TikTok gang bust lays bare continued criminal abuse of children in Lebanon

Nine suspects have so far been arrested, including TikTok influencer George Moubayyed, who owns a hair salon called Hair Zone in Beirut’s Sabtieh neighborhood. (Supplied)
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Updated 12 May 2024
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TikTok gang bust lays bare continued criminal abuse of children in Lebanon

  • Authorities investigating dozens of individuals who allegedly used the app to groom and sexually abuse children 
  • Scandal has provoked outrage among Lebanese and led to calls for the app to be banned in the country

DUBAI: Less than a year since the rape and murder of six-year-old Leen Talib in a case that shocked Lebanon, the country has again been rocked by a scandal involving the sexual abuse of children, and this time the social media platform TikTok is caught up in the furore.

Lebanese authorities are investigating a group of 28 to 30 individuals who allegedly used the app to groom children into performing indecent acts. The acts were reportedly filmed for sale online.

Nine suspects have so far been arrested, including TikTok influencer George Moubayyed, who owns a hair salon called Hair Zone in Beirut’s Sabtieh neighborhood, alongside three minors who allegedly used their accounts to lure others.




These images from social media influencer George Moubayyed's TikTok account shows himself posing in front of his salon in Beirut’s Sabtieh neighborhood. (Supplied)

According to local news media, the gang includes men and women and includes several Syrian and Turkish nationals.

The allegations have provoked outrage across Lebanon and have led to calls for TikTok to be banned in the country.

The Lebanese Internal Security Forces released a statement saying the arrests took place after several children reported being sexually assaulted on camera by members of a predatory gang and being forced to partake in drug use at hotels and seaside chalets.

One teenager, who cannot be named for legal reasons, told Arab News that he was groomed by the gang, but was able to avoid being sexually assaulted.





Lebanon's Internal Security Forces had been busy lately trying to suppress the burgeoning drug and arms smuggling trade in Lebanon, and now massive human trafficking and rampant exploitation of minors. (AFP/File photo)

“A few months after I opened my TikTok account, I was sent a message from an account which, at times, would call itself The Agency,” the teenager said. “They explained that they recruit children my age — 15 to 16-year-olds — to publish funny videos that get monetized, and I would receive any money the videos made. There was no (hint) of anything predatory at first.

“That soon changed, however. I started receiving texts from random accounts of a flirtatious nature. I was approached by an anonymous elderly man whose texts would range from normal to borderline flirtatious.

“He offered to buy me a new phone and give me $1,500 in cash if I were to meet him. Rather than coming to my neighborhood and meeting at a public place like a restaurant or coffeehouse, the man insisted on sending me a taxi to a private location. I refused. I later (found out) he was friends with one of the men from The Agency gang.”

Arab News could not independently corroborate the teenager’s allegations.

INNUMBERS

4.76 million Internet users in Lebanon at the start of 2024.

3.92 million TikTok users in Lebanon, mostly in 8-24 age group.

1.56 billion Monthly active TikTok users globally as of today.

Judicial authorities and local news media have identified several individuals they believe are linked to the gang, including a lawyer registered with the North Bar Association in Tripoli called Khaled Merheb; Abdo Keysso, the owner of Matrix clothing store; dentist Hussein Allaq; Paul Meouchi; Peter Naffah; and Hassan Singer.

Gigi Ghanawi, a social media influencer, proceeded to delete all of her social media accounts after being accused by some Lebanese media outlets of being part of the gang. Her accounts had multiple photos of her posing with the accused.

Some of the alleged victims have also claimed that Ghanawi sent them private messages of a provocative nature, asking to meet up with them, but when they arrived at the scheduled location, they were met by gang members. According to the latest reports, Ghanawi has been arrested.

While the investigation is still in its preliminary stages, Attorney General Judge Tanios Saghbini, the public prosecutor at the Court of Appeal in Mount Lebanon who is presiding over the case, has issued multiple arrest warrants and has requested Interpol’s assistance, as some of the suspects reside abroad — Meouchi is a resident of Sweden, while Naffah has reportedly fled Lebanon.

The teenager who spoke to Arab News said that he was asked to go to a shop called Fashion Zone to pick up the money he was owed from the “funny” videos he had filmed.

“The boutique was situated near George Moubayyed’s Hair Zone salon. You’d have to collect the money in cash. There was no other way to receive it directly. That’s how I came to know Moubayyed.




Nine suspects have so far been arrested, including TikTok influencer George Moubayyed, who owns a hair salon called Hair Zone in Beirut’s Sabtieh neighborhood. (Supplied)

“Upon meeting me, he suggested that he should cut my hair on camera, saying he’d do it for free and that it would give me more exposure, on account of him having over 400,000 followers on TikTok. He seemed adamant and pushy about the whole thing, then took my number to schedule a date for the appointment.

“Another time I went, I was introduced to Paul Meouchi. Paul would always try to take me out, often citing that he doesn’t live in town, that he resides in Sweden, and that I should really make the most of it while he’s around. I came to sense they all had that pushy attitude about them. They do not take no for an answer, always (asking) to meet for dinner and drinks.

“At one point, I received private messages from anonymous accounts claiming they had pornographic videos and photos of me and they said they would release them if I did not (meet them at) a certain location. I called their bluff, though. I knew there was nothing of that nature. Once I did that, the account deactivated.”

According to Singer’s testimony, the gang would use the children’s own videos to blackmail them into keeping quiet and continuing to be abused by gang members.

Singer alleges he was approached by other minors in his neighborhood who confided in him, and that he was posing as a pedophile in order to gather evidence and try to bring the offenders to justice




Amid Lebanon's economic and political crises, minors are feared to be most at risk to pedophiles and ghuman traffickers using social media to lure them. (AFP/File)

Despite portraying himself as a concerned citizen, several videos have surfaced on social media that reportedly show Singer in questionable settings with minors.

“I was also contacted by Hassan Singer,” the teenager told Arab News. “Hassan pretended to be a friend. He would often ask me out for lunch. He said I should be warned of bad men who wish to do harmful things to little boys and that I should steer clear of them. He also said he supports children my age by giving them money, which I found to be a little odd.

“One time he suggested that, if I ever needed a dentist, I should go to Hussein Allaq’s clinic. He said that to get a good deal and a quick appointment, instead of calling the clinic, I should message Allaq privately, tell him my age and send him some photos of me.”

The teenager also claimed that he was approached on TikTok by an Arab man who offered him $20 for each pornographic image or video sent.

In a statement, Judge Saghbini said the accused had formed “a criminal network for human trafficking and money laundering” and had “solicited minors, via social media networks, mainly TikTok, for sexual purposes.”




A judge has said that a "criminal network for human trafficking and money laundering” and had “solicited minors, via social media networks, mainly TikTok, for sexual purposes.” (Shutterstock images)

He also said members of the network had forced the minors to take drugs before raping them, had taken nude photos of them for the purpose of sale and distribution, and had engaged in “violent and life-threatening practices.”

According to Lebanese police, the videos and photos were intended to be sold on the dark web — online content that can only be accessed by specific software and usually requires authorization of some kind. While it is not illegal to access the dark web, some of its websites engage in criminal activity, which, according to the International Monetary Fund, includes “arms trafficking, drug dealing and the sharing of exploitative content.”

But what about the clearnet — the publicly accessible online content the majority of people use regularly, and which includes the major social media platforms? Does this latest scandal involving the abuse of such platforms make a case for banning the likes of TikTok?

Popular among the “Gen Z” demographic, TikTok — which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance — has 1.56 billion monthly active users globally as of 2024, according to market researchers at DemandSage.




Infographic courtesy of DemandSage

It ranks fifth among the most popular social media platforms, and is almost equally popular with men (52 percent of users) and women (48 percent), with the majority of its users aged 18 to 34.

Despite its popularity, its impact on mass culture, and the many small businesses and influencers who depend on it for sales and publicity, the site has faced opposition around the world.

It was banned in India in June 2020 amid tensions with China. Nepal also announced a decision to ban TikTok in November 2023 and Pakistan has implemented a number of temporary bans since 2020.

TikTok is also under pressure in the West because of concerns over data. It has been banned from government-issued phones in the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand, and staff at the European Commission have also been banned from using it on work-issued devices.




