Stepping out of a car and being hounded by people clamoring for selfies is normally the reserve of a movie star or adored pop singer. But on the streets of Iraq’s capital Baghdad, this frenzied acclaim is reserved for one man only. Mobbed wherever he goes, this unlikely celebrity is Abu Azrael, the most renowned fighter in the country – and the scourge of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Also often referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Daesh, ISIS has been responsible for numerous terror attacks around the world, including recent atrocities in Brussels, Nice and Tunisia. One of its deadliest attacks in Europe occurred in Paris, France, in November 2015, when shootings and suicide bombings left 129 dead and more than 400 injured.
In fact, sometimes it seems that barely a day goes by without the group being on the news. But just what is ISIS and what is it fighting for? Specifically, the group is a jihad militant organization, mostly comprised of Syrian Sunni and Iraqi Arabs. And its beliefs are so strong that it insists on having political, religious and even military control over every Muslim on Earth.
ISIS was started by a Jordanian radical called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999. Subsequently, it changed name many times and became part of Al-Qaeda, the militant group founded by Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s. Al-Qaeda was responsible for many global terror events including, of course, the infamous September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
However, since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – as Al-Qaeda were losing ground to the U.S. Army – ISIS grew from within and later became a separate entity altogether. In fact, Al-Qaeda’s leader even disowned ISIS in 2014 on account of its uncompromising and extreme stance.
And since then, the terror group has thrived, adding to its strength by recruiting army volunteers from around the world. Three years ago, moreover, its troops crossed over to Syria after obtaining large parts of Iraq. As a consequence, it has strongholds in both countries. It’s also currently heavily engaged in the Syrian civil war.
While demanding the allegiance of the global Muslim community, ISIS aims to free Islam from what it sees as oppressive Western influences. However, its methods are cruel and extreme. Aside from global attacks, the group imposes strict laws. For instance, it has cut off the arms of thieves, stopped women from leaving their homes and thrown gay men to their deaths from buildings. The group also forbids the teaching of art, literature, music and history.
Furthermore, ISIS has kidnapped and killed journalists, performed numerous beheadings and carried out mass executions. The organization even shares videos of these atrocities on social media in a bid to spread fear as widely as possible. However, Abu Azrael is playing ISIS at its own game. In particular, he’s using social media to counteract its claims, recording his own group’s attacks against the terrorists.
Indeed, Azrael has his very own vendetta against ISIS. He’s the reported leader and the public face of the Imam Ali brigade: a Iraqi Shi’a militia. It is sponsored by Iran, and its goal is to destroy ISIS and its jihadis. And Azrael himself has become iconic – even earning the nickname “Iraq’s Rambo” – for his violent actions in the fight against ISIS.
It’s perhaps fitting, then, that Azrael’s name in Arabic roughly translates as “the father of the angel of death.” What’s more, he has become somewhat of a hero for the country’s citizens. His catchphrase “I’ll grind them to dust,” for instance, has become a rallying call for the population. On the streets of Baghdad and beyond, in fact, it has been chanted, repeated and proclaimed by Iraqis desperate to see the back of ISIS forever.
And it’s his canny use of social media that has propelled Azrael to his current iconic status in Iraq and beyond. More importantly, the videos he shares on YouTube counteract ISIS propaganda about its successes and help to paint a more balanced picture of the Syrian war. Bald and bearded, Azrael appears grinning in his videos, showing off his display of arms by holding axes or waving swords.
He’s also renowned for his keen sense of humor. In one video, for example, he’s seen mocking ISIS directly, using one of its captured walkie-talkies. These traits have helped turn him into something of a caricature; indeed, a cartoon was even made about him bashing a major ISIS member. But just who is the real Azrael?
According to news channel France 24, Azrael’s actual name is Ayoub Faleh Al-Rabieia, with reports putting his age as between 37 and 40. Apparently he studied sport before then going on to lecture at university. Later, he’s reported to have become a Taekwondo master. He’s also a dad with five children.
Then, at some point, Azrael became a militant. According to France 24, a decade ago he was actually fighting against the United States and was on its list of wanted terrorists. However, things are different today. In fact, America currently supports his militia and its war against the ISIS jihadists.
Azrael’s initiation into the Shia forces is reported to have happened in 2014. Apparently, it was an appeal from the Shiite leader Ayatollah Sistani to mobilize against ISIS that first attracted him to the Iraqi Shia forces. He’s believed to have set up the Imam Ali brigade and is now thought to lead it.
Furthermore, Azrael and the Imam Ali brigade are known to have been key players in major defeats against ISIS in Iraq. Indeed, the group was shown on video fighting to successfully recapture the Iraqi city of Tikrit from the terrorists. Azrael has also been filmed firing an enormous machine gun at ISIS enemies in Fallujah. That city was successfully liberated from terrorists in June 2016.
It seems, then, that Azrael and his body-building brothers in arms are getting results in the field. And that’s something he’s clearly keen to share with the Iraqi public. So alongside his armory of weapons, grenades and smoke-bombs, he carries two other powerful tools – a pair of hi-tech smartphones. Azrael uses these to record his attacks and report them back to fans via social media.
In fact, he immediately shares his videos on YouTube while in the line of fire in order to counteract ISIS claims. One of the first videos he ever posted has now attracted an astonishing two billion views. And, according to Azrael, he’s amassed around 220,000 Facebook followers, too. Clearly, the man is worshipped.
But not everyone is singing Azrael’s and the militia’s praises. Some, for one, accuse him of glamorizing violence. The Imam Ali brigade and other militia, moreover, have been accused by Amnesty International of war crimes such as displacing and killing Iraqis. And videos of the groups showing off the decapitated heads of ISIS fighters have apparently also been circulated.
However, the militia denies these claims. And Azrael himself puts his appeal down to his honesty. Speaking to France 24, he said, “I stand by my words. That’s why people prefer me instead of having a dishonest political who announces measures on TV but does nothing.” Indeed, the fighter is so adored by the Iraqi public that his face even adorns T-shirts sold in Baghdad’s markets. For now at least, it seems that Azrael will continue to offer some much-needed hope to the thousands of ordinary people caught up in a bloody conflict. And they need that hope more than ever.