With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

We Had American Sniper Chris Kyle. The Enemy Had Juba the Baghdad Sniper.

The ultimate nemesis in the recent Hollywood blockbuster America Sniper is a semi-mythical Arab sniper known as “Mustafa” who systematically wreaks havoc on US troops in Iraq. Not only does he kill the friend of elite US SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (powerfully played by Bradley Cooper), but he preys on US troops, remorselessly picking them off one after another. The scenes of American troops being killed from afar by the unseen Arab gunman are as heart wrenching for movie-goers as the scenes of Chris Kyle picking off menacing Iraqi insurgents are uplifting. Kyle-Cooper feels he cannot leave the US soldiers on patrol on the rubble-strewn streets below his rooftop “overwatch,” until he kills his Iraqi-Syrian bane. Thus a timeless rivalry is born and played out in the killing streets of Iraq.

But is there any real historical basis for this pulse-pounding plot of two shooters from different worlds in an epic rivalry in the concrete jungles of Ramadi and Fallujah? As in much of this ode to American soldierly valor, there has been considerable liberty taken in creating an American legend. In his best-selling book, which formed the basis for the movie, Chris Kyle writes of Mustafa sparsely, stating only “From the reports we heard, Mustafa was an Olympics marksman who was using his skills against Americans and Iraqi police and soldiers. Several videos had been made and posted, boasting of his ability. I never saw him, but other snipers later killed an Iraqi sniper we think was him.”

There is no proof that “Mustafa” ever existed and I have never found any online videos of Mustafa in my research on the insurgency, but there seems to be more basis for the existence of a legendary Iraqi sniper named Juba. Aspiring young jihadi-wannabes and Arab online jihadists thrilled to the exploits of Juba the Sniper starting in 2005. His deeds of marksmanship were brutally conveyed in four online propaganda videos posted by his cameraman on YouTube and elsewhere. The exploits of Juba have been held up as a mirror to those of Chris Kyle and provide a unique enemy perspective on a costly war that many on both sides are still trying to make sense of. Like the story of Chris Kyle, the creation of the legend of Juba also tells us much about the society that forged him. But who was the semi-mythical Iraqi sniper who went by the kunya or nom de guerre of Juba?

The Making of an Iraqi Sniper Legend

Most of what we know about Juba the Sniper of Baghdad comes from the videos posted online by the Iraqi insurgent group ‘The Islamic Army in Iraq.’ These videos typically show American troops on foot patrol or in the turret of a Humvee or tank through the lenses of a long range Iraqi sniper scope. Seconds later the unknowing American’s head jerks back as he is killed by Juba’s bullet or he simply collapses to the ground.

The online videos demonstrate that Juba, who boasted of having killed thirty-seven Americans, had an uncanny ability to find the weak spot on his target and succeeded over and over again in killing his victims, despite their protective helmets and flak jackets. In one heart-rending scene, an American soldier on patrol is shot from afar by Juba and collapses in the street. When one of his comrades bravely rushes to drag his friend into an alley for protection, he too is picked off by a shot to the neck. Watching the tragic last seconds of these doomed American soldiers, it is difficult to comprehend that this is no video game or Hollywood movie, you are watching your countrymen die brutal deaths at the hands of a deadly Iraqi sniper.

As word of Juba’s videos began to spread among US troops operating in his area, it had an adverse effect on morale. Travis Burress a sniper with the I-64 battalion based in Camp Rustamiyah said of Juba "He's good. Every time we dismount I'm sure everyone has got him in the back of their minds. He's a serious threat to us." Lt Col Kevin Farrell said of one sniper incident attributed to Juba. "It was the perfect shot. Blew out the spine. We have different techniques to try to lure him out, but he is very well trained and very patient. He doesn't fire a second shot.” Woody Baird, a twenty year member of the elite Green Berets recalls talk among his fellow Green Berets who served in Iraq. According to this source, “One of the guys who was a lot deeper in the black side said he knew of Juba in Ramadi. [He] said when he was operating there you did not stay out in the open very long if you wanted to stay alive.”