Members of the City Youth Organiztion rally in Hyderabad on June 30, 2020, in support of the Indian government's decision to ban the wildly popular video-sharing 'Tik Tok' app. (AFP/File)

In April 2024, citing national security, US President Joe Biden signed into law the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, which is an effective ban on, or forced sale of, TikTok.

TikTok has filed a lawsuit, calling the act an “extraordinary intrusion on free speech rights” of the company and its 170 million American users.

Could similar restrictions on the app now follow in Lebanon?

According to the Akhbar Al-Yawm news agency, the media office of Lebanese Minister of Telecommunications Johnny Corm issued a statement on May 8 saying a TikTok ban would first require a court order.




The Lebanese government's TikTok account has only 71,400 followers. A ban on the app may not be that much of a problem. 

“At a time when social media sites are abuzz with discussions and claims related to the blocking of the TikTok application in Lebanon following its use by a gang involved in extorting minors, it is important for the office to confirm that the banning of any application, whether TikTok or others, and the blocking of websites or private applications by the Ministry of Telecommunications requires a court order in accordance with legal protocols,” it said.

“The Ministry of Telecommunications is an executive authority, and (whatever) the Lebanese judiciary (rules) in terms of banning or not banning any application, the ministry is committed to implement exclusively. There is no individual authority for the minister of communications to decide whether to ban any application or not. The ministry has the technical ability to stop and block the TikTok application. In the event of a judicial decision in this regard, the ministry will apply this decision,” the statement continued.

Corm’s office also stressed the need for parents to monitor their children’s online activity and added that there are tools in most applications, including TikTok, that allow parents to block inappropriate content.
 

 


KSrelief project removes more mines in Yemen

Updated 7 sec ago
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KSrelief project removes more mines in Yemen

  • The project removed 1,556 mines across Yemen

RIYADH: Masam, the mine-clearing project run by the Saudi aid agency KSrelief, removed and dismantled hundreds of landmines in Yemen during the second week of June, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Monday.

The project removed 1,556 mines across Yemen: 52 anti-tank mines, 1,503 items of unexploded ordnance, and one explosive device.

So far in June there have been 2,810 mines removed in Yemen, bringing to 447,668 the number of mines removed since Masam was launched.


Once fruitful, Libyan village suffers climate crisis

Updated 17 June 2024
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Once fruitful, Libyan village suffers climate crisis

KABAW, Libya: In the Libyan village of Kabaw in the Nafusa Mountains, M’hamed Maakaf waters an ailing fig tree as climate change pushes villagers to forsake lands and livestock.
Once flourishing and known for its figs, olives, and almonds, fields around Kabaw, located some 200 kilometers (124 miles) southwest of Tripoli, are now mostly barren and battered by climate change-induced drought.
The area was once “green and prosperous until the beginning of the millennium,” Maakaf recalled. “People loved to come here and take walks but today it has become so dry that it’s unbearable.”
“We no longer see the green meadows we knew in the 1960s and ‘70s,” added the 65-year-old, wearing a traditional white tunic and sirwal trousers.
Kabaw, like many villages in the Nafusa Mountains, is primarily inhabited by Amazigh people, a non-Arab minority.

The old and abandoned village of Kabaw stands on arid land not far from the newer constructions in the Nafusa mountains on May 26, 2024. (AFP)

Pounded by the sun and dry winds, the mountainous area now struggles to bear fruit, facing a lack of rainfall and temperatures high above seasonal norms.
Libya — where around 95 percent of land is desert — is one of the world’s most water-scarce countries, according to the United Nations.
Its annual precipitation in coastal areas has fallen from 400 millimeters in 2019 to 200 millimeters today, with water demand higher than what is available.
The Nafusa Mountains, sitting at an altitude of almost 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) in western Libya, are home to around half a million people out of Libya’s population of seven million.
Driven out by increasing water stress, local villagers and their livestock have been gradually moving out of the Nafusa Mountains and surrounding plains.

‘How can we be patient?’

Mourad Makhlouf, mayor of Kabaw, says that drought in the last decade has pushed hundreds of families to leave for the capital Tripoli and other coastal cities, where water is easier to access.
“It’s not just about water scarcity or crops dying due to drought,” said Makhlouf. “There is a demographic and human dimension with the exodus of hundreds of families toward the capital and coastal towns.”

