The Iraqi Shiite militia known as the Imam Ali Brigades is accused of having committed multiple war crimes in the fight against the Islamic State organisation in Iraq, including summary executions and torture of captives. But its brutality isn’t the only thing fuelling the militia's notoriety – it also has a well-oiled communications strategy.
In June 2014, Shiite leader Ayatollah Sistani made an appeal for mobilisation against the Islamic State organisation. Numerous Iraqi Shiite militias were formed after this announcement.
These new formations joined the four large, already-existing Shiite militias in Iraq: the Badr Brigade, founded in Iran in 1982; Saraya al-Salam (the “Peace Brigades”), which is directed by the radical Shiite religious cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; Asaib Ahl al-Haq (the “League of the Virtuous”); and, lastly, the Iraqi Ketaeb Hezbollah.
The Imam Ali Brigades have distinguished themselves by resorting to extreme violence. The militia, made up of combatants trained in Iran or Lebanon, has faced widening criticism since the release of a YouTube video showing men wearing the Imam Ali Brigades insignia burning a man.
The Observers team has chosen to only publish screengrabs of this brutal video, which shows the men in battle dress standing in front of a gruesome sight: a man being suspended over a fire with his arms and legs bound. It’s unclear if the man is still alive.
The fighters joke amongst themselves, then at 0:45, one says “This is a combatant from Daesh [the Arabic word for the Islamic State group], we are going to reduce him to dust!”
The caption under the video, which was posted May 31, indicates that this crime occurred in the Karma region, in Anbar province. This information is impossible to verify for the time being.
In a statement, the “Islamic Movement of Iraq,” the political branch of the Imam Ali Brigades, denied that its fighters were involved in this barbaric act, adding that "the Imam Ali Brigades are no longer deployed in the region where this video was filmed.” However, several media sources reported that this militia entered Anbar province to participate in fighting against the Islamic State on May 25.
When contacted by FRANCE 24, a spokesman for the Imam Ali Brigades suggested that the video had been filmed by members of the Islamic State organisation with the goal of smearing the reputation of the Brigades.
However, the Imam Ali Brigades have already used videos to brag about similar crimes, including decapitating jihadis. In July 2014 in the Amerli region, Imam Ali Brigades members filmed themselves flaunting the decapitated heads of Islamic State fighters. In front of the camera, one of them chants, “We are coming to get you! We will cut off your heads and make mountains of your skulls!”
According to Phillip Smyth, a researcher specialised in Shiite militias, the man speaking in the video is none other than the Secretary General of the Imam Ali Brigades, Shebl al-Zaidi. Al-Zaidi used to be a military leader of the militia led by Moqtada Sadr, the Mahdi Army.
In the past few months, this militia has become one of the most notorious in Iraq. In an article published on the Washington Institute website, Smyth explains the Imam Ali Brigades fall under the “Popular Mobilisation,” an umbrella organisation that covers the roughly 50 active militias in Iraq and whose operational chief is Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, an extremely influential Iraqi religious leader. Smyth wrote:
Wearing patches belonging to the militia and shown in a number of photos embracing Zaidi, Mohandis is a commander with considerable experience in building new extremist Shiite groups -- and a long history of attacks against Americans and American interests.
Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis is accused of having planned attacks against the American and British embassies in Kuwait in the 1980s. He is currently on the “wanted” list of both Interpol and American authorities.
While the Imam Ali Brigades are certainly helped by the close ties they maintain with the highest Shiite authorities in Iraq, the group also owes its notoriety to its skilled communications. For the past few months, pictures of one of the militia’s fighters, a bodybuilder nicknamed Abu Azrael (which translates literally as "the father of Azrael", the Arabic name for the angel of death) have been making the rounds on social media. Photos of this Rambo-like fighter are regularly shared on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
Abu Azrael has become an icon in the fight against the Islamic State group. His face plasters T-shirts and there is even a cartoon show detailing his “adventures.”
FRANCE 24 journalist Julien Fouchet recently went to Iraq to report on this quasi-mythical figure. He said:
I noticed that, in Baghdad, people are very afraid of fighters from the Imam Ali Brigades. They have a reputation for being tough as rocks. In battles, they are always sent to the front line… even in front of the Iraqi army. There are supposedly between 4,000 and 7,000 fighters in the Imam Ali Brigades.
The Iman Ali Brigades are not the only militia to have committed atrocities. Amnesty International published a report in October 2014 accusing the Iraqi government of granting impunity to several Shiite militias, including Asaib Ahl al Haq, the Badr Brigades, the Mahdi Army, and Kataib Hezbollah, all accused of having committed barbaric crimes.
“By granting its blessing to militias who routinely commit such abhorrent abuses, the Iraqi government is sanctioning war crimes and fuelling a dangerous cycle of sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart. Iraqi government support for militia rule must end now,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser.