BEIRUT (AP) — The al-Mikdad clan that is behind a wave of abductions of Syrians in Lebanon is a powerful Shiite Muslim family that has its roots in the eastern Bekaa Valley, where government control is weak and tribes hold sway, backed by their own personal militias.
From their origins in the largely arid valley, the clan estimated at some 17,000 members has extended to the mainly Shiite suburbs in the southern parts of Beirut, where they dominate the neighborhood of Rweis. Outsiders avoid the district, wary they might commit some offense that would put them at odds with the clan.
The family's kidnapping of Syrians has sparked dangerous political repercussions, raising fears that Syria's civil war with its underlying sectarian hatreds could tear apart similarly divided Lebanon.
But the clan says the abductions themselves are not politically motivated. Instead, they are born from the rough-and-tumble world of clan disputes, where families traditionally take matters of revenge into their own well-armed hands.
The al-Mikdads say they are retaliating for the seizing of one of their family members inside Syria by rebels — and they're taking it out on Syrians they see as pro-opposition, snatching more than 20, along with a Turk, since Turkey hosts Syrian rebels.
The Bekaa Valley is home to a number of daunting clans, each with their own militia. The al-Mikdads, like several other Shiite families, are centered at northern end of the valley, around the city of Baalbek, a region notorious for marijuana and poppy fields. Many of the local families are believe involved in the narcotics trade, and they fiercely defend it, frequently attacking security forces who try to destroy fields.
The Shiite clans are so powerful that they have in the past fought deadly battles with Hezbollah, the country's most influential Shiite political force and its strongest fighting force, to defend their turf. Political parties avoid angering the clans as they fear they might turn against them in parliamentary elections.
Security officials say there are nearly 30,000 outstanding arrest warrants of people from the region, mostly for involvement in drug dealing, killing of soldiers, car theft and robberies.
Beyond the more shadowy sides that all the Bekaa clans are suspected of having, al-Mikdads are involved in all walks of life in Lebanon — from shopkeepers to engineers to doctors.
The al-Mikdad clan member who is held by Syrian rebels had been living in Syria for more than a year because he was wanted in Lebanon for bouncing checks, the family says. His lawyer, Haifa Dheini, told the local LBC TV that his case had been cleared in Lebanon and he was supposed to return shortly before rebels grabbed him, accusing him of ties to Hezbollah. The family denies he is linked to the group, which has strongly backed Assad.
On Wednesday night, gunmen linked to the al-Mikdads went on a rampage in Dahiyeh, damaging shops owned by Syrians and warning them not to reopen.
Like all major Shiite families in Lebanon, the al-Mikdads have intersections with Hezbollah, even if they are not closely associated with it.
Hezbollah has a pervasive influence among Lebanon's Shiite community, and the mainly Shiite southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh is the group's stronghold along with the south. Still, the al-Mikdads dominate parts of the suburb, like the Rweis neighborhood and part of the Sfeir district, making them a player Hezbollah must deal with. One of the most prominent members of the clan, Ali al-Mikdad, is a Hezbollah member in parliament.
The presence of al-Mikdad gunmen in the streets of Dahiyeh would not have been possible without Hezbollah's tacit approval. At the least, the group may have been wary of tangling with the al-Mikdads by standing in the way of their vengeance.
But not everyone in the clan is happy over the kidnappings.
At a family press conference in Dahiyeh on Thursday, some proudly boasted of the abductions. But other family members, including an aide to Ali al-Mikdad, shouted that the snatchings were hurting the clan name, sparking a family shouting match that was aired live on TV.