Alex recently finished an internship at the Lowy Institute. He is undertaking a master of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
It has become commonplace in the Western media to see experts and politicians lament our inability to counter ISIS propaganda. As ISIS has demonstrated, media can now be created and disseminated effectively with very few resources. Less well recognised is the fact that a number of groups in Syria and Iraq have used the same social media tools against ISIS.
One campaign run by the Popular Mobilisation Forces (an umbrella organisation composed of mainly Shia militias) in Iraq has been particularly effective in breaking the narrative of disaster and defeat that shrouded the opposition to ISIS throughout much of 2014. The clash here is no longer viewed as between beleaguered state forces backed by coalition airstrikes, but between two ideologically motivated sides seeking to crush each other through a force of will as much as arms.
This propaganda effort is well encapsulated in the carefully managed social media campaign of Shia commander Ayyub Faleh al Rubaie, known as Abu Azrael — Arabic for 'Father of the Angel of Death.' Abu Azrael is also known by a number of other nicknames such as 'The Iraqi Rambo' and 'Daesh Killer', and over the last eighteen months has shot from relative obscurity to celebrity status in the fight against ISIS in Iraq.
His catchphrase, Ila Taheen ('I will grind you [ISIS] to dust') has gone viral, registering millions of views and reposts worldwide, and has even been made into a song. Reputedly a former professor and martial arts champion with experience training in Lebanon with Hezbollah and fighting against American troops in the Iraqi insurgency of the early 2000s, Abu Azrael has become a hero for many Shia Iraqis.
Abu Azrael's image is carefully constructed. It is designed to portray calm confidence and professionalism, a contrast with the images of fleeing Iraqi soldiers that had previously dominated news coverage of the conflict. The way he and his men are equipped, with M4 carbines, tight fatigues and beards, appears to be a stylised imitation of US special forces. His men are all body builders, and their fierce image is reinforced by Abu Azrael's tendency to be pictured either with an axe or sword. Numerous 'combat' videos uploaded from Abu Azrael's smartphone portray a style of fighting which could have been taken from a Rambo movie, and are perhaps equally as staged.
Abu Azrael forms a small part of the media campaign surrounding the Iraqi militias, whose message is consistent: we have fought Saddam Hussein, the US army and Israel (in Lebanon); ISIS may have succeeded against the weak central government forces but we are not afraid of ISIS and it will not succeed against us. The results on the ground seem to support this message, with the Shia militias playing a key role in stalling the ISIS advance and retaking Iraqi towns such as Tikrit, albeit with the help of Western airstrikes.
The timing and presentation of Abu Azrael in the media appears to have been a calculated reaction to ISIS's Shakir Wahiyib, or 'The Desert Lion', a notorious figure who featured in a number of execution videos in early 2014, and who was then one of the few visible 'faces' of ISIS. Abu Azrael sums up the aim of the online media effort in combating ISIS propaganda, stating in a recent interview: 'they are only here to kill and destroy, and they film all of it, so what we do is the same, we film ourselves defending the Iraqi people.'
Given how effectively ISIS has used terror in its media campaign, perhaps the most notable feature of Abu Azrael's videos are how adept he is at using irony and humour to de-legitimise ISIS. Shia militiamen mock the intensity of the Jihadists with the confident certainty of ideological and battlefield superiority. They paint the 'terrorists' as amateurs, laughably solemn extremists with a pointless desire to die. Another reason for Abu Azrael's success could be the focus of his audience. In a conflict where ideological positions are rigid and separated through a plethora of sectarian, religious and tribal factors, Abu Azrael's message is intended primarily to reassure and boost the morale of the Shia community in Iraq and other minorities opposed to ISIS. At no point does he seek to engage with ISIS itself.
Shia militias are dangerous forces which have been implicated in war crimes and terrorist activities. In combating the influence of ISIS, however, we may be able to draw some lessons from their use of social media. One criticism of the West's approach to ISIS is that it gives ISIS exactly what it wants, by exaggerating the fear it seeks to instil through the chilling use of social media imagery. Phrases such as 'existential threat' or 'the struggle of our generation' are commonly used to refer to ISIS.
Although the threat of ISIS is obviously a serious one, a lesson the West could take from Abu Azrael and his men is that we need more confidence in the superiority of our institutions and values. By overstating the threat from ISIS, we only make it appear stronger.
Photo courtesy of Facebook page ABU Azrael.