Swaggering across the desert, effortlessly cradling an axe in one hand and a rifle in the other, Ayyub Faleh al-Rubaie, AKA “Abu Azrael” (“Father of the Angel of Death”) cuts a dashing if not distinctive figure. As commander of the Imam Ali Brigade (a Shiite militia on the front line against Da’esh) he wields considerable influence, especially in an Iraq in which the army either melted away or proved more useful at killing civilians and running than at fighting.
His miltia is part of the Popular Mobilisation Committees, a patchwork of Shiite militias fighting Da’esh and overwhelmingly supplanting the Iraqi army. Abu Azrael fought in the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr during the US occupation, and for Assad in Damascus, but really made his name during the campaign against Da’esh after their suspiciously rapid conquest of much of Iraq.
As early as 2014, carefully crafted Facebook pages sprung up all over social media depicting Abu Azrael in all manner of questionably natural poses, from looking mildly melodramatically off into the distance as he cradles an axe on his shoulder in the manner of a helmet-less Gimli, or striding slightly melodramatically through debris, consciously going out of his way not to look at the camera that he clearly knew was present.
His muscular figure, baldness (with obligatory beard) fearsome array of weapons and ominous catchphrases (in which he threatens to grind Da’esh militants into flour) in the style of “Rambo” have made him the darling of the media, and generally anyone who knows little about the origins of the conflict in Iraq and reads one of the decidedly brown-nosing articles on his alleged greatness.
All over the international media and all over the internet, Abu Azrael is painstakingly shoved down our throats at every turn. The unspoken trend is to encourage his worship all over the internet. Meet “Iraq’s celebrity anti-IS fighter”, encourages the globalpost. “Iraq’s Rambo is the scourge of Islamic State militants” the LA Times gushes with questionable objectivity. The Sunday Times goes one better and describes him as “Iraq’s Rambo” who “roars” in the wake of retreating Da’esh fighters.
But there are some huge problems with this story. Abu Azrael is no “hero”. He’s the commander of a bloodthirsty platoon of killers. His seemingly innocent story of zero-to-hero is nothing more than a painstakingly crafted series of lies, half-truths and falsehoods crafted by the Iranian propaganda machine. In a touch of irony, such lies would not have succeeded had it not been for western media outlets.
The story was put about that “Abu Azrael” was a former university lecturer who downed tools, as it were, only to pick up the tools of war to fight Da’esh. The implication was that he was a normal Iraqi citizen who rose through the ranks of the anti-Da’esh resistance through heroism and bravery. This was a story that all manner of media outlets frantically and admiringly parroted.
It turns out to be totally false; Rubaie is a cold-blooded killer who fought with the Shiite supremacist Mahdi Army for years. They made routine slaughter of Sunni civilians the norm; ethnically cleansing them whenever they could. Because in the words of one of their fighters, “There is no innocent Sunni.” When Azrael threatens to squash enemies into slurpees, and shamelessly abuses dead bodies, we can only shudder to think where he learned his skills.
His story of makeshift heroism evaporates even further when we find out that after leaving the Mahdi Army, it seems the “inclusive” government of Nouri al-Malaki got him a job in the “Special Operations Forces”. In other words, he was, and still is, a member of an elite unit. Hardly a novice soldier.
Contrary to his own words, Rubaie is no hero fighting for the oppressed without distinction. Regardless of the pictures he takes with Bibles. He previously fought in Syria with the Shiite militias alongside the genocidal regime, helping to massacre the Sunni-majority population in and around Damascus. How can anyone fight for the oppressed and defend a dictator barrel bombing children?
It seems Rubaie’s definition of the “oppressed” means using the genuine persecution of Shiites in years gone by as the pretext for fighting for any tyrant or oppressor Iran tells him to fight for. To him, the “oppressed” are worthless unless they’re Shiites.
His murderous streak hasn’t abated. He is commander in the Imam Ali Brigade; a militia regularly committing atrocities, from beheadings of Sunni men (possibly civilians too) to burning them alive. Far from being a “hero” in the “security forces” , as the quiet omission of the media would imply.
In fact, given the fact that the militias and the security forces are synonymous, his role is hardly unofficial. Genocidal actions against Sunnis are sanctioned by the Iraqi state. All the actions of his brigade were done with complete US air cover. As a commander in the brigade and a fighter on the front-line among the rank and file of his men, it is inevitable that such brutality is either ordered or condoned by Rubaie.
