North Africa, West Asia: Interview

The hacker who lost his family and survived torture in Iraq’s secret prisons

I spoke to Ahmed Al-Ghaleb in January, as he prepared to make the perilous journey to Europe to seek asylum. He wanted to be interviewed in case anything happened to him. This is his story

Zahra Ali
25 February 2021, 12.00am
Ahmed Al-Ghaleb's goal is to reach Finland, where his fiancee is waiting for him
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Illustration by @jasminegailany . Used with permission

Ahmed Al-Ghaleb is an influencer and ethical hacker, specializing in the prevention of electronic blackmailing. Like most young Iraqis, he has experienced loss and trauma throughout his life. Car bomb explosions and sectarian killings took the lives of his two brothers and parents, and he, like many others his age, has suffered in Iraq’s secret prisons.

I interviewed Ahmed in late January 2021, when he had escaped Iraq and was living in Turkey as he prepared to make the perilous journey to Europe to seek asylum. His goal was to reach Finland, where his fiancee was waiting for him.

When we spoke, he was planning to try to cross to Greece soon. He wanted to be interviewed before he left, in case something happened to him. He wanted to tell his story.

For Ahmed, leaving Iraq for good meant taking his wounds with him. Both the physical pain, in his shoulder and upper arms, and the pain of remembering over and over again the three months he spent detained and tortured by militias in the country's secret prisons.

But Ahmed’s experience is neither random nor exceptional, it is the product of a system that was put in place after the US invasion and fostered the growth of militias and corrupt parties who plundered Iraq’s rich oil resources in a mafia-like economy of ‘shock doctrines’ and aggressive privatization. These are the same militias who kidnapped and tortured him.

The ‘invisible war’ generation

Ahmed was born in 1989, and belongs to the generation that grew up under the UN sanctions, described as the “invisible war”, of 1990 to 2003. These sanctions, imposed under pressure from the United States following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, were among the harshest ever inflicted on a country. They plunged Iraq into a humanitarian crisis with a rise in infant mortality, malnutrition and the collapse of vital institutions such as health care and education.

Ahmed’s life was never easy. His generation came of age with the 2003 US invasion of the country and the social and societal implosion that followed. At the age of 17, on 15 November 2006, amid the sectarian war that was tearing the country apart, Ahmed, along with his family, attended the funeral of his older brother, Nabras, who had been killed in Baghdad.

A car full of explosives targeted the funeral. The explosion killed his mother, father and his other older brother, Ali.

Car bomb Iraq.jpg
A 2013 car bomb in Iraq, much like the one that killed Ahmed's family | Nazmi Akyol/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Soon after, Ahmed left for Damascus in Syria, where he studied telecommunication engineering. When he graduated, he decided to go back to Baghdad because he felt responsible for his younger sisters there.

He trained himself in cybersecurity, soon became a well-known certified ethical hacker promoting an ethical use of the internet and the protection of personal data. He was often contacted by individuals who were victims of electronic blackmailing, who wanted his help in securing their personal data when it was being used for political or private intimidation and ransom.

Through his work as a network engineer, Ahmed met and worked for many people in Iraq’s political scene, including the Iraqi intelligence services. Ahmed is also an influencer, with more than 885,000 followers on Instagram, a platform he uses for self-promotion and to raise awareness about the importance of using social media and the internet ethically.

Like hundreds of thousands of other young Iraqis, Ahmed supported the protests that broke out across Iraq in 2019. In October that year, Iraqis from all walks of life rose up against the political system, its sectarianism, corruption and inability to provide basic services and functioning institutions. He praised the uprising on social media and visited Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, one of the biggest centers of protests, several times.

Iraqi security forces and militias, some of which with ties to the state or with Iran, violently suppressed the protests. More than 540 peaceful protestors were killed and 20,000 injured. Many more have since disappeared after being arrested or kidnapped.

Despite the massive uprising and previous waves of popular protests, especially between 2015 and 2018, this system has proven to be very resilient, and continues to operate with total impunity as it threatens, kidnaps and kills members of the civil society whether peaceful protestors, intellectuals or journalists.