It is not surprising that the wider strategic impact of Juba on US patrols on the streets of Iraq, by all accounts, far surpassed his more limited tactical impact. Just knowing Juba was out there was a form of psychological warfare and a victory for the other side. And taking out a sniper to end this overarching psychological and tactical threat could prove to be incredibly difficult.

Master Sergeant Karl Erickson, Director of Special Projects at Tier One Group, a Green Beret who partook in nine deployments, recalls the incredible lengths his A Team and some Navy SEALs went in order to kill an Iraqi sniper in Najaf, Iraq. The Iraqi was using a Russian-made SVD sniper rifle that shot armor-piercing rounds that were able to penetrate concrete walls of surrounding buildings. It was only by surreptitiously making spy holes in the walls of a neighboring building where they were hiding that the SEALs found that he was operating from a nearby abandoned parking garage. Ultimately it was decided that the only way to kill him without exposing US troops to his deadly bullets was to call in an airstrike of two thousand pound JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) on the garage. Erickson stresses that this overwhelming response was the exception and he found that the most effective way to defeat enemy snipers was with an allied Iraqi Army force known as Task Force Raptor. This elite unit was the Iraqi equivalent to the US Delta Force and was armed with M 24 sniper rifles and night vision goggles. Erickson stated that Juba moved on from his own area in Ramadi when the TF Raptor snipers were deployed against him because they had better weapons and training. Erickson recalls that Juba did not want to “play tag” with this elite unit, but reappeared elsewhere to ply his deadly trade.

To find out more about the macro impact of even one legendary sniper like Juba on our troops, I interviewed Martin Novia of Daemon International, a retired US Army Green Beret who has operated in Afghanistan while working on contract for various government agencies. As an intelligence specialist, Novia put considerable thought into analyzing not just the tactical, but also the strategic impact of snipers like the legendary Juba. According to this source, when it comes to skilled snipers, whether it be ours or theirs, “it’s not about the gun, it’s about the message.” Juba, Kyle, and other snipers send powerful messages not only to those who are in their direct area of operations, but to those in the wider theater of combat. They tell those in their direct crosshairs that they can’t “own” the streets like they would like to and they “bog down the enemy, deny him terrain, eat up his time and resources and channelize him in directions he may not want to go.”

In the wider sense, snipers have tremendous propaganda value as well. If you have a skilled marksman like Juba or Chris Kyle, or the famous Russian sniper Vasily Zaytsev who was propagandized by the Soviets for killing two hundred and twenty five German soldiers in the siege of Stalingrad, you exploit his success to inspire your own troops and intimidate the enemy. According to Novia, a chosen sniper also provides a face and a rallying point for average troops and personalizes killing in wars that are often impersonal. Snipers have far more cachet than remote controlled IEDs (which killed far more Americans in Iraq), because they are heroes. In the case of Juba, Novia points out the enemy has “leveraged his exploits and is getting considerable mileage for recruitment even after his death, just as Kyle’s exploits have helped in recruitment here in the U.S.”

As for “leveraging” his fame, one has only to type in “Juba the sniper” in Google or YouTube to see evidence of his bloody handiwork and its use as a sick propaganda tool by everyone from Al Qaeda to ISIS, which recently created a Juba Sniper Unit to honor him. As this is the Internet, there is usually a “Comments” section on the sites hosting his videos and this has become a battleground for his supporters and opponents. A typical message of support came from Wakkar Shaffi who wrote “Hahaha, hope all u American pussy soldiers get blasted punk bitches.” A message from Kaysar Jabari states “A true Iraqi hero!! God bless you juba you my Iraqi brother for killing these American infidel pigs.”

Clearly Juba’s supporters see in him a role model who “stands up” to the seemingly invincible American “infidels,” much as Zarqawi the “Butcher of Baghdad” did before his death in 2006. With the release and success of American Sniper, Juba’s fans have held him up as a counterpoint to Chris Kyle. One supporter wrote, “long live Juba, Allah Ekber. Every soldiers [sic] of Allah keep shooting the infidels. I grow [sic] up watching Juba kill Yankees Allah Ekber. They made a movie called sniper Chris Kyle LOL. Chris Kyle is full of shit. Juba, Juba, Juba is the man. 1 bullet, two Bush, Allah Ekber.” A video game-style cartoon video honoring Juba was even created by Juba.tv based on Juba’s exploits that recreates his semi-mythical shots on American troops in Iraq, as well as a comic book.

One can glean much about Juba’s modus operandi from his viral videos. Unlike Chris Kyle, who did most of his shooting from rooftops, for example, Juba appeared to drive around like the Beltway Sniper shooting at his unaware victims from the street level. The tactical approach used by Juba in his videos led Woody Baird to comment: “The video shows a lot of conventional guys getting whacked. From the ranges the shots were taken from and the targets, this wouldn’t have taken a very skilled shooter. Those conventional troops were sitting-ducks.”

According to the producers of his videos, Juba also eschewed the Russian made Dragunov sniper rifle used by most Iraqi snipers and instead utilized an Iraqi produced Tabuk sniper rifle. This is a less accurate rifle with a shorter range than the ones used by American snipers according to Erickson. As for Juba’s training, ironically a person named only as the “Commander” claimed on a video that Iraqi snipers learned from a widely available American manual by Major John L Plaister titled Ultimate Sniper.

In several videos attributed to Juba or an unnamed Iraqi shooter, a sniper talks with his spotter or cameraman. In one sequence his spotter warns: "People are around them. Want me to find another place?" The sniper responds, "No, no. Give me a moment.” Then, after a pause, the camera captures the sound of a gunshot and an American gunner in a vehicle slumping forward as the sniper says “Allahu Akbar.” In another video, Juba proclaims "I have nine bullets in this gun and I have a present for George Bush. I am going to kill nine people."

As for those like film director Michael Moore who has implied that snipers are cowards, Novia says, “If you are fighting fair, you are fighting wrong. You have to take advantage of every option available to you and your team, including snipers. Snipers are cheap, deadly and effective.”

What surprises Robert Michael McCue, General Manager of MILO Range Training Systems, a former NCO from the US Army's elite 1st Ranger Battalion, is the fact that Juba was so deadly and effective, without all the advanced training that his American counterparts receive. The US military goes to great lengths to train its troops to kill as a job and see their enemies as merely “targets.” McCue himself was trained and qualified to use the Rangers’ designated sniper rifle known as the M 21, but confessed that he was “quietly unsure if I could ever really make that kind of precise and skilled shot in a real-world situation under stress.” McCue was never called on to make that shot and instead ended up working in the defense technology industry specializing in weapons simulator training systems in the rapidly developing, computer-driven field of virtual reality. It is in this hi-tech setting that today’s military and police snipers are “inoculated” into becoming precision killers by companies like MILO.

McCue shed some light on this virtual reality training process that is rarely discussed by outsiders:

[Sniper trainees] may have been tasked to make dozens or hundreds of successful "shots" in the simulator, so when they are placed into actual battle they have a frame of reference for that experience, and a certain psychological "inoculation" that stems from computer-based, "synthetic" virtual engagements that they participated in before. These are not "gun nuts" out to avenge 9/11--they are quiet professionals in every sense of the word--highly trained, well-equipped and given training that reduces mistakes and increases the outcome of success in the battles we ask them to fight on our behalf.

But not everyone who aspires to be a sniper is cut out for this psychologically demanding task. McCue stresses “An average kid playing HALO III in his living room kills thousands of people in a simulated graphic environment—does that mean he could make a head shot in the real world when we ask him to under stress and uncertain circumstances? We train them in these simulators to be machine-like.”

