Referred to as the “black-bearded, blade-wielding embodiment of [Iraqi] retribution,” Abu Azrael, the ‘Angel of Death,’ is the anti-ISIL hero that Iraq wants and clearly needs. Does ISIL’s ‘Desert Lion,’ Abu Waheeb, stand a chance?
In the Blue Corner
Ayyub Faleh al-Rubaie is his real name, but people know him simply as Abu Azrael. His moniker translates to “father of the angel of death,” and his formidable persona clearly reflects this. Sporting all black clothing and a prominent beard, and wielding an axe, a sword, and a machine gun, Abu Azrael has a cult following inside Iraq and parts of Iran. A self-proclaimed family man and father of five, the Angel of Death fights for the Shia Kata’ib Imam Ali militia against ISIL in the battle zones of Tikrit.
His catchphrase? It translates to something along the lines of, “I will pulverize the Islamic State jihadist group and its supporters until nothing but ‘flour’ remains.”
In the Red Corner
Opposite Abu Azrael is Shakir Wahib al-Fahdawi, known to most as Abu Waheeb. ‘Desert Lion’ or ‘Teacher of the Nusayris’ are two other monikers he’s known by. Abu Waheeb fights for ISIL, and at the age of 28, has risen within ISIL’s ranks to become the group’s senior military commander in the western province of Anbar. Abu Waheeb has done hard time in Camp Bucca on charges of supporting AQI back in 2006, and also has a cult following of ISIL supporters, mainly on Twitter.
His claim to fame? Executing three Shia truck drivers in cold blood after what appeared to be a quiz on the Sunni Qur’an.
The Fight Breakdown
Abu Azrael is a strong pick in this match. The large man sports a bald head, long black beard, and has a nickname of biblical proportions. Acting as the face of the Shia militias waging war against the brutal ISIL jihadists, Abu Azrael has been propelled to his prominent role as a “public figure” through a sophisticated and organized public-relations strategy, and allegedly has anywhere from 280,000-300,000 followers on Facebook to prove it.
Photos of Abu Azrael meeting with the Iraqi transport minister have surfaced online in recent months, as have details of the family man’s personal life and personal outlook on ISIL’s brutality. “You see me go to school to drop off my children, and I am peaceful. But I show another face to [ISIL],” the Archangel of Death said in an AFP interview. “I swear to God, I am not merciful to them. I never have any leniency for them.”
While Abu Azrael’s bonafides have yet to be verified by official sources, claims of his multifarious capabilities have been widely circulated online following his rise to fame. There have been claims of his occupation in a previous life as a physical education teacher at a university in Iraq, as well as word of his alleged skills in Taekwondo and firearms marksmanship. Others go so far as to claim Abu Azrael possesses special operations experience.
One thing is for certain: The Angel of Death will have no shortage of work near Tikrit, and we gladly welcome his attempts to pulverize all ISIL elements until ‘nothing but flour’ remains.
Abu Waheeb is no weak pick in this match, either. Only 28 years old but already cultivating an impressive following on social media, Abu Waheeb has been referred to as the ‘rising star’ of ISIL. He has refrained from fighting with a mask on, and does not hesitate to show his face when publicizing his attempts to determine the sectarian identities of his victims, be they Shia truck drivers, Christians, or Sunnis who threaten his position.
Anbar Province’s head of police intelligence has been quoted as referring to Abu Waheeb as “dangerous and cunning.” Waheeb is known as “the only one who kills without covering his face.” Iraqi officials identify that Abu Waheeb represents part of the new extremist generation, one who represents some of “Al-Qaeda’s former figures like Zarqawi, but even more extremist.”
First public knowledge of Abu Waheeb starts in 2006 while he was allegedly studying computer science at the University of Anbar. While studying at the university, he became involved with extremist entities and was arrested by U.S. forces for supporting AQI. After spending time detained at Camp Bucca until 2009, Abu Waheeb was sentenced to death and moved to a prison in Tikrit. He escaped three years later in a mass outbreak following a riot and an attack on the prison by ISIL.
Since his escape, Abu Waheeb has been heavily involved in anti-government operations and currently runs ISIL’s military operations in Anbar Province. This self-starter is bound to continue rising through the ranks at any cost, and will likely be heavily relied upon by senior ISIL leadership should the role of Shia militias and coalition anti-ISIL airstrikes persist.
The author has money on Abu Azrael in this round, although his role in the Shia militias, possibly as an Iranian IRGC proxy, is somewhat disconcerting. While Iran and its Shia militia proxies have proven very effective in ground operations against ISIL, Iran’s extensive influence in Iraq presents larger strategic concerns that U.S. foreign policy must contend with sooner rather than later.
While Abu Waheeb terrorizes, extorts, and executes his way across Anbar Province in a flurry of Twitter retweets and execution videos, Abu Azrael focuses his time and effort fighting with hardened Shia militias in key centers of gravity, where their sway is bound to achieve tactical and operational successes.
It is likely the relatively young Abu Waheeb will maintain his ‘self-starter’ motivation as anti-ISIL coalition efforts continue to pound the jihadist group, but Abu Azrael’s older and more mature outlook on life as a father of five are sure to provide him with a distinct advantage against possible burn-out in later rounds.
(Featured image a composite of images taken from tvnoviny.sk and lavalledeitempli.net)