PA-48367833.jpg
People gather in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, during an anti-government protest in November 2019 | Ameer Al Mohammedaw/DPA/PA Images

‘They were not amateurs’

On the night of 26 December 2019 while he was close to his home, Ahmed was kidnapped. Armed masked men approached him with machine guns pointed at him, hit him and threw him in a black SUV with tinted windows.

The kidnapping was captured by a nearby CCTV camera, and the video was broadcast by an Iraqi news channel, al-Sharqiya TV, three months later – which proved crucial for his release.

Ahmed said the kidnappers blindfolded him, and tied together his hands and feet. They drove for about an hour before throwing him in a cell in a private house that had been converted into a jail, where cameras filmed him for 24 hours a day.

From that moment, Ahmed endured torture every day. This ranged from long interrogations, electric shock and regular beatings to hours spent being hung from his arms while they were tied behind his back.

The men who tortured Ahmed were officers from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi), paramilitary forces connected to the Iraqi state, which developed into semi-autonomous militias backed by Iran following their involvement in the war against ISIS in 2014.

“They were very experienced officers who seemed to have been doing this for a very long time. They were not amateurs,” Ahmed recalled.

The officers’ torture was calculated and calibrated, repeated every single day to obtain information. They accused Ahmed of working for the American embassy and tortured him hoping he would confess.

The officers’ torture was calculated and calibrated, repeated every single day to obtain information. They accused Ahmed of working for the American embassy and tortured him hoping he would confess. Then a week after his abduction, on 3 January 2020, a US airstrike killed the Iranian general Qasem Sulaimani and the PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes. This made things worse for Ahmed.

The torture intensified and he was electrocuted while tied up on a chair. His genitals, hands and toes still carry the effects of the burns more than a year later.

He was asked to provide names and details about organizers of the protests. They would bring him a computer and force him to work for them as a hacker. He was surprised to see that the militia had highly skilled and professionalised hackers and very advanced equipment.

A month later, Ahmed was moved to a nearby house. Despite being blindfolded, he realised that he was in farmlands. From the cell of this new jail, he could hear the screaming from a distance of other individuals being tortured.

After a while, Ahmed got to know his torturers’ mindset and methods. “I could guess just from the sound of their footsteps who was going to torture me today.”

He quickly understood that the first PMF militia that abducted him, ‘Asaeb ahl al-Haq led by Qais al-Khazaali, had delivered him to another one, the Kataeb Hezbollah of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes. Ahmed had to endure the same ordeal all over again.

After a while, Ahmed got to know his torturers’ mindset and methods. “I could guess just from the sound of their footsteps who was going to torture me today.”

He adapted to their personalities and temper. Sometimes when they considered he had ‘behaved well’, they would give him a cigarette. One of them named Ashraf treated Ahmed a little better than the others: “I was happy when I heard his footsteps, I knew he would give me a cigarette and he was less brutal.”

Ahmed recalls that Ashraf would sometimes take him to the roof and allow him to get some sunlight. “Once, when we were on our own, he told me that I would be released after the end of the protests. It gave me a little hope”.

‘I was not afraid anymore’

Sometimes Ahmed received news from the outside. Every time a demonstration was organized to demand the release of the missing protesters, he would receive very long beatings, lasting several hours, and endless interrogations about the individuals or media figures calling for his release.

In the last two weeks before his release, after three months with his captors, Ahmed’s attitude changed. “I lost hope and I just stopped being afraid. They had deprived me of everything and tortured me so much. They even electrocuted me in my private parts.”

He had no idea what was going on outside, but every time his kidnappers were upset about something that seemed to have happened to them in the outside world, they took their anger out on him. “It all goes back to Ahmed, everything is wrong because of Ahmed. So in the end, I was revolting, refusing food, refusing to answer. I was not afraid anymore.”

