The Islamic State’s so-called Anbar province has released the “caliphate’s” latest in a long line of gory execution productions. The new snuff video shows four men dressed in orange jumpsuits being burned alive as they hang hogtied and upside down from a scaffold. The four men reportedly belonged to the Popular Mobilization Forces, which fight alongside the Iraqi government and are backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The Long War Journal is not reproducing the video of the executions, but a picture of the men shortly before their deaths can be seen above.
The killings are part of a vicious cycle of sectarian violence that has engulfed Iraq for years. And the Islamic State’s men justify the murders by saying it is revenge for the brutal executions committed by Shiite forces. In reality, the Islamic State needs no pretext for its over-the-top violence, as it regularly executes its enemies in a highly-stylized fashion.
However, just a few days ago, photos and a short video of another execution were passed around by the “caliphate’s” supporters. The images show a Shiite leader known as Abu Azrael, or the father of the “Angel of Death,” and his subordinates next to a Sunni who was killed in the same fashion as the Islamic State’s victims. After the man was burned to death, Abu Azrael cuts into his leg with a sword, saying that Baghdadi’s men will suffer the same fate and become “like shawarma.” Abu Azrael can be heard mocking the Islamic State’s “elite forces.”
Abu Azrael’s execution of the man took place in Baiji, which is home to a major oil refinery and the site of intense fighting between the Islamic State’s jihadists and Shiite militias. Iraqi government forces are integrated with the militias. A photo showing Abu Azrael with the corpse can be seen on the right. As with the Islamic State’s execution footage, The Long War Journal is not reproducing the video in full.
According to Al Jazeera, Abu Azrael has publicly owned the grisly killing and others as well. He has only objected to reports that his victim was an Iraqi. “Would I burn a Sunni man [from Iraq]?” he reportedly said in response. “These were from the Caucasus. One of them was Asian.”
Abu Azrael, who is well-known for his bravado and hulking physique, has earned the nickname “Rambo.” He is a commander in the Imam Ali Brigades, which are part of the Iraqi government-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces. According to press reports, the militia is “made up of combatants trained in Iran or Lebanon” and has established a reputation as a vicious counterweight to the Islamic State.
In May, representatives of Grand Ayatollah Sistani awarded Abu Azrael the “Martyrdom Medal of Honor.”
As the US and its allies have struggled to come up with an effective policy for combating the Islamic State, they have increasingly found themselves in a de facto alliance with Iranian-backed militias, some of which are led by US-designated terrorists.
The Popular Mobilization Committee is directed by Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a former commander in the Badr Organization who was listed by the US government as a specially designated global terrorist in July 2009. The US government described Muhandis, whose real name is Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, as “an advisor to Qassem Soleimani,” the commander of the Qods Force, which is the external operations wing of the IRGC. US military and intelligence officials accuse Soleimani of overseeing the deaths of numerous American soldiers and other personnel in Iraq.
In June, Muhandis was pictured with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi and then photographed with Abadi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a high-level meeting. The photos demonstrate the high degree of coordination between Muhandis’ Popular Mobilization Committee and its Iraqi and Iranian government backers.
Despite the well-documented and extensive presence of extremists, including Abu Azrael, among the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Obama administration has argued that observers should not be alarmed by their role in the fighting.