The YouTube War

13 minute read
Aryn Baker

In a conflict that has already yielded too many scenes of graphic horror, it takes a mere 27 seconds of video footage to plumb new depths of depravity. Posted on YouTube, the video opens with a rebel commander named Khalid al-Hamad, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, holding a knife as he bends over the body of a dead soldier. There’s a gaping hole in the soldier’s chest. First al-Hamad transfers what appears to be the dead man’s heart onto a flat piece of plastic or metal lying on the soldier’s stomach. Then he pulls what looks like a lung across the open cavity. He works his knife through the flesh of the dead man’s torso for a few seconds before standing to face the camera, holding an organ in each hand. “I swear we will eat from your hearts and livers, you dogs of Bashar,” he says, referring to supporters of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Off camera, a small crowd can be heard calling out “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.” Then al-Hamad raises one of the bloodied organs to his lips and starts to tear off a chunk with his teeth.

The video was posted online on May 12 by supporters of the Assad regime, who pronounced it yet more proof that the rebellion against the dictator is the work of thugs and terrorists. It also drew condemnation from the military leadership of the main anti-Assad force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which said it would seek to put al-Hamad on trial. But the video was greeted with triumphant glee by many rebel sympathizers, who extolled al-Hamad for matching the regime atrocity for atrocity. “Abu Sakkar, may God bless you and give you strength,” wrote one fan in a widely circulated Facebook posting. “What you did is revenge for the killing of your brothers.” Other activists changed their Facebook status en masse to read “Abu Sakkar, the Shabiha heart-eater, represents me.” (Shabiha is a derogatory term for thugs loyal to Assad.)

Al-Hamad is defiantly unapologetic. Speaking to TIME via Skype from the city of Qusayr, one of the front lines in the war between the regime and the rebels, he confirms that he is the man seen in the video biting into the soldier’s flesh. “The taste was good,” he says, his even-toned voice displaying no emotion.

Cannibalism: even the most sadistic terrorists have long regarded it as a taboo too far. The Taliban have never been known to do it, nor the most hardcore al-Qaeda fighters. What made al-Hamad cross the line? The rebel commander doesn’t hide the strong sectarian hatred that underpins his gruesome treatment of the soldier’s body. A member of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, al-Hamad claims the soldier was a member of Assad’s minority Shi’ite sect, known as the Alawites. Al-Hamad says his goal is to exterminate the Alawites. “Hopefully we will slaughter all of them,” he says.

But the immediate motivation for his video, he says, is retaliation and intimidation. He claims to have found a video in the dead soldier’s cell phone showing “a woman and her two daughters, fully naked, and he was humiliating them and sticking a stick here and there.” He hopes his own video will terrify his enemies: “After what I did, hopefully they will never step into the area where Abu Sakkar is,” he says.

Al-Hamad’s ceremonial cannibalism provides a glimpse of how grotesquely brutal the Syrian war has become–and a startling example of how technology appears to be fueling that brutality on both sides. War is always cruel, but the savagery on display in Syria, where more than 80,000 have been killed since the rebellion started more than two years ago, far exceeds that of any other recent conflict. The ubiquity of video-equipped camera phones has produced a relentless stream of clips in which ears are sliced off heads, fingers taken from hands as souvenirs, organs removed from torsos–and much, much worse. Soldiers and rebels alike are committing what are plainly war crimes and showing them off on the Internet. Indeed, many of the videos are made expressly for online consumption. “I’ve seen hundreds of videos like that from both sides,” says Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based independent group that tracks fatalities and abuses in Syria. “It’s abnormal. It’s inhuman, what is happening.”

If the Arab Spring gave the world its first Facebook revolution, Syria is in the throes of the first YouTube war. It’s hard to remember now that the anti-Assad movement began in the same vein as the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where cell-phone imagery and social-media platforms were used to inspire and organize peaceful demonstrations that helped topple dictatorial regimes. As Syria’s rebellion has morphed into a sectarian civil war, both sides have learned to use these tools for perverse propaganda, apparently goading each other into acts of escalating horror. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Quite a few fighters in Syria interpret that quite literally,” says Peter Bouckaert, director of emergencies for Human Rights Watch.