Which brings me to the question that some will probably ask: why the media veneration of a man who is clearly a cold blooded killer?
This question is unfortunately easy to answer: devil’s advocate. The average western citizen has been so imbibed by non-stop, sensationalist media coverage about the evil’s of Da’esh (evil as they are) and the alleged silent complicity of Muslims (easily refuted by evidence) that they will play devil’s advocate for anyone seeming like their opponent, even if he or she is no better.
The deeply Islamophobic, post-9/11 western audience are ignorant of the fact that it was the brutal crimes committed against the Sunnis by the then-cohesive but still sectarian Iraqi “army” that fuelled the rise of Da’esh in the first place. Thanks to disproportionate media coverage, they just see a vicious death cult on the rampage. Without seeing what gave rise to this very cult, and the fact that the Sunni uprising in Iraq was anything but Da’esh-led.
As a result, many seem deluded into believing that using the same levels of brutality against Da’esh that they use on others is the solution. The term “vicious cycle of violence” means nothing to them. That is, they care nothing for the crimes of the Shiite militias because not only do they rarely hear about them, but they don’t have a Sunni “Islamist” veneer.
This is the root cause. The Shiite militias are excused. They can kill, torture, rape and abuse as they please (complimented by US air power) because they don’t have a “Sunni Islamist” image. For the western public at large, killing and slaughter is only synonymous with the thoroughly demonised Sunnis. For them, Da’esh and Sunni Islam are synonymous. So any force killing Da’esh members is seen as killing Muslims (and thus celebrated enthusiastically).
Because lets be honest with ourselves here: how is Rubaie fundamentally different from a Da’esh member? They use knives, he has his axe. They burn, shoot and butcher captives, so do he and his men. Both are viciously sectarian, both portray a “macho” image of brutality. But apparently this “tough” macho image of sadism is only unacceptable depending on who uses it.
If you’re an ostensibly “Sunni” militant beheading aid workers then you’re branded an evil excuse for a human being (and rightly so). But if you’re fighting those oh-so-evil Sunni Muslims you’re “rambo”, a roaring “hero”, adored by media outlets and Islamophobic westerners who substitute “Muslims” for “Islamists” whenever enthusiastically describing the demise of the “other”.
What would be funny about this story (if it didn’t involve mass murder of innocent people) is the fact that media outlets across the world have so easily fallen for the evidently concocted identity of Rubaie. His image has been utterly crafted by Iranian regime propaganda. So obvious is the artificial nature of his heroism that it makes one wonder if anyone is paying any attention.
The devil’s in the details. Other thugs fighting for Iranian proxy militias have had their images fabricated identically, in a pattern of artificially disseminating “heroes” on social media. One fighter in Syria, Abu Hillel (KIA) was shown doing identical things to Rubaie in carefully crafted photographs. Riding bicycles, interacting with children, fighting in combat, and more.
Abu Hajar, a commander of the al-Abbas terrorist group (fighting for Assad in Damascus) also had his exploits plastered all over slick Shiite militant social media pages. He was shown drinking Pepsi with his men, wearing a fedora at the front, dressed in Iraqi security forces’ garb, and more. Everything, down to his hat, was constructed to make him seem an interesting and ruthless warrior.
As Philip Smyth, an analyst watching Shiite militias noted, the creation of these “heroes” is an “organised campaign“. Build up the macho image with carefully taken photographs, create a strong social media presence that will snowball, and build up the superficial personality by showing the fighter doing interesting/unusual things.
Every armed group has its heroes. The Free Syrian Army had Jamal Maarouf, until his seeming corruption made him many enemies. Da’esh has Abu Waheeb, and Shiite fanatics have Abu Azrael. However, no side has so painstakingly gone out of its way to polish thugs and make genocide seem respectable as the Iranian regime’s revolutionary guards have done, through their proxy militias.
Abu Azrael taps into everything a conditioned and desensitised western audience wants to see. He’s unashamed in his brutality, he seems “moderate” to them (on the basis that he holds bibles), he’s apparently a family man… Smyth notes his appeal is grounded in his image and background. “He’s the perfect symbol of a militia leader. He has a family, he has a very cool nom de guerre, it clicks all the buttons.”
The fact that their narrative is worming its way into our media outlets with ease should not be a cause of celebration, but a cause for concern. We’re not venerating Rambo, we’re venerating a psychotic killer who would gladly see as many of his western “fans” dead as Da’esh. The Khomeneist equivalent of the fanatical takfiris he claims to oppose.