I recently finished Wafaa Bilal's autobiography/project diary Shoot an Iraqi. Netizens may remember Bilal's "Domestic Tension" project: a conceptual art piece in which the Iraqi-American Bilal spent a month living in a small room with a paintball gun that remote Internet users could control and fire (pictured above). Bilal created the piece after receiving the news that his brother had been killed in Iraqi, the civilian victim on an airstrike that had been targeted by a Predator drone.
Though not horror (though, in many ways, horrifying) Shoot an Iraqi was my introduction to the curious story of Abu Tubar.
The name Iraqi name Abu Tubar presents some translation problems. Given alternately as "the Man with the Axe," "Father or the Axe," "Father of the Hatchet," or "the One with the Axe," the tricky part seems to be how you translate "abu." Often "abu" means "father of" in a literal, genealogical sense, but it can also express linkages that are not genetic. For example, the famed poet Qais is sometimes referred to as Abu Leila, after his muse. In fact, the links implied by the use of abu can get downright weird. For example, Isa (or Jesus) is sometimes identified as Abu Mariam, which implies he's Mary's father and not her son. To confuse matters, titles using abu are often given as nicknames or used as generic slang terms (in some regions of Iraq, all soldiers are known as Abu Khaleel, the title of the religious figure Abraham, and cops are called Abu Ismael, the title of Ishmael). Confused yet? Wait. Abu can also "owner of" or "the one with." Sometimes this association work through synecdoche: power, light, and water meter readers are often called Abu Electricity, "the one with the electricity."
Regardless of how one translates it, Abu Tubar was the nickname the residents of Baghdad gave to what they believed to be their first serial killer.
In 1971, Iraq was going through a massive cultural shift. Back in 1958, the military overthrew the monarchy that ruled Iraq, leaving leadership in the hands of an anti-British, pro-Soviet military dictator. He was himself overthrown in 1963 by another military coup. In 1969, the government changed hands again. The ruling dictator was toppled by the Ba'ath Party, a secular pan-Arab socialist political organization with roots in Syria. Americans would come to identify this "party" as little more than the bureaucracy of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship; but at the time, Hussein was only the deputy to the party's president. Still, though he would not come into power for nearly a decade, Saddam's rise is part of this story.
The pre-Saddam years were an odd mix of promise and paranoia. With its officially secular and pan-Arabic outlook, the Ba'ath party could be considered progressive, especially in contrast to the religious revolution that shook neighboring Iran to its foundations. However, as a one party system born out of a revolutionary effort against a military dictatorship, the government of Iraq tended towards a grim brand of slapstick Orwellianism.
It was during this paradoxical moment, as the party both pushed toward modernism and attempted to clamp down on the hearts and minds of all Iraqis, that Abu Tubar appeared in Baghdad.
From The First Evidence, the memoir of Juman Kubba:
He was the mysterious serial killer of Baghdad in the early Seventies who murdered whole families together and marked the walls with their blood. He was vicious and savage like an animal. He chopped people up and beheaded them, dismembered them; he threw parts of their bodies all over the house. The crime scenes were ugly and bloody. Baghdadis, the citizens of Baghdad, had never seen such a savage series of crimes before, at least in the recent past. In fact, Baghdad used to be relatively; such things did not happen . . .
These Abu Tubar crimes were serious and everyone in the city was occupied with worry and fear. You never knew where or when he would strike. People were fearful and cautious and did not go out alone. The lively city of Baghdad was paralyzed. A sense of doom spread over all homes. Many homeowners trimmed bushes and trees around their houses to keep the area clear of hideouts and added more lights and left them on all night to feel safe. No one went out by himself or herself, no one stayed out late . . .
The authorities were seemingly powerless in the face of this thug. Everybody was talking about Abu Tubar and the events that had rocked the city and brought it to such a fearful state.
Kubba describes Abu Tubar's MO:
The typical crime of Abu Tubar would start with a suspicious phone call by him or one of his "aides." He picked times when people were alone at home. The caller would engage the would-be victim in a useless conversation, threatening and cursing, and then there would be a knock on the door. The victim of their child might answer the door and Abu Tubar, masked and strong and carrying his bloody ax, would overpower the victim or her children and commence his bloodshed. The crime scenes were often marked with vengeful words or comments written on the walls in the blood of the victims. He also often killed people and dumped them in some remote area of Baghdad.
Powerless to stop the killings, a special cross-departmental anti-Abu Tubar task force, including local police, secret police staff members, and civilian organizers and investigators, was established. Juman Kubba's father, identified in her memoir as "Makki," was tasked with running a center that would collect and investigate phone calls offering tips to the identity and location of Abu Tubar. Not long after its creation, the phone center began to clash with the Ba'athist Party leadership. Leads were dismissed arbitrarily by party leaders and, during the investigation's lowest point, the center was invaded and ransacked by the "bodyguards" of party officials (a militarized security force under the command of Saddam). Investigators assumed that the hostility they faced was due to the fact that many of them, including Makki, were not Ba'athist.
Things came to a head when somebody claiming to Abu Tubar phoned the call center. Like all notable serial killers, Abu Tubar apparently could not resist the urge to boast. Once investigators realized who was on the phone, they traced the call. It was placed from inside the Presidential Palace in Baghdad.
When Makki attempted to follow up on this lead, his team was disbanded and he was thrown into Abu Ghraib.
By now, you can probably guess the horrific punchline.
In 1973, the notorious murderer was apprehended and the slaughter stopped. Bilal recalls watching news of Abu Tubar's capture:
Once the killings were finished they [the Ba'athist authorities - CRwM] made a big display of Abu Tubar's capture, parading him before TV cameras wearing a white lab coat splattered with blood. His wife confessed that she would see him come home every day covered in blood. Even as a child I found it ridiculous – if you were an axe murderer, why would you put on a white medical coat?
We didn't learn until later that "Abu Tubar" was actually Saddam's security service, killing communists, educated people, dissidents, anyone who might stand in Saddam's way.