March 20, 2023
How an Iraqi Instagram Influencer Became a People Smuggler

How an Iraqi Instagram Influencer Became a People Smuggler

Despite the danger, Khalid felt a duty to inform. Between February 2020 and May 2021, he published 146 posts on his Instagram account (@x6_9n) criticizing religion and promoting atheism (some were later deleted). Most are images, depicting short, written arguments in Arabic. Others use animation and video. One portrayed a meeting between Richard Dawkins and God through a series of comedic animated clips. In the animation, Dawkins reveals the existence of blind faith to an ignorant God, who says: “Well that’s just fucking stupid.” 

Another criticizes people who use gaps in scientific knowledge as evidence for the existence of God. Several address other subversive topics such as feminism and Western philosophy, controversial posts which were boosted by Instagram’s algorithm.

Khalid started his venture at a time when Instagram’s user base in Iraq was growing fast. Eight million Iraqis were registered on the app in 2018. By 2021, that number had doubled. Khalid’s follower count grew to over 100,000 in less than a year. “I met a lot of people who think like me, not only religiously but politically too,” he says. Khalid’s posts even convinced a prominent member of Iraq’s influencer community, Yasser al-Ansarry, to change his religious views. But Khalid’s lack of caution in hiding his identity would soon catch up with him.

On May 14, 2021, Khalid posted a photo of himself with a sarcastic caption criticizing a common Shia ritual. The post went viral. Soon, someone from his local community recognized his face. About a week later, Khalid’s father received a late phone call at home. Khalid, making tea at the time, could hear the conversation. He knew what it was about before his father came into the living room to confront him.

Khalid’s father had no problem with his son’s atheism. But, he asked, why did he need an Instagram account proclaiming his view? And why did he need 100,000 followers? Khalid told his father he’d never expected such a big response and agreed to delete his account. In the end, he only temporarily disabled it.

Khalid’s viral post sparked a wave of death threats, including one from his own uncle. Others came from the Iran-backed Shia militias that have essentially governed Iraq since the fall of ISIS. “I couldn’t take it as a joking matter,” Khalid says. “These people weren’t messing around.”

Four weeks after the conversation with his father, Khalid reached out to a friend with contacts in a people-smuggling network. He boarded a minibus disguised as a tourist transport. Fearing his passport could cause problems on the journey, he carried only cash and a single set of clothes.

The bus went north to Mosul, Erbil, and then across Turkey’s southeast border. It dropped him 150 kilometers (93 miles) inside the Turkish border, where he was collected by another car to take him to Istanbul. Khalid was discovered by Turkish police at a checkpoint near the city of Van in eastern Turkey. They took him to a local immigration camp where, using a guard’s phone, Khalid called his friend, who arranged a Turkish residency card for him. A lawyer on the smuggling-gang’s payroll arrived and drove him to a city near Istanbul.

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