Revealed: Heroes Behind Efforts to Rescue LGBT Iraqis from Al Qaeda, ISIS

A soldier looks out over the remote Iraqi countryside from a cargo plane. / Image via Podex99

During the height of ISIS’s power in Iraq and Syria, religious minorities were targeted in merciless killings. Infamously, so were LGBT Iraqis and Syrians, and they often were featured in “grisly images and videos” posted online, ISIS’s digital propaganda showing “gay men [thrown] to their deaths,” wrote BuzzFeed News’s J. Lester Feder in late June. The rise of ISIS followed years of hardly better conditions under Al Qaeda and its affiliates.  

As Feder explains, years after ISIS began losing its territory and the region’s conflicts have slipped from America’s daily headlines, we now are learning how some activists worked under cover of night to rescue those left behind the lines. Among these survivors were LGBT Iraqis. and their cases just might push international law toward greater human rights protections on a much-grander scale. 

How a “Surprising Journey” Saved LGBT Lives


Two activists, Majid and Ahlam, worked to save dozens of LGBT people from persecution in Iraq, but without going into their rescue work with that exact goal in mind. According to Feder, their first rescue brought three men from behind the lines. It wasn’t until two of them kissed after the rescue that Majid, their getaway driver, found out they were gay.

Apparently, Majid and Ahlam were informed they were going to rescue three “LGBT” persons, but did not know what the initialism meant. Rather, Majid recalled, he “had thought LGBT was the name of a political party” opposing the captors. Over the years, however, these heroes “grew passionate about [their] work,” and they worked tirelessly, no matter the dire risks to themselves.

Under the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), a national feminist organization, Majid, Ahlam and other activists ventured into unimaginably dangerous areas to rescue those endangered by Al Qaeda and, later on, those within ISIS’s territory. They also kept records, essentially “preparing for a time when it might be possible to bring ISIS to justice.” 

According to Feder, some 87 LGBT cases were recorded in the eventual dossier – a “much larger” document “of ISIS abuses that OWFI compiled, covering 4,383 victims and 1,804 ISIS members.”


The inclusion of those 87 cases of ISIS-perpetrated violence against LGBT people could “be a revolutionary step in international law.” OWFI, Feder reports, “wants ISIS leaders to be charged with crimes against humanity” for the specific persecution of LGBT persons.

OWFI and LGBT Rights Globally

If OWFI succeeds, this would be the first time LGBT individuals would be recognized under international humanitarian law as a specific, recognizable class. The United Nations sent an investigative team to the region last month, Feder reports, and that team engaged with OWFI, “formally [asking] for copies of the evidence it had collected.”

Although the odds seem long, OWFI is organized and well-represented, with a legal team “led by Lisa Davis, a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law and senior legal advisor at Madre, a women’s rights NGO.” Speaking with Feder, Davis admitted dim prospects—but she also said it could be a starting point for including LGBT persecutions among war crimes.

Building on “more than eight hours of interviews” from 2015 to 2018 as well as “more than 700 pages of emails and documentation that Majid wrote during the conflict,” Feder tells this harrowing, and heartening, story for the very first time. Check it out at the link below. 

(source: BuzzFeed News)

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