[ The investigation revealed several manifestations of blackmail and many victims ]
In May 2021, Salwa Ahmed (unreal name) thought of committing suicide after getting despaired of solving a problem of "electronic blackmail" that was exposed to by an unknown person who kept threatening her to publish personal pictures of her on social media.
The story began with Salwa by receiving messages from the blackmailer on WhatsApp, attached with her personal photos. He asked her to pay money, and in exchange he isn’t going to publish the photos. That really shocked her to realize, for the first time, that she was facing a crime of "electronic blackmail".
Salwa, a 26-year-old girl that works at a beauty shop in Sana'a, got terrified at first, was unable to even respond to the messages she received. "I felt terrified, was unable to understand what I saw in front of me. That really caused me a terrible nervous breakdown that made my life a living hell”, she said.
Driven by fear for her reputation, Salwa responded to the anonymous blackmailer two days after receiving his messages, and he was messaging her from a WhatsApp account tied to a Saudi line number.
She agreed to his request, gave him $200, stressing that he should delete her photos. In turn, he promised her to do that, before he returned again to blackmail her. The problem continued in a vicious cycle for five months, as the money she cashed during this period became to $600.
Salwa didn’t not know how her photos were leaked to him, but she remembers that she had clicked, a few days before she was exposed to the problem, on a strange link that she got on “Messenger”. She opened the link and her phone stopped its activity for a few minutes, and then she attributed the reason for this to be a software bug in her phone. But it is likely that her personal data was leaked that day.
The young girl did not dare to tell her family about the problem, realizing that they would punish her, not the blackmailer, but she decided finally after five months of fear and anxiety to tell one of her friends, who in turn got the help of her brother that working in Saudi Arabia. She sent him the blackmailer's phone number, to end the problem with a call that included threatening the blackmailer to shed blood on his face, and the matter ended there.
A story from Hodeida
In Hodeida province (220 km west of Sanaa), Fatima Saleh (unreal name) was blackmailed by a person belonging to the same area. She was in a hypothetical romantic relationship with him that lasted for months, before he decided to blackmail her with the pictures he had previously given him, asking her to agree to a meeting between them.
According to a person familiar with the story of Fatima, 33 married woman and a mother of two children, an emotional relationship arose between the two parties on “Facebook” network, and pictures were exchanged between them. After eight months, the man changed his behavior with her asking to meet her, and when she refused, he threatened to publish her photographs on social media. The problem ended with Fatima's separation from her husband after learning about the matter.
Victims seeking justice
In this investigation, worked on for two months, we traced the stories of 27 women victims of “electronic blackmail” that occurred during the last five years in four Yemeni governorates, namely, Sana’a, Taiz, Hodeidah and Aden. None of that crimes occurred in Sana’a, seven in Aden, and six in Taiz, while three stories in Hodeidah.
During working on this investigation, we contacted dozens of women victims in the four governorates, and most of them refused to talk to us about the crimes they were subjected to, due to their fear of scandals, the consequences that may expose them to death. Therefore, we got enough with the 27 women who responded to us as a sample of this investigation.
The blackmailers made these 27 victims in two ways, the first was by hacking their phones, taking their personal data. The second method is by luring them with romantic relationships on the digital space, and both methods led to the leakage of dangerous personal data from the women's phones. All of them were hunted through social media, then blackmailed either with private pictures of themselves, or with videos of a sexual nature. They were contacted via either "WhatsApp" or "Messenger", and they were asked either for sex or money.
The scandals consequences
More than half of the stories we tracked ended disastrously. Sixteen women out of 27- who decided to seek help from their families- were subjected to a form of family and social violence, including ostracism, physical assault, mutilation, divorce, deprivation of education, work, and restriction of freedom. All of this because of the crimes of electronic blackmail they were subjected to, for which most of them were not guilty, while the other 11 preferred to solve their problems without informing their families, using their friends, and they succeeded in that after a great deal of trouble.
