Lebanon’s hashish valley arms against ISIS

Reporting from Lebanon's hashish heartland of the Bekaa Valley on Jan. 5 Public Radio International spoke to cannabis farmers who say they are ready to resist any ISIS incursion into their fastness. Ali Nasri Shamas, who runs a mechanized hashish factory in Bouday village, took up arms in 2007 to resist Lebanese government eradication forces. This paid off; the army hasn't been back since 2012. But now the Lebanese army and hash producers are confronting the same enemy. Although officially a wanted man for 35 years now, Shamas happily talks on-camera, alongside a three-ton yield of hash, flanked by masked employees, amid the clatter of processing machines.

"This is for ISIS and Nusra Front,” Shamas said, proudly brandishing a two-foot machete. (Nusra is Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate.) But Shamas' arsenal also includes AK-47s, mounted machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The hashish lords warily note that ISIS has been zealously eradicating the cannabis fields of northern Syria—and, we can imagine, dealing more ruthlessly with any resistance than the Lebanese army could aspire to at their worst. Shamas' factory is just 30 minutes from the Syrian border, and ISIS has already made incursions into the Bekaa Valley. When ISIS fighters attacked a village between Bouday and the Syrian border in October, cannabis farmers joined in to defend it. These guys are themselves experienced fighters, veterans of Lebanon's own 15-year civil war. And unlike Lebanon’s well-established militias, the cannabis farmers aren't aligned with any sect or political party. Shamas told PRI his fight is no longer just about protecting his hashish business. "We support every village in Lebanon," he said. "Christian, Sunni, Shia—whatever they are, we'll defend them against these terrorists."

They may soon get their chance to again test their mettle against ISIS. Reuters reported Jan. 3 that ISIS militants holed up in the Qalamoun mountains on the Syrian-Lebanese border are seeking to gain control of nearby villages on the Lebanese side. Lebanon’s top security official, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, said his forces are on high alert to resist any ISIS advance.

Of course Lebanon's official security forces are in something of a pickle, now that they find themselves in a de facto alliance (at least) with the hashish lords. Lebanon's drug czar, Col. Chassan Chamseddine, equivocated on the question to Australia's SBS network: "I think they're using Islamic State militants as an excuse to justify having weapons but the real reason is to protect their hashish. But of course if there's any assault from outside of Lebanon into Lebanon they may use their weapons to help the army. But the Lebanese army has the official duty to defend the people."

Cross-post to High Times and Global Ganja Report

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