While there is an ongoing battle for Tikrit, where the Iraqi and Iranian militaries and affiliated Iraqi Shia and Sunni militias are trying to expel ensconced ISIL fighters, resulting in mounting casualties and the physical destruction of its urban landscape, a simultaneous battle is being waged over a cyber-terrain and media landscape, resulting in the creation of protagonists that both Iraqis and Iranians can root for.
Recent images of Iraq’s Angel of Death, a fighter in one of the Shia militias taking part in the fight for Tikrit, is the latest Ramboesque figure to emerge in what has become a decade-long conflict in Iraq. International media has picked up this story, as part of its fascination with the rise of ISIL and its use of new social media.
The Angel of Death is newsworthy because he represents a high-profile cyber counter-attack. However the focus on this persona brings up a greater issue of the conflation between cyber-space and actual violent conflict, where it has become more-and-more difficult to separate reality from its mediated version in cyber-space.
Folk heroes or villains
Since the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the ensuing chaos has produced a wide arrange of folk heroes or villains depending on one’s perspective.
Before the cult around American Sniper emerged, the Iraqi insurgents had their own Baghdad Sniper, a man named Nizar al-Jibouri, affiliated with the Islamic Army in Iraq. This Sniper not only targeted American soldiers, but filmed the deaths of his victims.
The insurgent group released several videos, including the view from his sniper scope, giving a first-person shooter video game perspective. It even created a docudrama video of a day in his life of being a sniper. The insurgent group realised his kills were not enough for the insurgency. It was the production value associated with those kills that built up his myth-like status.
Even Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born progenitor of ISIL, brandished his Rambo-like persona during the early days of the Iraqi insurgency with videos of him firing off bursts from a rifle, which inadvertently backfired in the PR insurgency wars, as commentators in the US military gave press briefings to show his poor handling of his firearm. Comedians also poked fun of the fact that despite his traditional garb, he was wearing either Adidas or New Balance sneakers.
New media environment
ISIL emerged in Iraq in a new media environment, where it could showcase its fighters with new media like Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. One of its most prominent “poster boys” was Shakir Wahib, who the international media became fixated with, as he was one of the few ISIL fighters who was filmed without a mask, even when he killed three Syrian truck drivers. His ISIL fan base called him the “Desert Lion”, and in this regard, Iraq’s Angel of Death emerged as Iraq’s hero to combat this Lion.
ISIL seeks to dominate, shape and control cyberspace, yet at the same time it has become a space to resist ISIL, through creating virtual heroes such as the Angel of Death, even though he is a real person, Ayyub Faleh al-Rubaie, who discusses in an APF interview the banal aspects of his life, such as dropping his kids off to school.
The emergence of the Angel of Death in cyber-space has been newsworthy, but he also represents a greater Shia cyber-narrative that came about after the rise of ISIL, with Facebook pages stressing unity between Iraq’s Shia and its Christian minorities, targeted since the summer of 2014. Shia militias have used cyber-space to wish Iraq’s Christians a Merry Christmas and Christian militias even use the logos of the Shia militias on their own Facebook pages.
Iraq’s Angel of Death became newsworthy, partly due to his huge fan base that emerged as a result of the “Likes” he received on Facebookand his picture showing up on the Facebook page reportedly belonging to Iran’s special forces, at a time when the Iraqi state should ideally downplay the role of Shia Iran in fighting for a predominantly Sunni Tikrit.
Social media has ... has allowed those outside of the war zone to become voyeurs to this conflict, and has facilitated the creation of virtual personas to celebrate or condemn.
Cyber-hero for Iraqis
The emergence of this cyber-hero for Iraqis illustrates media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s oft-quoted phrase, “The Medium is the Message“. Irrespective of the messages sent by ISIL or Iraq’s Shia militias, the medium in and of itself also contains a message.
The message of the medium in this case is that in the age of the easy edit and photoshop it becomes difficult to determine the reality on the ground in Iraq. ISIL’s telegenic fighter was reported dead in 2014, but was able to resurrect himself by releasing a photo on the internet.
The message of the medium is that there is a battle over the loyalty of the youth, using their media such as Facebook, for their allegiance. The message of the medium is that terrorism is post-modern, where ISIL’s notions of “Jihad”, “Caliphate”, sexual slavery, the use of child soldiers, and the destruction of Iraq’s pre-Islamic heritage can be communicated in 140 characters, or a single image, to be “Liked” in a macabre, transnational referendum.
Combatting terrorism has become post-modern, whether it is Shia militias creating a hero to be equally Liked, to the State Department developing a campaign of tweets to discredit ISIL.
Of course, in this emergence of new technologies and the blurring of reality, there is a reality beyond any doubt on the ground that includes Iraqis and Syrians who have been displaced and dispossessed since the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIL.
Loyalties, whether to ISIL or the forces combatting ISIL, are not determined by social media, but by long-term processes of socialisation and identity formation. Nevertheless, what social media has done has allowed those outside of the war zone to become voyeurs to this conflict, and has facilitated the creation of virtual personas to celebrate or condemn.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.