Sheep and goats gather in the shade under trees in an arid field in the Libyan village of Kabaw in the Nafusa mountains on May 26, 2024. (Photo by Mahmud Turkia/AFP)

Suleiman Mohammed, a local farmer, fears that climate change will soon cause everyone to leave, as “living without water is certain death.”
“How can we be patient?” he said. “It has gotten to the point where breeders sell their livestock because keeping them costs twice their value.”
Standing by a cluster of dead tree trunks, Maakaf decries the loss of “thousands of olive trees.”
“Some were 200 years old and inherited from our grandfathers,” he said.
Hoping to alleviate the burden, local authorities began selling subsidized water for 25 Libyan dinars (about $5) per 12,000 liters.
Tanker trucks make the trip between the water stations and the village, traveling up to 50 kilometers and allowing some of those in need to hold on.
“We manage to water our fields two to three times a week but water is expensive,” Maakaf said, adding that they also rely on private tanker trucks selling the same amount for up to 160 dinars.

Relief plan needed
The hydrocarbon-rich country hosts the world’s largest irrigation project, the Great Man-Made River, its main source of water supply built in the 1980s under the rule of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
Drawing fossil water from aquifers in the heart of the southern desert, the network of pipes supplies about 60 percent of the national need.
But the supplies remain insufficient amid increasing drought.

A road leading to the Libyan village of Kabaw in the Nafusa mountains, winds between arid hills on May 26, 2024.(AFP)

According to the World Resources Institute, an environmental research organization, Libya will face “extremely high” water stress by 2050.
The World Bank predicts that by 2030, the Middle East and North Africa region will fall below the “absolute water scarcity” threshold.
“Water scarcity is one of the greatest emerging threats facing Libya,” the UN Development Programme said in a study.
“The country needs to ensure equitable access to water for domestic and economic purposes.”
“Climate smart agricultural methods should reduce the overuse of water resources and... practices that contribute to soil erosion and desertification, which further impact productive sectors and food security.”
Libya signed the 2015 United Nations framework convention on climate change and ratified the Paris Climate Accord in 2021.
Yet the North African country has shown little progress toward the development of disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation strategies, as it continues to grapple with divisions and conflict after the fall of Qaddafi in 2011.
“The drought does not only concern the Nafusa Mountains, but the entire country,” said Mayor Makhlouf.
“Libya needs a relief plan, which will not be the solution to everything, but will allow us to adapt.”


Biden adviser travels to Israel for meetings to avoid escalation between Israel, Lebanon

US Senior Advisor for Energy Security Amos Hochstein. (AFP)
Updated 17 June 2024
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Biden adviser travels to Israel for meetings to avoid escalation between Israel, Lebanon

  • Amos Hochstein will advance efforts to avoid further escalation along the ‘Blue Line’ between Israel and Lebanon

WASHINGTON: A senior Biden adviser will travel to Israel on Monday for meetings to avoid further escalation between Israel and Lebanon, a White House official said.
Amos Hochstein will advance efforts to avoid further escalation along the “Blue Line” between Israel and Lebanon, said the official, who did not wish to be identified.
Attacks between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon have led to worries of a deeper war across the Middle East.


Israel warns of escalation from cross-border fire from Hezbollah

Updated 17 June 2024
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Israel warns of escalation from cross-border fire from Hezbollah

  • Hezbollah says it will not halt fire unless Israel stops its military offensive on Gaza

JERUSALEM: Intensified cross-border fire from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement into Israel could trigger serious escalation, the Israeli military said on Sunday.
“Hezbollah’s increasing aggression is bringing us to the brink of what could be a wider escalation, one that could have devastating consequences for Lebanon and the entire region,” Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said in a video statement in English.
Iran-backed Hezbollah last week launched the largest volleys of rockets and drones yet in the eight months it has been exchanging fire with the Israeli military, in parallel with the Gaza war.
After the relatively heavy exchanges over the past week, Sunday saw a marked drop in Hezbollah fire, while the Israeli military said that it had carried out several air strikes against the group in southern Lebanon.
The US and France are working on a negotiated settlement to the hostilities along Lebanon’s southern border. Hezbollah says it will not halt fire unless Israel stops its military offensive on Gaza.
“Israel will take the necessary measures to protect its civilians — until security along our border with Lebanon is restored,” Hagari said.