Which brings up the case of Juba who seems to have had the ability to make head shots under stressful circumstances. McCue, and others in his profession, are as mystified by the “inoculation” of Juba as they are impressed by his skill. McCue explains:

Sniper Juba presents a paradox--we have to assume he had none of the training, or the technological dissection of the physics of every shot he made in practice, nor any of the psychological inoculation we provide our troops in these expensive synthetic simulator environments. Yet he was able to successfully complete the same missions against our forces that our trained Navy Seals and Army Rangers conducted against theirs. How then, without this advantage, was he "successful?" I'd have to assume he shared the same quiet personal qualities of our designated snipers who have a determination to succeed, a desire to overwatch and protect other soldiers and sailors from afar, and to contain and stop threats that could hurt others and mean mission failure. These qualities are not in the uniform or the equipment--but in the heart and the mind of the mind of the man.

McCue, Baird, Erickson and Novia all stressed, however, that that they felt that, regardless of the origin of his skills, not all of the kills attributed to Juba (his supporters have raised the ante and claimed he killed up to over 100) were really his. According to Baird, “Speculation is [that] there was more than one Juba. My estimation is the bad guys were running a psychological operation attempting to terrorize the conventional forces by promoting a super sniper.”

As more and more videos of the mysterious Juba (or Jubas) appeared online, many in the military began to similarly suspect that he was a composite of several snipers. Regardless, after producing four jihadi kill videos, a sniper named Juba was reported to have been “martyred” after being betrayed in 2007. A nasheed (song glorifying jihad) was posted on YouTube soon thereafter commemorating the life of a man named Celebi Osman who was said to be the notorious Juba. This site ultimately garnered more than 275,000 hits, with many people writing in the Comments section “Allah u Akbar.”

But there were other Jubas or “Mustafas” waiting in the wings to take the slain shooters’ places. One of them, Abu Othman, gave an extraordinary interview to the Times of London. In his interview, Abu Othman spoke of one sniping incident:

"I put my trust in God," he said. "My only feeling was that I must kill him [an American soldier]. Everything was ready. I looked into my scope and saw movement from the hole in the wall. I fired and waited.”

"There was silence from his side. I wasn't even sure whether I'd got him. Some other mujaheddin threw a few grenades at the house where he was positioned and when there was still no response they stormed the place. They found him dead on the rooftop with a bullet in his face."

What drives him to keep killing? "When I snipe at my target and watch him drop, I feel elated - dizzy with ecstasy. I fall on the ground, shouting to God, calling 'Allahu akbar', for God is indeed great," he said. "When their snipers kill one of us, we go to heaven as martyrs, but when we kill them they go to hell."

What Does the Story of Juba Tell Us?

And thus the cycle of violence continued as Juba, Abu Othman, Mustafa and scores of other Iraqi snipers appearing in Islamic Army in Iraq videos made the Americans pay a steep price for coming uninvited into their land. There is much to take away from this remarkable story about an Arab fighter whose exploits are as unfamiliar to most Americans as they are familiar to Arabs. The ways that Juba has been martyrized by his followers, for example, mirrors the lionization of his American equivalent Chris Kyle and says as much about his society as the success of American Sniper says about ours. One does not need to be a moral relativist to understand that both men fought for a cause they fervently believed in and are revered by their respective sides. While Juba has not been memorialized with a holiday (as Chris Kyle has in Texas), nor has he had a blockbuster movie made about him, he clearly has a place in the pantheon of modern jihadist legends alongside Abu Omar al Shishani (ISIS’s top military commander), Jalaluddin Haqqani (a bloodthirsty Taliban leader), Shamil Basayev (a notorious Chechen field commander), Zarqawi, Bin Laden, and countless others whose names are not known to Americans.

Like Kyle, the metric of Juba’s success lay in the number of people he methodically killed. Neither sniper’s backers seem to question the glorification of someone whose fame rests on systematically tallying confirmed kills. One can imagine that an angry Sunni in Fallujah on his computer watching Juba’s online killing of Americans exults in his bloody exploits much as the American audiences do when they cheer for Kyle’s kills. In neither case is there much introspection about the morality or justification of the act of killing an enemy who is defined in reductionist terms as someone who exists simply to be killed.

