Sextortion stigma stops Idlib's women from seeking help in the face of online harassment
The myriad issues faced by women in Idlib and northwest Syria present a complex and harrowing picture. These issues aren't limited to the concerning rise in domestic abuse, in recent years violence of a different sort has become increasingly common: cyber blackmail. This takes many forms – threats, privacy violation, identity theft and account hacking, with harassers targeting their female victims for money or sex.
One of the tactics blackmailers use is reactivating old WhatsApp numbers from discarded phones. The phones are acquired and reactivated, upon which they can provide access to former owners' details and contacts. By impersonating the ex-phone owner, cybercriminals can threaten female contacts whose photos and data they have accessed. They exploit the fact that many young women in Idlib lack knowledge on digital security measures for their online accounts to pursue their sickening agendas.
Warda al-Omar: Betrayed
Warda al-Omar didn't expect her loving relationship with her soon-to-be fiancé to so quickly turn into a nightmare, spiralling into an excruciating saga of cyber blackmail. They met on Twitter, and after a series of mutual likes and comments on each other's posts, the relationship grew deeper with her soon falling in love and the two of them pledging to marry.
"The myriad issues faced by women in Idlib and northwest Syria present a complex and harrowing picture. These issues aren't limited to the concerning rise in domestic abuse; in recent years violence of a different sort has become increasingly common: cyber blackmail"
However, what happened next shattered everything. She started receiving messages from anonymous numbers threatening to publish private photos of her which could only have been accessed by hacking her personal accounts. She was given two options by her blackmailers: either she could give them money or have sex with them.
Nowhere to turn
Warda had no idea where to turn or how to stop them from sharing her photos, and she was terrified of the scandal if they did. She didn't dare tell her family – fearing that even those closest to her might seek to punish her and she would end up victim to an "honour crime".
From the start of 2020, and until February 2021, the organisation Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) recorded 24 murders in the regions of Idlib, the Aleppo countryside, Deraa and Suweida – 16 of the victims were women killed by their own relatives in so-called honour crimes. Six other women were killed for reasons which were not stated, which indicates similar motives may have been at play.
Warda fell into a dark cycle of sexual cyber blackmail (or "sextortion"), which she couldn't share with anyone. Worse, it wasn't long before she learned that the man she had loved and trusted was responsible for everything happening to her. He'd shared her private photos with his friends – this was the catalyst for the relentless series of threats and blackmail.
She tried to persuade them to leave her alone, stating repeatedly that she didn't have any money to give them, and she couldn't give in to their depraved demands. Despairing, she started considering suicide. Finally, she told them she'd kill herself if they shared her photos, and they finally backed down, convinced that she was serious about her pledge and that they weren't going to get what they wanted anyway.
Women's lives the price of cybercrime
While Warda's desperate move was unexpectedly successful, Taima Sarhan (22) and her mother who lived in the Ihsas camp in Idlib, were both murdered in the name of "honour". Taima's cousin shot her and her mother after a photo of her without a hijab was posted on Facebook.
"Blackmailers had got hold of her photos and doctored them to appear like intimate images taken of her. They threatened to share them publicly if she refused to do what they wanted"
Another tragic case was that of Sabaa al-Ra'y (17), who commit suicide by ingesting two aluminium phosphide tablets in the Barisha Camp in north Idlib. She did so to escape her blackmailers.
Fixing phones a risk in Idlib
Sabaa's sister Rawan (25), who was devastated by her sister's death, says she found out her story too late to help when Sabaa explained that blackmailers had got hold of her photos and doctored them to appear like intimate images taken of her. They threatened to share them publicly if she refused to do what they wanted. She ended up believing she had no choice but to end her life. Rawan thinks the blackmailers accessed the photos via a phone repair shop that Sabaa had visited when her phone broke down.
Despite cyber blackmail having become widespread across northwest Syria, it is a crime shrouded in secrecy, seldom talked about by victims afraid of the stigma they'll face in the eyes of their society.
Rawaa al-Salman: Breaking the silence
Rawaa al-Salman chose to break the silence and expose her extortionist, who toyed with her feelings for a year whilst they got to know each other on Facebook. Soon after he promised to marry her, she discovered he had been lying to exploit her for money. He tried to justify himself, saying he needed it to afford his rent, but when she refused to give him more money, he switched tactics, threatening to publish their private conversations and photos on social media.
Afraid, but unwilling to give in, Rawaa decided to contact his boss in the military police affiliated to the Syrian National Army in Al Bab. She gave his full name along with the threatening messages he'd sent. His boss summoned and confronted him with the evidence, before making him sign a pledge not to threaten her again. He also made him delete the photos and conversations from his phone and other electronic devices.
Society bears a large part of the blame
Since then, Rawaa has been left alone. She asserts that women need to have the courage and confront these threats, so as not to fall into the snare of blackmailers who shamelessly menace their victims with the threat of scandal to cow them into submission. She adds that society itself is to blame for a great deal of the injustice faced by women because it presumes their guilt for any kind of violation against them.
"Cyber blackmail is one of the most insidious forms of violence today, due to the perpetrator's anonymity and their ability to harness mobile functions like cameras and voice recordings"
What happened in Rawaa's case is feasible if the victim has the name and address of the blackmailer – the security services do usually act in these cases, both in areas controlled by the Syrian National Army, and those under HTS. However, this is impossible when blackmailers have used fake names, bogus accounts or foreign WhatsApp numbers: in these cases, it is almost impossible to identify them or access their personal data, which puts the victim in an extremely uncomfortable position.
Cyber blackmail is one of the most insidious forms of violence today, due to the perpetrator's anonymity and their ability to harness mobile functions like cameras and voice recordings, alongside invading and amassing the private data of others in order to harm and expose them.
Communications engineer Hanan Hamadan (40) describes it as a major threat to women and girls, which causes immense damage to their lives and reputations. The danger lies both in the vast and uncontrolled space of the internet, and because fear prevents many from seeking help, which gives cybercriminals leverage to intimidate their victims.
Digital safety training is urgently needed
Hanan says the lack of awareness-raising initiatives in the region is worsening the problem and allowing it to escalate. She thinks specialist cybercrime centres should be set up, which provide confidentiality to customers and carry out documentation, awareness-raising, digital safety training, legal guidance and social support. These could also provide protection to victims by hacking into the criminals' data and wiping all the photos and files they have stolen. She laments that centres like this have not yet been set up.
However, Idlib has seen one positive development – the opening of a training centre for women in phone maintenance. Even though the trade has long been seen as an exclusively male profession, women are now mastering the technical skills needed to do this work, and this is already having positive ramifications in curbing the theft of women's personal data at phone repair shops.
Positive step: Female-led phone repair centres
Bayan Dardoura (24), one of the centre's employees, says her goal is to protect her privacy and that of other women. She realised women needed to master these skills so other women wouldn't be forced to destroy their phones, fearful their photos could be leaked by male staff at phone shops.
"The danger lies both in the vast and uncontrolled space of the internet, and because fear prevents many seeking help, which gives cybercriminals leverage"
"Women and girls have the right to freely use the internet and their phones without being targeted by cybercriminals," she says.
Although when the centre opened, many men in Idlib criticised the initiative, expressing doubts that women could learn the trade, the female trainees have proved them wrong, fast gaining proficiency in the basics and immersing themselves in mastering the more complicated technical procedures.
However, there is a long road ahead for the women of Idlib: online platforms remain the major source of cyber violations against women's privacy in the region and this is causing unprecedented family, social and psychological problems leading to severe depression and even suicide, in the light of the total absence of deterrent laws and of training in digital security measures.
Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Monitor, SyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine.
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko