As soon as he started up the camera on his computer, his life was over. At least that is how Alouki* sees it now. The young Kut man had met a French-Moroccan woman online in a sex chat room. The pair had arranged a meeting and she asked him to turn on the camera so she could see him in action, so to speak.
“From that moment on, my life was ruined but I did not know it then,” Alouki says. He didn’t realise he was being filmed at the same time as the couple simulated sex and after the event, he was contacted by blackmailers who threatened to publish the video on social media if he didn’t pay them.
He paid up, the young man says, with tears running down his face.
The blackmailers threatened to send the video clip to all of my Facebook friends and publish it on YouTube too.
Alouki’s story is not the only one. In conservative Iraqi society, there are plenty of young men looking for sex and a relationship online, one that will not necessarily lead to marriage as it would in the real world. But now those seekers are being exploited by what appear to well-organised gangs in other countries. The British press has described them as "sex-tortioners" in similar stories. It’s hard to assess how many young men have been affected by this. One hears the stories around town but people tend not to talk openly about it. Possibly there are a few dozen Iraqis who have fallen into this Internet trap.
“I was so shocked when I saw myself doing all of these things, that I had done with one of the girls,” Nounu* told NIQASH. “It was very professionally filmed!”
“I don’t know how I managed to get involved in this,” the 18-year-old said, admitting he was extremely embarrassed to even be talking about this again. “I never expected to become a victim and to be put in this position.”
Nounu says that after four minutes of engaging with the woman on the other side of the computer screen, she sent him a link and asked that he click on it.
“At first I tried to ignore it,” Nounu confesses. “But they threatened to send the video clip to all of my Facebook friends and publish it on YouTube too, if I didn’t send them US$2,000. I ended up paying them off in monthly instalments.”
The victims of these scams are often asked to transfer money to different countries. The owner of one of the exchange shops in Kut told NIQASH he was surprised when two young men started coming in and regularly sending money to Morocco and Tunisia.
“When I asked them about it, they confessed why they were doing it,” says Samer al-Bawi. “They told me they were transferring money in order to avoid scandals.”
Al-Bawi was critical of what he described as the “electronic chaos in Iraq. The government should put stricter controls on the Internet and end this kind of thing,” he suggested.
However Haidar al-Waeli, an engineer and member of local committee for digital governance in Kut, felt that this would be a difficult task, especially when it came to cases such as these blackmail ones.
“Those young people were not forced to switch on their cameras. They made that decision of their own free will,” al-Waeli argues. “If we intervened or banned such things, we would be intruding upon people’s privacy. The only thing we can do is make people more aware of the dangers of such acts online.”
*Names have been changed.