Ahmed after.jpg
Ahmed after being released from his three-month ordeal

Shortly after, the video of his kidnapping was released by al-Sharqiya TV, and widely shared on social media. It was then that the officers started to treat him with less brutality, and told him that he would be released soon.

One day, Ahmed’s kidnappers dressed him up, arranged his hair and beard, gave him a cigarette, and asked him to read a text written on a piece of paper while he was filmed.

It was a script Ahmed had to read about sexual stories involving the names of famous Iraqi political leaders. He had to pretend that he was a pimp and that he went to Tahrir to recruit girls. The officers made it clear that if he revealed anything about what happened to him during these three months, they will release these videos.

Ahmed’s release

On the day of his release, 17 March 2020, Ahmed was tied up and blindfolded. He was placed under the legs of the kidnappers, in the backseat of a car and driven for about an hour and a half.

When the car stopped, the kidnappers got Ahmed out and asked him to walk in a straight line and count to 100 before taking off the blindfold. They gave him back his bag, in which they left an email address. They told him that they would be in touch when they need his hacking services, and left.

When he took off the blindfold, he looked in his bag and saw that only a $100 note was left. The rest of the cash he had been carrying on the day he was kidnapped had disappeared.

Ahmed was in the middle of farmlands. He looked around and started walking until he found an older man sitting next to his wooden cart, selling cigarettes and cards. Ahmed told him that his car had broken down a few miles from there, and asked where they were. It was Mseyeb, a small town halfway between Baghdad and Najaf, and not far from the city of Karbala.

“Why is there a curfew?” Ahmed asked. The old man was surprised to meet someone who was not aware of the safety measures regarding COVID-19.

Ahmed asked the man about finding a taxi to go to Baghdad. The man told him that it would be difficult for him to reach the city before the 10pm curfew.

“Why is there a curfew?” Ahmed asked. The old man was surprised to meet someone who was not aware of the safety measures regarding COVID-19.

Arriving in Baghdad by taxi late that night was difficult because of all the roadblocks. When Ahmed reached his apartment building, the whole neighborhood gathered around. He was exhausted and confused, and did not know how to reply to all the questions that he was asked by his family and neighbours. He was also scared to speak.

After his return, he sought medical help for the pain in his shoulders and upper arms, caused by the long hours he spent hanging in his cell.

Ahmed decided he would work enough to gather the money that will allow him to leave Baghdad and most probably Iraq.

His old job was denied to him, and his former colleagues and collaborators were distant, as though they were avoiding him. Ahmed quickly realized that nobody trusted him anymore – being released alive by militias was too suspicious. He reached out to media and political figures close to the government for help but no one returned his calls.

He received no support from the state after his release, neither for his physical injuries nor for the deep psychological wounds he is carrying with him.

‘Pain, suffering, agony’

At the end of that summer, Ahmed left for Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the borders, he was asked to provide some documentation to justify his travel as COVID-19 measures allowed only essential travel. He tried to explain to the border officers, who did not speak Arabic, that he was escaping from the militias and tell them what had happened to him.

He was eventually allowed to enter and found a place in an apartment building.

Soon after, his doorbell rang. Looking through the peephole, he saw a dozen men dressed in black suits. They grabbed his mobile phone, took him to a car and drove him into a massive building and interrogated him for a whole day, asking about his relationship to the militias who abducted him. Ahmed panicked. “Have I been kidnapped once again?! My life is a nightmare.”

The Kurdish officials asked Ahmed to work for them, and he was forced to accept. He was paid but kept under very tight surveillance; he could not use his phone, nor leave the city. After a few months, he started receiving threats from Baghdad. The militias who had kidnapped him heard that he is now working for the Kurds. It was too much for him.

Soon after, he was let go and managed to escape to Turkey. He firmly decided to leave his country behind for good. “What did this country give us? Pain, suffering, agony. Iraq took my family, brought me back to zero so many times. There’s no hope. Now I just want to live my life, a normal, quiet life.”

But leaving everything behind is not so easy. “Of course, I think about what happened to me, every hour of the day, it’s with me all the time.”

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