SPEICHER BASE, Iraq: Abu Azrael – Father of the Angel of Death – is the black-bearded, blade-wielding embodiment of the retribution many Iraqis want against brutal jihadis who seized swathes of their country.
A Facebook page dedicated to the fighter in the Imam Ali Brigades Shiite militia lists him as a “public figure” and has been “liked” more than 280,000 times. There are also numerous images and comments praising the Baghdad native on Twitter.
His catchphrase is “illa tahin,” meaning he will pulverize the jihadi group ISIS and its supporters until nothing but “flour” remains.
“I swear to God, I am not merciful to them,” Abu Azrael, whose real name is Ayyub Faleh al-Rubaie, told AFP at the Speicher military base near Tikrit, a city that Iraqi forces and allied paramilitaries are battling to retake. “I never have any leniency for them,” he said, referring to ISIS.
Part of Abu Azrael’s celebrity appeal is his weapons: photos of him resting an axe on his shoulder or holding a sword are widely shared on social media. He is also viewed as striking fear into ISIS, both by his appearance and actions, turning the tables on the jihadis who have terrified Iraq.
With his right hand broken when he was thrown from a vehicle by a bomb blast, Abu Azrael holds a black-bladed combat knife for now, which he uses to gesture emphatically as he speaks. A scoped M4 assault rifle is slung at his side and he wears a magazine carrier that also has pockets for grenades. Patches bearing his nom de guerre adorn his uniform’s sleeves.
Abu Azrael listed half a dozen places where he took part in battles against ISIS but said he was a fighter before the current conflict began. He said he gained military experience with the Mahdi Army – Shiite sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia that battled U.S. forces in Iraq – and also fought in the Damascus area against terrorists seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Abu Azrael recalled seeing ISIS members “butchering our sons with axes” in the Amerli area, a mostly Shiite town that the jihadis besieged last year. “I [asked] God Almighty and God granted me my dream,” he said, explaining that one of those responsible was captured, while he exhumed and cut up the bodies of the others responsible for the attack.
“We caught one of them, and we asked him ‘why’ and he said ‘I swear to God, it isn’t me.’ But later, images showed that he was the one slaughtering our sons,” Abu Azrael said. He then quoted the Quranic verse that says, “Attack them as they attacked you.”
“As he did, I [should] butcher him and make gravy,” Abu Azrael said, leaving the man’s fate ambiguous but strongly implied. Such a response may be appealing to people who are angry at what ISIS has done in Iraq – millions displaced, thousands killed, women raped and sold into slavery.
Abu Azrael described himself as a “simple man” with “a simple family – four girls and a boy,” and said there is more to him than violence. “You see me go to school to drop off my children and I am peaceful. But I show another face to them [ISIS],” he said.
“I don’t differentiate between Sunnis and Shiites,” he said. “We are all one country and one Iraq.” Asked what he thought of his fame, he said: “Be with God [and] God will be with you.” But Abu Azrael is also keen to emphasize the importance of other fighters combating ISIS.
“I am probably in the spotlight because Almighty God made me successful in killing a number of dirty men, but all of the [fighters] are heroes,” he said.
If it comes to it, he is ready and willing to die for the cause. “I consider myself 100 percent a martyr, God willing,” he said. “I am ready for death, now and later.”