In the middle of the year 2021, Yemeni news websites represented news that two Yemeni girls were killed by their families, out of shame, after pictures of them spread on the Internet, and was of a tragic and cruel end. This is the worst fear of the victims of "electronic blackmail" in Yemen, as the scandal of leaking private photos of a girl may lead her to death.
For this reason, many Yemeni women who are subjected to blackmailing become afraid of revealing problems to their families, in order to avoid the possibility of being harmed by their hands. Many Yemenis blame women in such matters, even if they are innocent, because of the sensitivity of the Yemeni women social situation, which is known to be conservative, and is based on a heavy inheritance of customs and norms that consider women a source of shame and disgrace. Therefore, her blood is permissible if she is exposed to a sexual scandal in front of public opinion, and her family intends to kill her in order to win the honor of the family or tribe to which she belongs.
The results of a tracking survey conducted by the author of this investigation on social media and Yemeni news websites concluded that more than 86 crimes of "electronic blackmail" were subjected to Yemeni women during the past three years. This is a non-comprehensive result of the victims number in Yemen during this period, since only these cases have been published and circulated, and what is hidden is greater. Many crimes of blackmailing remain secret in Yemen due to their sensitivity within the society.
Mukhtar Abdel Moez, an expert in information security, who has been leading a voluntary initiative to combat cyber blackmailing in Yemen for more than three years, estimates the number of cases of blackmailed victims who have requested his help during the last three years has exceeded 15,000 cases that have been exposed to some form of cybercrime.
Abdel Moez and his team of 300 volunteers from various sectors, security, medical, human rights, and digital security specialists; could solve most of the victims' problems in ways that were either friendly, security, or tribal. While in a number of them, he contented himself with removing the extortionate content published on social media, which includes photos and private data of the victims.
The crisis casts its shadow
The phenomenon of "electronic blackmail" in Yemen has emerged intensely during the past five years, and Abdul-Moez attributed the reasons for this to the political and security chaos that Yemen is experiencing as a result of the war, which has created an atmosphere conducive to the flourishing of extortion activity in the country.
In his interview with Al-Mawqea Post, Abdel Moez said that the multiplicity of ruling authorities, the absence of a supervisory role, along with the economic deterioration, as well as the absence of digital awareness among people, the sensitivity of the situation of women within the family and society, are among the main reasons that contributed to the spread of the phenomenon in Yemen.
According to him, organized networks stand behind the electronic blackmailing operations in Yemen, and they consist of unemployed Yemeni youth (both male and female), who are professionals in digital fraud methods. They target the personal data of Yemeni Internet users, especially women, by establishing romantic relationships with the victims, or through direct hacking of their phones and computers, and once they get that data, they start blackmailing the victims for financial profit.
Many blackmailers initially aim at long emotional relationships with the victim women, with the intention of gaining their trust, offering them tempting promises of marriage, and traveling outside Yemen. This is only to lure them to obtain their personal data, which leads many of them to fall easily in their ropes, especially underage girls who are highly motivated to engage in virtual relationships, and as a result, they fall into the trap of blackmail easily, according to Abdel Moez.
Fadi Al-Aswadi- a specialist in digital security- agreed with this point of Abdul Moez, referring to other ways, saying that the data of the victims is leaked to the blackmailers, including women losing their personal phones in public places, which sometimes reach the hands of the blackmailers. They sometimes steal the personal photos of women from wedding parties through female recruits to this act, in addition to direct penetration into the phones and computers of Yemeni Internet users, who do not have enough digital awareness to avoid the tricks of blackmailing networks.
More than eight million people use the Internet in Yemen, three and a half million of them use Facebook, which comes on top, followed by WhatsApp and TikTok, according to the latest report issued by the Icon Digital Agency. The indiscriminate and erroneous use of social media resulting from the absence of digital awareness is one of the main reasons that expose women to the risks of cybercrime.
Fear is the victims weak point
While working on this investigation, it became clear to us that many of the women victims of this phenomenon readily respond to the requests of blackmailers. Al-Aswadi attributes this to women’s fear of the possibility that the blackmailers may carry out their threats, publishing their personal data on social media, which may cause them scandals that may cost them much.