One does not watch American Sniper for a deep critique of the rightness or wrongness of starting a war based on flimsy evidence of a WMD program, nor does one watch Juba’s kill videos to find soul searching about the bloody cult of jihadi violence that has emerged in post US invasion Iraq. While there are bound to be some moralists on both sides who wring their hands at the fact that America and Iraq have made heroes of men whose craft lays in killing in cold blood from afar, they are clearly the minority. Those who have made legends of fighters like Kyle and Juba rarely concern themselves with such vexing ethical issues. Over a decade of war in Iraq has clearly anesthetized both societies and generated a need to create war heroes to make sense of it all.

The need to create heroes has been made all the more urgent by the senseless brutality of the Iraq conflict and the fact it never achieved a decisive victory like World War II. For his supporters, Chris Kyle’s return to Iraq on repeated tours to protect his troops under his watch puts a gloss over such dark stains as the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and the massacre of Iraqi civilians by Marines and Blackwater contractors in Haditha and Baghdad. For his supporters, Juba’s killing of “infidel Crusader invaders” with his deadly rifle makes up for the even worse excesses of the insurgents, such as the Al Qaeda torture chambers discovered by the Marines in Fallujah, unbearably gruesome video-taped beheadings with knives, death squads who used power drills to kill “apostates” and “collaborators,” bloody sectarian ethnic cleansing, and suicide bombing massacres of innocent civilians. Juba, by contrast, is presented as a noble paladin and a 21st century iteration of the great Muslim warrior Saladin. This serves to whitewash an insurgency that descended into a Medieval level of barbarity that the legendary Saladin would have never countenanced in his struggle with the real Crusaders.

As in the story of Chris Kyle, which has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, there are, however, certainly questions about whether or not Juba really was a noble Saladin with a sniper rifle or something darker. Was he a sadistic serial killer who supported Zarqawi’s death cult or was he a patriot defending his land from invaders who came from across the globe to his neighborhood. Did Juba carry a childhood Quran with him in battle the way Kyle carried his first Bible? Did he have a wife and children, love his comrades, suffer from PTSD and a have burning sense of desire to be “part of something bigger” that Kyle said he had? Did he share Kyle’s lack of guilt about “neutralizing” the “bad guys” and a clearly demarcated view of the war as one between “savages” and his own righteous side? Kyle stated “everyone I shot at was evil. They all deserved to die.” Did Juba share that same Manichean certitude?

We will likely never really know Juba’s motivations as he never wrote a best-selling autobiography nor had a movie directed by Clint Eastwood about him play in hundreds of multiplexes across the U.S. and abroad. (American Sniper even debuted in Baghdad for one tumultuous showing.) Juba has disappeared from the face of the earth like so many other nameless Iraqi insurgents who died in the tens of thousands in the war. There was no parade or commemorative ceremony in a crowded Dallas stadium with a JumboTron photo collage of him (as in the case of Kyle) because Juba was killed in a time of intense war with US troops dominating the streets of his hometown. Juba was most likely buried in an unmarked grave in some dusty desert town in the Sunni Triangle and lives on only in the minds of his immediate family and on the Internet. He thus never had the chance to become a fully realized national hero and icon for millions like Chris Kyle.

Other than that, there is perhaps no deeper meaning to this story of Juba the Iraqi counterpart to the American Sniper whose myth continues to live on as a rather pale imitation of Kyle’s epic Hollywood legend.Both lived violent lives fighting for what they believed in and died violent deaths. But there is in the story of Juba the Sniper of Baghdad a salient lesson to be had for the majority of Americans who recent polls say now support sending US troops back into Iraq to fight the hybrid terrorist group/army known as ISIS in hellholes like Fallujah and Ramadi. As the tragic deaths of almost 4,500 Americans at the hands of determined Iraqi fighters demonstrates, the killing goes both ways and the streets of Iraq’s towns are crawling with insurgents, suicide bombers, and IED-planters. Among those out to kill Americans are bound to be Iraqi snipers, like the deadly Juba, who are just as dedicated to their “righteous” goal of taking American lives in the defense of their sect, faith, cities and homeland as Chris Kyle was to his own mission.