The military once battled hash farmers, now they face the same threat
Inside his hash factory in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Ali Nasri Shamas pulls out a two-foot long machete.
“This is for ISIS and the Nusra Front and anyone who supports them,” says Shamas, referring to the jihadi groups encroaching on Lebanon’s border. He smiles, running the blade of his knife gently along the sleeve of his leather jacket before cutting the air with it. “We have the machetes ready for them, just like they do.”
Shamas’s factory is just 30 minutes from the Syrian border and he says he and his fellow hash growers are ready to take on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front who have taken over swathes of Syria and Iraq are threatening to invade Lebanon.
Three tons of cannabis sits on the floor inside his processing plant. Workers sift through the ten-foot high heaps, separating stalks and stems amid a cloud of cannabis dust.
Lebanese Red and Blonde hash varieties are world-renowned, and Lebanon’s hash farmers have long been well-armed to defend their crops from government destruction.
Each year security forces come to this village, and others in the Bekaa Valley, to try to destroy the lucrative fields of marijuana. These raids often end in gun fights, leaving members of both sides dead and injured.
“The last time they came here was 2012,” says Shamas. He’s has been a fugitive for 35 years, but now he is not scared to be photographed with the illicit drugs.
Since the start of Syria’s uprising in 2011, Lebanon has worried about the conflict spilling across its borders. Both ISIS and the Nursa Front have kidnapped and executed Lebanese soldiers and police. The militants have infiltrated fighters and explosives through the shared border with Syria and into Lebanon.
While drugs were once a priority for the Lebanese government, defending the border against incursions from Syria is now paramount.
“I don’t want to say the government is afraid of the [drug dealers], but now they have other priorities…it’s not a suitable time to make a problem with the people in the Bekaa Valley,” says General Ghassan Chamseddine, head of Lebanon’s drug enforcement unit.
There are around 9,000 acres of Lebanese agricultural land used to grow cannabis, producing thousands of tons of hash annually, about half of which is exported. Chamseddine says his police require the support of 2,000-3,000 army troops to eradicate the crops each year. Right now, those soldiers can’t be spared. “Our army is working hard now to defend our border.”
That means that Lebanese security forces who once confronted Bekaa Valley drug cultivators now have a shared interest with them in defending border regions from attacks from Syria.
“We are ready to support all the factions in Lebanon against ISIS and the Nusra Front,” says Shamas.
When jihadis attacked the village of Brital in October of last year, a band of cannabis farmers headed to the area to help defend it. Abbas, who asked not to use his real name, was among them.
“When we heard they were attacking Brital, we grabbed our weapons and jumped in the trucks,” says Abbas, who spent seven years in prison on drug trafficking charges. “To us, ISIS is nothing. Their strategy is to scare people. But we were not afraid.”
Abbas, Shamas and most of the men involved in Lebanon’s hash trade are experienced fighters, having been militiamen in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Abbas once fought with Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful militia, and Shamas with Amal, another large Shiite group.
There is a Hezbollah base just a few hundred meters from the hash factory, but these men say unlike Lebanon’s many well-armed militias, they aren’t aligned with any sect or political party.
General Chamseddine is irritated by the suggestion that these men are defenders of the country.
“When they say they have these arms to defend their country against ISIS, they are making a camouflage to get support from the people,” says Chamseddine. “These drug dealers are only interested in their drugs.”
In part, it’s still about defending their crops. ISIS has posted videos online of their fighters destroying marijuana fields in Syria, saying the consumption of the plant is un-Islamic. But even more importantly, say the farmers here, this is about defending their land and their country against the expansionist ISIS militants.
Shamas pulls one of two AK-47s from his truck, admiring the assault rifle. This is just part of his arsenal that includes mounted machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
“We are here to defend all of Lebanon,” says Shamas.