hash is one of the very important trades for Lebanon historically,” says Moussalli. “It will be important for years to come, either legally or illegally. ”