[Opinion] Abu Azrael, a fighter that has emerged as a cult hero of the resistance in Iraq, has committed horrific acts against enemy combatants, so it stands to question, is he really a hero, or is he a villain?
The resistance in Iraq has led to an almost celebrity-like status for some fighters, as they become cult heroes for the various fighting forces in the country.
For Ayyub Faleh al-Rubaie, this is infinitely true.
Before the war, sources have claimed he was a 40-year-old Shia Muslim and former university lecturer, and a one-time Taekwondo champion. Other reports claim that al-Rubaie is a father of five, and when not on the battlefield, lives an ‘ordinary life’. Some of his background has disputed by others, as mere fabrication, but there is no argument that prior to the outbreak of conflict in Iraq, al-Rubaie was a regular Iraqi citizen.
Now, however, he is known by his nom de guerre, Abu Azrael.
Known also as the ‘Angel of Death’, his name translates from Arabic to literally mean ‘Father of Azrael’, the Archangel of Death within a number of religions, including Islam.
A commander of the Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, an Iraqi Shia militia group of the Popular Mobilization Forces that is fighting Islamic State forces in Iraq, he previously served as former militia member in the Mahdi Army, of Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and fought against the United States during the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Al-Rubaie has become a public icon of resisting Islamic State in Iraq, his popularity among Shia Iraqis showing in the large social media following he has gathered. He gained prominence after appearing in the media armed with axes, swords and machine guns, being referred to by some as the ‘Iraqi Rambo’.
He is known for his ruthless acts of revenge he has carried out against Islamic State fighters and their supporters, his motto and catchphrase reportedly being illa tahin, meaning ‘grind you to dust’. That being in reference to his advocated desire to pulverise Islamic State militants until nothing but powder remains of them.
And it is this ruthlessness in regard to Islamic State militants, especially those enemy combatants he and his forces capture, that have led some to question just how much of a hero Abu Azrael actually is; and how different he truly is from those IS fighters that he stands against.
The Islamic State is known for their use of social media to publish gruesome videos of the torture and execution of their hostages, from Iraqi and Syrian fighters to foreign spies, journalists and aid workers. These actions are internationally decried, and form a basis upon which the Islamic State are seen as purely evil.
Yet, in August 2015, footage emerged, showing al-Rubaie committing equally atrocious acts against an enemy fighter, an Islamic State fighter.
The video, posted online, showed Abu Azrael standing before the capture IS fighter in what is believed to be Baiji, whom they burned alive and hung his from an electricity pylon. Al-Rubaie goes on to address Islamic State, and their members, directly, suggesting that their fate will be the same as the captured fighter’s, before using his blade to carve a large chunk of charred flesh from the captive’s leg.
The response to the video, however, was mixed. Some, mostly activists and social media users who appeared neutral in the fighting, immediately decried the video as barbaric and shameful, to stoop to the level of the Islamic State’s extremism. Some brandished al-Rubaie a ‘thug’, while others argued that the actions in the video were that of a war crime, and therefore can never be justified.
However, for every criticism and negative backlash the video received, it seemed to gain an equal amount of support, as they defended the act of violence as revenge on Islamic State, and praised Abu Azrael for not only standing up against the group but turning its methods back onto their own fighters.
It is this conflict of opinion that makes Abu Azrael such an interesting figure within the conflict in Iraq. On paper, his actions against the Islamic State fighter in Baiji were abhorrent, acts that constituted war crimes and should be undeniably denounced.
Yet, given the opposition he is fighting and whom he enacted these gruesome acts to, there seems to be a justification for many that his actions are not those of an evil individual, like they would have been seen had the reverse occurred, but those of a hero reciprocating the punishments that IS has inflicted on so many, back on their own fighters.
As such, it forms a moral double standard around Abu Azrael, and one that does not form a simple answer. Is he a hero, standing up for Iraq and its people against the savagery of Islamic State, or is he himself a savage murderer, who has gained a bloodlust from the war and become not just desensitised to the abhorrence of the torture methods used by Islamic State, but now accepts them as normal and acceptable practices of war?
In truth, Abu Azrael appears to fall into both categories. It does appear that there is an inherent savagery and aggression about him, likely a result of the desensitisation and bloodlust of fighting in such a gruelling and violent war, but his main motivation does still seem to be to give the people of Iraq, his people, a force through which they can resist.
It is, consequently, unfortunate that the actions of the Islamic State has led to a desensitisation of these Iraqi fighters, who had begun with good intentions, to the use of violent torture and acts consistent with war crimes against enemy combatants. They are exposed so frequently to those kinds of situations that they now see it as just a natural part of the conflict in Iraq, and so will engage in it themselves.
So, Abu Azrael, might without context appear a villain that uses detestable acts against enemy fighters, but in reality he is more heroic than first appears; standing as an influential fighter with noble intentions, whom has merely been poisoned by the influences of Islamic State on the Iraqi conflict.