One commander of an Iran-supported militia has developed a cult following among some Iraqis, underlying Iran’s spreading influence in the fight against the Islamic State.
Abu Azrael, meaning “Angel of Death” in Arabic, is a lead ground commander for Kataib al-Imam Ali, one of the many Iranian proxies fighting the Islamic State. He’s become famous in some Iraqi social media circles, with one Facebook fan page receiving more than 200,000 likes.
His notoriety highlights the fact that Iran is gaining a foothold in the region, as Shiite militias lead the offensive to retake Tikrit. Although Islamic State atrocities seem to command greater media attention, Iranian proxies have been committing brutal, sectarian acts of violence since beginning to undertake major offensives against IS last year.
Supporters of these militias promote certain commanders on social media to project heroism and power, among other reasons. “They are building a persona for him,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and adjunct fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Although Azrael is rumored to be a former university lecturer, Smyth says he doesn’t believe the background information because it could easily be planned and/or planted.
Azrael has been photographed wielding an axe, shooting a machine gun from a helicopter and in many other ways meant to portray a flashy image. One picture labels Azrael “The lion of Kataib Ali,” and the phrase on another picture translates as “We are bringing victory. We are your hell,” presumably a message to Islamic State militants.
While Azrael’s fan pages began appearing in August or September of 2014, it’s virtually impossible to verify his personal details, an aspect that compliments the propagation of Azrael as a hero in the fight against the Islamic State.
Iranian proxies have been using social media as a tool for making them appear like legitimate agents since before the rise of the Islamic State- and in a more advanced manner- according to Smyth.
Kataib al-Imam Ali was launched about a month after the Islamic State overran Mosul in June, 2014. The militia’s secretary-general, Shebl al-Zaidi, is a brutal, sectarian fighter who was cultivated by the Iranians, says Smyth. He was imprisoned by the U.S. during the war in Iraq and released by the Iraqi government in 2010.
Zaidi has been photographed with Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani, a powerful operative who’s leading the offensive to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State. (RELATED: Top Iranian General Is Taking The Lead Against ISIS, Spreading Iranian Influence Across Middle East)
Although currently fighting the Islamic State, these Iranian proxies pose a serious, long-term threat to American interests. According to an analysis by Smyth:
Although these radical militias are fighting ISIS in parallel with the U.S.-led effort, their actions and sectarian agendas are separate from the coalition’s and run counter to the goal of building inclusive governments and societies in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, Kataib al-Imam Ali and its ilk present long-term threats to regional stability and U.S. interests.
The militia is even trying to train up Christians and indoctrinate them into believing they’ve been abandoned by the West. Kataib al-Imam Ali “set about training Christians for a subgroup called Kataib Rouh Allah Issa Ibn Miriam (The Brigade of the Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary),” wrote Smyth.
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