The online hunt for Iraqi and Syrian militiamen in Europe
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Europe's unprecedented migrant crisis appears to have presented an opportunity for some Shiite militiamen fighting in the Middle East. Internet users believe they have spotted a handful of notorious fighters in photos of refugees in Europe. There is now a campaign to name and shame these alleged militiamen, as our Observer explains.
In Iraq, Shiite militiamen are fighting against the Islamic State group's jihadists. In neighbouring Syria, they're fighting alongside Bashar Al Assad's army as the country sinks into an ever-deadlier conflict. Yet according to new photographic evidence, dozens may have also reached Europe by hiding among the tide of refugees pouring out of Syria.
Sajjad Al-Atibi is probably the most notorious of these militiamen to have been spotted. He's known to be close to Abu Azrael, a provocative figure who recently appeared in a video in which he mutilated and burned alive a man suspected of belonging to the Islamic State group.
In one photo published on social media networks, Al-Atibi appears alongside Azrael, clutching a rifle. Both men fought together in the Imam Ali brigade, a militia battling Islamic State group jihadists under the banner of the Hachid al-Chaabi paramilitary coalition.
Internet users spotted a second photo showing Al-Atibi taking a selfie with an Austrian policeman. When questioned about the photo, the Imam Ali brigade insisted - in a hardly convincing manner - that their fighter was not fleeing to Europe, but was simply there on holiday.
Outraged, Azrael filmed a video in which he called on any militia fighters who have fled the country to immediately come back. He notably warns against a so-called "American-Israeli conspiracy aimed at emptying Iraq of its combatants."
Another set of widely-shared images are those that show this militiaman, who clearly fights for the Iraqi Hezbollah. He turns up in several photos wearing the uniform of the unit, which is suspected of carrying out a series of kidnappings and murders throughout 2014 in the cities of Samarra and Kirkuk. In another group of photos, the same man is shown dressed in rags, crying, and holding a baby in his arms behind a barbed wire fence. According to the Al-Arabiya TV network, the photos were reportedly taken on the Hungarian border. France 24 has not been able to independently verify that information as yet.
We tried to contact Iraq's Hezbollah brigade for more information, but did not receive a response.
Another militiaman shows up in several pictures wearing an Iraqi army fatigues (as is common for Shiite militia fighters) and carrying weapons. But that doesn't appear to have stopped him from regularly giving updates on his journey to Europe via Facebook. In a series of posts, he chronicles a journey that seems to have taken him to Greece, then Germany, and finally Finland, where he appears to have settled.
According to the Iraqi NGO Al-Salam, more than 300 Iraqi militiamen may have sneaked out of the country by hiding among civilians fleeing cities like Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul, where fighting between Iraqi army troops and Shiite militias on one side and Islamic State group jihadists on the other has been raging since last August. They head first to Turkey, before reaching Europe onboard rickety boats used by refugees.Mohamed Al-Cheikhili works for the National Centre for Justice, an Iraqi human rights NGO based in London. He's launched a campaign to gather more information about these fighters in order to prosecute them.
"These militiamen are so happy to reach Europe that they can't refrain from posting photos on social media networks
We've even received help from inside the Iraqi government, particularly from a well-placed official in the Ministry of Human Rights who provided us with photos. However, this person doesn't want to reveal his or her identity because the powerful Shiite militias could then put pressure on him.
Quite often, these same militiamen often name and shame themselves. But they forget that the photos showing their time fighting within the ranks of militias still exist online! However, many of them deactivate both their Facebook and Twitter accounts as soon as they realise that they have been uncovered.
To be granted asylum in Europe, these militia fighters often pretend to be Sunnis fleeing regions in western Iraq, like al-Anbar, a province ravaged by Islamic State group jihadists. Some buy fake Syrian passports in order to speed up the asylum process.
But we don't only focus on investigating Iraqi militias. We've also spotted pro-government Syrian fighters among the refugees and have pointed out their presence to the relevant authorities.
Shiite militia fighters are not the only militiamen to have been spotted in Europe. Several fighters for Iraqi Kurd militias have also been spotted in recent weeks, again through photos posted on social media. Human Rights Watch has accused Iraqi Kurdish forces of stopping Arab residents from returning to their homes after they were displaced by fighting with jihadists this summer, in the Ninawa and Irbil provinces. They are also accused of detaining 70 local Arab men for long periods without charge.
The United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as well as the 1990 Dublin Regulation on the right to asylum, states that asylum will be refused to anyone implicated in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. We use that as a foundation on which to base our calls for European countries to refuse giving refugee status to these militiamen. So we're continuing to gather evidence against militia fighters that have carried out abuses against civilians in Iraq.