Al-Aswadi continued in his statement to Al-Mawqea Post, "The blackmailer promises the victim to delete her data after she responds to his first request, which is money or anything else in kind, but he returns to blackmail her again and again”. So, the matter continues in a vicious cycle until the victim reaches the point of disability, forced to make critical choices to break this cycle, which is not an easy step.
According to him, many Yemeni victims of blackmailing fear of their families more than the blackmailers themselves, so they prefer to solve the extortion problems alone or through the help of female friends, and do not involve their families. They fear of the families harsh reactions, which makes them alone and isolated in front of the blackmailers who take advantage of these extortions. The point is, some of them even threaten the victims to send their pictures to their families as a form of pressure against the victims, with the intent of subjecting them to their requests.
Social customs and the culture of shame play a major role in reviving the “electronic blackmailing” directed against women in Yemen, as it condemns them more than the criminals themselves. So many victims receive punishment from their families and blame from society for crimes that they may not have a hand in, nor are they safe from harm. Even if they are innocent, they are guilty anyway just because they are women.
It happens that the concept of "honor" pushes men in some regions of Yemen to kill their female relatives if they are exposed to a sexual scandal, even if it is just a picture of one of them being leaked on social media. This excessive sensitivity in society's view of women is what contributes to the expansion of the phenomenon of "Electronic Blackmail" in Yemen.
The community contributes to the issue
In this context talking to “Almawqea Post”, the expert in digital security, Issam Al-Qaffaz, believes that the incidents of “electronic blackmail” are nothing but problems like other problems that can be solved. According to him, what exacerbates the problem and makes it a difficult predicament, is the society’s attitude, as well as the of the victim.
He assured that what most subject victims to blackmailers is their panic in front of their threats. Their fear is what those blackmailers feed on, while sometimes it may only require some courage to end everything.
As for the goals behind the blackmailing crimes, Al-Qaffaz says that the blackmailers seek to obtain a number of goals, most notably, financial profit from the victims, and requests to establish sexual relations with them as well. They also sometimes seek to use women victims to obtain confidential information about institutions, or to entrap certain political figures and bring them down in favor of the hostile current. The blackmailer may work to recruit the victim with a party opposing his political orientation, and blackmail is also used to spoil certain family or social relationships.
The digital security specialist, Muhammad Bayazid, believes that the goal of political recruitment for an enemy party is the most dangerous goal of the "digital blackmail" phenomenon, followed by the sexual goal that binds the victim woman in a vicious circle, and pushes her to become more involved every time she responds to having sex with the blackmailer. It may end with giving up everything, so that he recommends all of the victim women with not holding back on the digital crimes they're exposed to and to quickly seek help telling the family about the problem.
Problems such as family disintegration, lack of trust between members of the same family, and the absence of parental control push many girls to engage in random relationships in the “digital space,” which puts them at risk of digital crimes, according to mental health consultant Abdullah Al-Baadani.
Al-Baadani, who works as a mental health consultant at the Family Development and Guidance Foundation in Sana’a, says that the absence of the father’s role, the family and the community, and the absence of the role of the state contribute to the increasing number of blackmailing victims crimes among women and girls. The young girl who does not trust her family or the state to help when she is exposed to crime, decides to confront her alone, and this is precisely what makes her easy victim for the blackmailer.
Al-Baadani, in his interview with Almawqea Post, recommends that everyone who may be subjected to blackmail crimes not to respond to the blackmailer from the beginning, and to quickly tell a relative of the problem. He continued to say that the girl who may be the victim of this crime needs to continue the practices and natural tasks entrusted to her in life, saying, that this would increase her psychological immunity and develops her ability to resist. He stressed on the need for victims- after the problem has ended- to engage in psychological counseling processes to address the consequences of the crime they were exposed to.
Psychological and social damage
Al-Badani calls on Yemeni families to deal responsibly with the crimes of blackmailing against their daughters, stressing the need to deal with women as victims only, not as guilty, work to help them instead of reprimand and punishment.
These cybercrimes cause severe psychological damage to the women victims, including -according to Al-Badani -"phobia", "anxiety", "depression", "post-traumatic stress disorder" and "insomnia". All these are disorders that paralyze the movement of victims and make them unable to confront blackmailers. It may also push them to withdraw into themselves and give up work or social relationships. The matter may develop literally to the point of working to commit suicide.
There are social damages to these crimes as well, affecting the victims who have been exposed to well-known scandals in particular, most notably the reputation corruption and the loss of the family, social and professional future. The victim may be exposed to ostracism and all her chances of marriage and a normal life disappear.
Recommendations and protection methods
Regarding the confrontation mechanism, Fadi Al-Aswadi, in his interview with Al-Mawqea Post, recommends the victims to say: “Destroy the effectiveness of blackmail from the beginning, make its value yellow, do not give the blackmailer anything, tell him that you are not afraid and what he will do will not harm you”. “The blackmailer will repeat his tries more than once, but he ends by giving up”, he added. This point is that all the digital security professionals we spoke to agreed on.
As for Muhammad Bayazid, he says that the methods of protection against blackmailing depend on how careful one is in dealing with modern technology, and the digital tools that one uses.
In order to ensure the prevention of cybercrime, Bayazid recommends a set of instructions to users, most notably, refusing to accept anonymous friendships, adopting difficult passwords, avoiding chat and dating websites and suspicious applications on the digital space. He also recommends to avoid dealing with caution with users of virtual worlds, sending pictures and private data on communication sites, refusing conversation requests, and cautioned against visiting pornographic sites, noting that leniency regarding these procedures puts the safety of users at risk of data leakage and makes them an easy prey for blackmailers.
Bayazid calls on the Yemeni family to educate their children about the dangers of indiscriminate use of digital means, urging them to adopt parental control measures over their use of the Internet to ensure safety.
In turn, Al-Qaffaz calls on government and private agencies, telecommunications and internet companies, and the media, to educate Yemenis about safety procedures in digital use, and guide them to appropriate ways to confront "digital crimes”.
Primitive control procedures
The government role entrusted with implementing the monitoring and control measures supposed to be adopted to pursue cybercrime on the Internet in Yemen is absent, due to the disintegration of the state and the multiplicity of ruling authorities in the country due to the current crisis.
On the security front, we found that complaints of “digital extortion” are not being effectively dealt with, this applies to the areas of influence of the Yemeni government, and the areas controlled by the Houthis as well.
We contacted two security sources, one in the Investigation Department of the Criminal Investigation Unit in Taiz Governorate, which is run by the Yemeni government, and the other in the General Department for Family Protection in the Ministry of Interior of the Houthi government in Sana’a (not recognized internationally), to find out how the security authorities deal with complaints of “electronic blackmail” crimes received from citizens. It was found that both authorities adopt primitive, inconclusive measures in dealing with these problems, and even lack modern means of control specialized in curbing this type of crime.
Absence of legal legislation
The difficulty of combating cybercrime in Yemen is due to many reasons, most notably the collapse of the state system and the absence of specialized legal legislation. These cases of this type of crime are dealt with according to the traditional rules of Yemeni criminal law, which are ineffective in dealing with crimes such as electronic blackmailing.
In an interview with Al-Mawqea Post, Huda Al-Sarari, a lawyer and head of the Foundation for Defense of Rights and Freedoms, confirms that the Yemeni constitution is devoid of legislation specialized in curbing "cybercrime", calling on the state to expedite the enactment of a law to combat this type of crime.
We also found out during the work on this investigation that many of the problems of “electronic blackmail” in Yemen are solved either individually, or through the help of some friends, while the security authorities are rarely used.
The suffering of thousands of Yemeni women who refrain from disclosing the crimes of “electronic blackmail” they are exposed to due to fear of the consequences of this, continues, leaving them isolated and alone in the face of one of the most heinous crimes of the modern era that occur in digital spaces.
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