Alaa’s uncle was a prominent figure in his community and although, as a matter of self-preservation, he has not advertised his political beliefs since Syria's uprising began, he was widely known as a friend of the opposition.
So when a group of men claiming to be part of the Free Syrian Army arrived at his house, asking him to come to their headquarters for questioning about his support for the regime, he was immediately suspicious, but went with them anyway, hoping to clear up the matter.
It was the start of a kidnapping that would last three weeks and cost the family roughly $10,000 and three cars before the uncle was released. His abductors had no discernible connection to the FSA unit they claimed to represent and Alaa now assumes they were simply criminals.
“I found out this wasn’t an isolated incident. It’s happening all over Syria,” says Alaa, who asked to use only his first name due to security concerns. “It’s the lawless Wild West. No one really listens to anyone and everyone has their own way of doing things. A lot of the kidnappings are people who are profiteering. Some of them are ex-cons turned out by the government to prove that without [the government] you won’t have a peaceful place to life, and others are just self-proclaimed military council leaders profiteering from the war.”
A kidnapping-and-ransom industry often emerges from unstable situations. Some estimate that thousands of Iraqis were kidnapped and ransomed during the peak of the most recent Iraq war.
Now, throughout much of northwestern Syria, particularly Idlib province, Syrians say they’re dealing with a kidnapping epidemic. In some of the worst affected areas, residents report people going missing daily.
Throughout Idlib province, locals say there has been a dramatic spike in the number of kidnappings in recent months. Many residents say the fear of abduction now keeps them from leaving their neighborhoods. Though most outside attention is focused on the abduction of foreigners like American reporter James Foley, who has been missing since November, the problem is far more common and pervasive for Syrians.
The kidnapping threat has brought daily life to a standstill in many areas.
“The problem is growing daily. People are afraid to leave the city because they’re afraid they’ll get taken hostage,” says Yazan Khader, a media activist from Idlib who spoke from Turkey. “It’s really affected our daily lives. We don’t get water in my area any more because the water main broke and the people who can fix it don’t want to come here because they’re afraid of getting taken. Truck drivers who deliver goods also no longer want to pass through this area.”
It remains difficult to determine who is behind the kidnappings, but they are driven in large part by criminal opportunism, as people take advantage of the lawlessness now plaguing large swaths of Syria that are neither completely under opposition or government control. In Syria’s northwest Idlib province, rebels have made a number of recent gains, but serious fighting continues and the opposition has not yet established government institutions like police and courts as they have in Aleppo.
“The number of kidnappings in Idlib has grown compared to what it used to be,” says Shadi Zydani, a former member of Idlib’s Revolutionary Security force who says the problem has grown dramatically. He adds, “When they kidnap activists, they deliver them to the security forces for sure, but there are others who are taking advantage of the situation to make money.”
The Syrian opposition blames those loyal to the government for the majority of kidnappings and say they have released convicts from jail and encouraged pro-government militias to kidnap and terrorize the local population to make it appear that rebels are incapable of providing security and stability.
There remains some hope that the situation will improve in Idlib. Opposition members say that the situation was much the same in Aleppo shortly after they began gaining ground there. It was not uncommon to have multiple kidnappings daily. But now large swaths of Aleppo province are under opposition control, which has allowed rebels to create their own civilian courts, police stations, and other institutions to maintain law and order. Some Revolutionary Security units in Aleppo even operate intelligence gathering programs to monitor the conduct of the Free Syrian Army.
Residents of Aleppo say the efforts have played a crucial role in reducing kidnappings and crime in general.
In the summer, “isolated incidents of kidnappings started happening and then it increased dramatically because people started doing it as a job to get money,” says Tony al-Taieb, media activist in Aleppo. “Now that they have liberated Aleppo, they’ve started organizing the city. They’ve separated the military work from the civilian and political issues. They created police stations and courts, and other jobs.”
With these institutions, Mr. Taieb says he believes kidnapping will soon disappear as a problem in Aleppo. Still, Taieb’s optimism is not universally shared. Despite progress reported by activists, the problem is far from gone in Aleppo. There are reports of increased abduction threats to foreigners working in the area and many worry that kidnapping could be a problem that afflicts the region as long as instability persists.