‘No joy’: Gazans mark somber Eid in shadow of war

Updated 17 June 2024
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‘No joy’: Gazans mark somber Eid in shadow of war

  • Many Palestinians forced to spend holiday without their loved ones
  • I hope the world will put pressure to end the war on us because we are truly dying, and our children are broken

GAZA STRIP: In tents in the stifling heat and bombed-out mosques, Gazans on Sunday marked the start of the Eid Al-Adha holiday, devoid of the usual cheer as the Israel-Hamas war raged on.

“There is no joy. We have been robbed of it,” said Malakiya Salman, a 57-year-old displaced woman now living in a tent in Khan Younis City in the southern Gaza Strip.
Gazans, like Muslims the world over, would usually slaughter sheep for the holiday — whose Arabic name means “feast of the sacrifice” — and share the meat with the needy.
Parents would also give their children new clothes and money for the celebration.
But this year, after more than eight months of a devastating Israeli campaign that has flattened much of Gaza, displaced most of the besieged territory’s 2.4 million people, and sparked repeated warnings of famine, the Eid is a day of misery for many.
“I hope the world will put pressure to end the war on us because we are truly dying, and our children are broken,” said Salman.
Her family was displaced from the far-southern city of Rafah, a recent focus of the fighting which began after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel.
The military on Sunday morning announced a “tactical pause of military activity” around a Rafah-area route to facilitate the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid to Gazans.
AFP correspondents said there were no reports of strikes or shelling since dawn, though the Israeli military stressed there was “no cessation of hostilities in the southern Gaza Strip.”
The brief respite in fighting allowed worshippers a rare moment of calm on holiday.
Many gathered for the Eid Al-Adha morning prayer in the courtyard of Gaza City’s historic Omari Mosque, which was heavily damaged in Israeli bombardment, placing down their frayed prayer mats next to mounds of rubble.
The sound of prayers traveled down some of the city’s destroyed and abandoned streets.
“Since this morning, we’ve felt a sudden calm with no gunfire or bombings ... It’s strange,” said 30-year-old Haitham Al-Ghura from Gaza City.
He hoped the pause meant a permanent ceasefire was near, though truce mediation efforts have stalled for months.
In several areas of the war-battered territory, especially in Gaza City, young boys were seen manning roadside shops selling perfumes, lotions, and other items against the backdrop of piles of rubble from destroyed buildings and homes.
Many vendors used umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching sun as they sold household items on Gaza City’s main market street. But there were few buyers.
Food and other goods can reach four or five times their usual price, but those who cling to the holiday traditions can still afford them.
In Khan Younis, displaced man Majdi Abdul Raouf spent 4,500 shekels ($1,200) — a small fortune for most Gazans — on a sheep to sacrifice.
“I was determined to buy it despite the high prices, to perform these rituals and bring some joy and happiness to the children in the displacement camp,” said the 60-year-old, who fled his home in Rafah.
“There is sadness, severe pain, and suffering, but I insisted on having a different kind of day.”
The deadliest-ever Gaza war began after Hamas’s unprecedented Oct. 7 attack.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 37,337 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Health Ministry in the territory.
For many, a halt in fighting can never bring back what has been lost.
“We’ve lost many people, there’s a lot of destruction,” said Umm Mohammed Al-Katri from Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza.
“This Eid is completely different,” she said, with many Gazans forced to spend the holiday without their loved ones killed or displaced during the war.
Grieving families on Sunday flocked to cemeteries and other makeshift burial sites, where wooden planks marked the graves.
“I feel comfort here,” said Khalil Diab Essbiah at the cemetery where his two children are buried.
Even with the constant buzzing of Israeli drones overhead, visitors at the cemetery “can feel relieved of the genocide we are in and the death and destruction,” he said.
Hanaa Abu Jazar, 11, also displaced from Rafah to the tent city in Khan Yunis, said: “We see the (Israeli) occupation killing children, women and the elderly.”
“How can we celebrate?” asked the girl.