His name is Abou Azrael, but he's better known as "Iraq's Rambo" — the muscle-bound symbol of the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq. He is known for directing elaborate and violent punishments against ISIS forces, carried out by the Shiite militia that he leads, the Brigades of the Imam Ali. However, videos of him mistreating corpses started circulating online at the beginning of June — and they could see him lose his hero status.
The videos were published on June 4 on Telegram, a secure messaging app popular in Iran, and Apparat, the Iranian version of YouTube.
In the first video, which lasts 18 seconds, you can see Abou Azrael dragging the corpse of a jihadist fighter by the hair and shoving it against a wall. Just afterwards, members of his militia start kicking the corpse. Proof that they're part of the Iraqi Rambo's team? They're wearing the insignia of the Brigades of the Imam Ali.
These videos don't exactly reveal a new side to Ayoub Faleh Hasan Rabiei, Abou Azrael's real name. In 2014 he was filmed with his men displaying the decapitated heads of jihadist fighters, and also burning corpses. Another video showed him, in November 2015, cutting up the body of a jihadist with a sword. The Brigades of the Imam Ali are also accused of human rights violations by Ofpra, the the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons.
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These atrocities have never received even the slightest tap on the wrist from his own militia. The Imam Ali Brigades even went on a tour around Iran in May 2016, lapping up their popularity.
In May 2015, Abou Azrael was even decorated by the Shiite authority of Karbala, a city in Iraq, for his contribution to the war against the Islamic State group.
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However, the two videos published online in June stoked a reaction in the Brigades of Imam Ali. In a statement, the militia said that "These acts were committed by an individual in his own name" and "the people who committed these acts will be prosecuted."
For Wassim Nasr, a journalist at France 24 and an expert in jihadist movements, Abou Azrael will have to pay a price for his popularity.
He's become too well-known in a sense; now he's seen as one of the faces of the fight against the Islamic State group. He sits next to Patrick Simonnet, the EU ambassador in Iraq, during meetings. Now he's not only recognisable in Iraq or in the Middle East, but also further afield. And Shiite militias don't want to present a violent image of themselves on the world stage.
On June 9, Abou Azrael published a 45 minute-long video where he admits to the abusive acts. However, he also underlines that he hasn't been abandoned by the Brigades, only criticised. He acknowledges that decapitating, burning, and mutilating bodies is illegal: "I am in the video and I made a mistake. I am ready to be prosecuted in Iraq or internationally. What did I do? I burnt the beard of a Daesh fighter." [Daesh is another name for the Islamic State group.]
In the Muslim religion, it is forbidden to interfere with a dead body.