The videos are the handiwork of the extremist fringes, whether of Assad’s military or of the rebellion. But they are helping define the conflict as one in which there are no good guys, only combatants of varying shades of villainy. That makes it doubly difficult for outsiders to pick sides. The Obama Administration’s reluctance to help arm the rebels is informed at least in part by the fear that weapons may go to the wrong people–people like al-Hamad. “The bestial quality of the [al-Hamad] video confirms the basic proposition that civil wars are usually extraordinarily cruel,” says Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. National Security Adviser, who argues against giving rebels more military assistance. “That justifies caution in labeling one side as democratic and morally preferable and the other as sinful and deserving of extinction, and mitigates against external involvement.”

The footage and photographs posted online also defy the facile explanation, often trotted out by analysts, that the anti-Assad forces can be divided into two camps, a majority of well-intentioned rebels and a minority of Islamists from al-Nusra Front, a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda. Al-Hamad is neither: although he identifies himself as a member of the Salafist fundamentalist sect, he doesn’t fight for al-Nusra. But the FSA, an umbrella group that claims to control 90% of the rebel fighters, including al-Hamad’s brigade, wants no part of him either. Brigadier General Salim Idris, who heads the FSA’s military command, had not yet seen the video when he spoke with TIME on the phone from his base in Turkey but said that “these kinds of behaviors, the cutting of bodies, is not allowed.”

After the video was posted online, an FSA spokesperson portrayed al-Hamad as a regime stooge “pretending that he is in the FSA.” But a spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, another umbrella group that works closely with the FSA, told TIME there was no doubt that al-Hamad’s unit fell within the FSA. The coalition condemned al-Hamad’s actions in a statement: “The FSA is a national army above all, formed to defend civilians and deliver the Syrian people from the mentality of revenge and crime. It completely rejects the ill treatment of the wounded and the disfigurement of the dead.”

None of this consternation makes a jot of difference to al-Hamad, who argues that nobody outside the fight has the right to judge his actions. “You are not seeing what we are seeing, and you are not living what we are living,” he says. Al-Hamad is especially contemptuous of anti-Assad groups that, like the leadership of the FSA, operate from outside Syria. “Hopefully [I will] slaughter them and eat their hearts as well,” he says. As for his enemies on the battlefield, al-Hamad says he will soon release another gruesome video in which he claims to have cut up the body of another Assad soldier with a saw.

Online Eye for an Eye

Accounts of battlefield Atrocities have multiplied in recent months, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, but the sadistic tenor of this war was set in April 2011, just two months into the conflict, when a YouTube video showed the mutilated body of a 13-year-old protester who was apparently tortured and killed by Assad’s security forces. The footage showed the body pockmarked with cigarette burns, bruises and bullet holes; the boy’s neck and both kneecaps were broken, his penis severed. The video of the Boy Martyr Hamza, as he came to be widely known in the antiregime community, became a rallying cry for a popular uprising against a hated regime.

Footage of the regime’s atrocities abounds on YouTube and other sites. Videos and witness accounts recently obtained by human-rights-monitoring groups show and describe government-affiliated paramilitaries rampaging in early May through two villages–Baniyas and Al Badya, near the coastal area of central Syria–stabbing and burning scores of Sunni residents. Footage posted online by opposition groups from the area shows piles of burned, bloodied and partially mutilated corpses, including those of women and children. Activists have identified by name at least 140 victims, including about 20 members of one family. The Syrian government claimed that it had defeated “terrorist groups” and restored peace and security to the area.

Some videos appear to be posted by individual soldiers to demonstrate their toughness and frighten the rebels and their civilian supporters. One, posted to YouTube on May 6 and circulated on opposition Facebook pages, purports to show a Syrian soldier preparing to shoot a captive point-blank in the head. The soldier is speaking on the phone, it seems, to his mother. The woman’s voice can be heard saying, “I am hearing you, Ali.” As he pulls the trigger, the soldier says on the phone, “I will shoot a terrorist. Did you hear me, Mom?” Another video on an opposition site shows the savage beating to death of two men–identified as civilians–by regime thugs. An activist close to al-Hamad singled out that video as proof that the rebels are still better than the regime forces. “Our video shows only the torture of a dead body,” he says. “The regime tortures Syrians to death.”

Assad’s soldiers and their commanders may some day discover that these videos can be used against them in war-crimes trials. For the antiregime forces, the more immediate danger is that al-Hamad’s video and others showing atrocities by rebels are undermining their claim to the moral high ground in the fight against the dictator. “Such videos ruin our reputation, leading to a decrease in funding for the FSA,” says Colonel Fatih Hassoun, head of the Homs Front of the FSA.

The furor over the al-Hamad video comes at an especially delicate moment for the rebels as the Obama Administration weighs whether it should provide them with military aid. But even before the cannibalism, there was growing documented evidence of extrajudicial killings, torture and desecration by other rebels.

Man With a Reputation

Al-Hamad is commander of the independent Omar al-Farooq Brigade, a fighting force of uncertain numbers but fierce reputation in Homs. That city, and the neighborhood of Baba Amr in particular, has seen some of the most brutal fighting of the war, a legacy apparent in the reprisal-heavy footage coming out of the area. The video of al-Hamad biting into the soldier’s organs was filmed on March 26, according to embedded data retrieved by Human Rights Watch. It was smuggled over the Lebanese border by a rebel fighter close to al-Hamad who asked not to be identified for fear of speaking without permission. When he showed the video to TIME reporters some days before it was posted online, the fighter looked on with evident pride. “I don’t have a problem slaughtering the Alawites and eating their organs because of what I have seen from them,” he tells TIME. Two years of war, he says, have taken a psychological toll. “Many people have reached a point where they can do worse than Abu Sakkar.”

Rebels who have fought alongside al-Hamad describe him as a fearless combatant who honed his considerable battle skills in Iraq, fighting the U.S. military. But many Islamist fighters–and not just those in Syria–claim similar histories, which are impossible to substantiate. Al-Hamad says he fought in Iraq but isn’t sure whether he killed any Americans.

A construction worker by trade, he fought in February 2012 with a group known as al-Farooq Brigade, one of the FSA’s most effective units, during the battle for Baba Amr, a pivotal moment in the Syrian war. Al-Hamad was made commander of the rebels’ prison, where he earned grudging respect for his ability to extract intelligence from captured regime soldiers, often employing brute force. One rebel who fought in Baba Amr says that if al-Hamad suspected any captives of having killed his comrades, he would murder them.

In October 2012 al-Hamad took three of the most extreme units under his command in al-Farooq Brigade, split off from the group and named his new unit the Independent Omar al-Farooq Brigade, after a senior al-Qaeda operative killed in Iraq in 2006. Despite the name, the group has no formal ties to al-Qaeda or its Syrian affiliate, al-Nusra Front. Early victories against regime forces helped al-Hamad’s group amass a considerable array of rockets, trucks, guns and mortars, say other fighters. In rebel circles, a commander’s arsenal is as important as his leadership skills, if not more so.

By the time he made the video, al-Hamad’s exploits had attracted a sizable following online. His group has a slick website, complete with videos and photographs, poetic descriptions of battles won and lost and paeans to dead comrades. His supporters were quick to defend his desecration of the dead soldier, arguing that it was merely an act of revenge. Abu Jaafar Homs, a well-known antiregime activist in Homs, posted a photo of himself sitting next to al-Hamad and praised him for his bravery. He chastised those who were criticizing the commander: “No one is allowed to talk about Abu Sakkar.”

Al-Hamad never did swallow that piece of flesh. According to the fighter who smuggled the video out of Syria, the rebel commander spat it out off camera, much to the derision of his assembled audience. In the clip and in his interview with TIME, he describes the organ he bites as the soldier’s liver, but a surgeon in New York who studied the video at TIME’s request says it was the man’s lung. Such finer points are not relevant, to al-Hamad or his supporters. To his enemies, the video will undoubtedly represent a challenge: Now that the taboo of cannibalism has been smashed, what can they do to top it? In Syria’s spiralling madness, atrocity must be matched, and exceeded, by abomination. And above all, it must be captured on video for the world to see.

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