Claim: An Iraqi Christian named Abu Azrael has killed more than 1,500 ISIS militants.

MIXTURE

WHAT’S TRUE: Ayyub Faleh al-Rubaie (known as Abu Azrael) was reported to be a well-known ISIS opponent in Iraq.

WHAT’S FALSE/UNDETERMINED: Abu Azrael is Christian, or has more than 1,500 “confirmed kills.”

Example: [Collected via Facebook, November 2015]

While every seems to think that bombing is the only way to solve any problems, let me tell you about this guy… Abu Azraela.k.a. The angel of death. Isis dreads seeing this guy come to the scene.. He has over 1,500 confirmed kills in a little over a year against isis and he does most of them with that sword in his hand. I didn’t even know that men like this were still being produced. He also uses a modified axe… He is a christian from Iraq who strikes fear into to terror group.. He has more kills than any bomb dropped. He uses a very old school fighting tactic, much like Spartacus’s guerrilla style of fighting. As far as I’m concerned… The only thing that’s really shutting them down is him… And from what I’ve read, isis won’t even allow you to say his name… That is a very ancient type of fear…

abu azrael

Origins: On 17 November 2015, the above-reproduced Facebook post about an anti-ISIS fighter named Abu Azrael (“father of the archangel of death”) began circulating on Facebook.

According to the missive, Abu Azrael (a purported Christian) has slaughtered more than 1,500 ISIS militants in just over a year’s time, primarily using a sword. Moreover, the rumor claims, the Islamic State has prohibited the utterance of his name due to his status as a deeply feared enemy.

The tale proved predictably popular following 13 November 2015 terror attacks by ISIS militants in Paris, during which nearly 130 people were killed. A high number of casualties and the brutality with which the attacks were perpetrated (seemingly at random) left many people across the world feeling powerless to avert future bloodshed. Rumors about Abu Azrael (whose real name was Ayyub Faleh al-Rubaie) served a function of counter-weighting that fear, providing the comforting vision of a man who better understood the attackers and was deftly hitting them where they lived.

Stories about Abu Azrael didn’t emerge with the Paris attacks, though. A 5 Janaury 2015 article titled “Kataib al-Imam Ali: Portrait of an Iraqi Shiite Militant Group Fighting ISIS” referenced him as a field commander with a then-new faction battling the Islamic State:

Announced in late June [2014] as the armed wing of the newly created Harakat al-Iraq al-Islamiyah (The Movement of the Islamic Iraq), Kataib al-Imam Ali burst onto the scene with uniformed and well-armed members. It has been quite active in Amerli, Tuz, and Diyala fighting alongside other Iraqi Shiite militias, all of them Iranian proxies. In Salah al-Din province, fighters from the group posed in videos with the severed heads of their slain enemies. And in late December, the group even 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).

… The group also appears to have strong links with the Iraqi government; in August and September, it published pictures of Zaidi riding in an Iraqi army helicopter and one of the militia’s field commanders, Abu Azrael, manning a different helicopter’s machine gun.

That article concluded with a slightly less positive assessment:

Indeed, Kataib al-Imam Ali and its ilk present long-term threats to regional stability and U.S. interests. Even as Washington focuses on fighting ISIS, it would do well to prepare now for the day when radical, Iran-linked Shiite militias turn more actively against America’s interests and allies.

Abu Azrael popped up again in a 17 March 2015 BBC article titled “‘The Archangel of Death’ Fighting Islamic State,” which reported misinformation had already begun to spread amid burgeoning social media interest:

He’s bald, with a prodigious beard, and often pictured with a smile on his face even when carrying his favourite weapons. A Facebook page devoted to his feats has more than 300,000 likes, with the vast majority of his fans inside Iraq itself. And he’s been given the terrifying moniker Abu Azrael: “father of the archangel of death.”

Of course nothing is quite so simple when it comes to the fight against IS, and basic facts about the Abu Azrael story are difficult to verify.

That piece (which described the narrative as a part of “Iran’s propaganda machine”) quoted an expert on Shi’a miltants, who surmised that Abu Azrael’s popularity was potentially part of a “sophisticated” public relations campaign:

Abu Azrael himself appears to be a member of the Kata’ib Imam Ali militia. Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shia militias at the University of Maryland and a blogger at Hizballah Cavalcade, says the group was formed last summer and immediately started promoting their star soldier using a sophisticated strategy.

I’ve been watching Shia militias on Facebook and social media for years and this fits the model of an organised campaign,” he says. “He had his own Facebook profiles and pages, the earliest in late 2014 … they had built up the character quite well, and initial photo releases were shown of him doing heroic or interesting things.” The Kata’ib militia has also posted much darker social media content, Smyth says, including severed heads of what they claim are IS fighters.

Although his religion wasn’t specifically addressed in the article, Abu Azrael was described as a “Shi’a fighter” throughout (and not a Christian, which would likely warrant inclusion as a compelling detail). A 12 March 2015 profile on Al Arabiya News also made reference to his social media fame, linking to a (now defunct) Facebook page and adding that it was “not clear who set it up.” Al Jazeera also covered the rising social media star of Abu Azrael in March 2015, but none of the early coverage made any mention of his purportedly impressive list of ISIS “kills.”

A 24 April 2015 Vocativ article painted Abu Azrael as an appealing but potentially divisive figure in Iraq:

And in parts of Iraq, Abu Azrael, now seems ubiquitous. His face is on t-shirts, which also feature his catchphrase “illa tahin,” which translates to “into flour,” meaning, he will pulverize his enemies, turn the bodies of ISIS members into powder. There are music videos and cartoons celebrating him, and regular television interviews with giddy anchors and smiling politicians … Despite his having told Vocativ that he welcomed all sects and represented all Iraqis, he and his fighters have shown little regard for Sunnis who’d abandoned their homes in territory previously held by ISIS.

Just as Abu Azrael gained prominence in the West after the 13 November 2015 attacks in Paris, the article attributed his folkloric fame in part to the symbolic reprieve he presented to Iraqi citizens terrorized by ISIS:

Abu Azrael’s popularity is largely considered a measure of how eagerly people in Baghdad have pinned their hopes on a defense against ISIS.

On 28 August 2015 Al-Jazeera published an article titled “Video of Celebrity Iraq Fighter Slicing Body Goes Viral,” but as with previous coverage, no specific number of “kills” was attributed to Abu Azrael (even in estimate). His last major news appearance prior to the Paris attacks occurred on 20 October 2015, in an Associated Press piece titled “Iraq says forces recapture refinery town from IS militants.”

At some point between that report and the attacks in Paris, the already outsized legend surrounding Abu Azrael grew to encompass his purported Christianity (which didn’t appear in any previous reports), and an apparently baseless “kill count” in the thousands plus. A source for those claims wasn’t immediately apparent, and while it appeared that Abu Azrael was legitimately fighting ISIS on the front lines, much of what was attributed to him in November 2015 didn’t check out even against much earlier (presumably exaggerated) reports.

Last updated: 17 November 2015

Originally published: 17 November 2015