Iraq’s hatchet man: International smuggler, serial killer and secret police?

The hatchet man descends on Baghdad

Hatem Kazem Al-Hadum, who would later be known as Abu Tubar or the hatchet man, returned to Baghdad after years of criminal escapades across Europe in the early 1970s. His murderous rampage in Iraq soon spread like wildfire.

In early 1973 he killed a Jewish man in the Batawi neighborhood, who he mistakenly thought to have been rich, when in fact the poor man had nothing. His next murders were far more ambitious, with his nephew Hussein Ali Hassoun joining him as an accomplice, and his wife and her two brothers eventually taking part too.  

Abu Tubar (top right) and his murderous gang

For his second murder-robbery, Abu Tubar killed Majida Al-Hamami along with her husband Rashid Murad Rashid in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad. After casing the house, he overpowered Majida when she answered the door, subduing her and forcing her to tell him where they kept their valuables. When she refused, he killed her with one blow to the head with his weapon of choice – confusingly, all his murders were done with a metal pipe and not a hatchet despite his nickname. The killers only found a few small pieces of jewelry.

For his third crime, he killed Bashir Al-Sultan, who was a retired Kirkuk police chief, along with his family, on 9th April 1973. The political connotation of this murder would be gravely discussed for decades. Abu Tubar and his gang scouted the victims’ house from 1 p.m. to 2 a.m., from the garden of an abandoned neighboring house. Once they were confident that their victims were asleep, they climbed up the roof and made their way into the house through an open window. They killed Bashir, his wife, their 12-year-old son, as well as his nephew.

With every new murder the fear on the streets of Baghdad grew like a fever, as did Abu Tubar’s bravado. Only later was it discovered that he managed to evade police so easily because he had access to the radio frequencies of the secret police, staying one step ahead of them.

In late September 1973, he killed the family of Jean Ernest in the Karada Mariam area near the Republican Palace. Previously a police officer, Abu Tubar deftly surveilled the house beforehand, and his attack was as vicious as ever. With the help of his nephew Hatem, Abu Tubar killed Jean, his wife and their two daughters, all with blows to the head, departing with all the jewelry and cash that they had at home. Some of the victims must have put up a fight, because police noted the presence of blood that didn’t belong to the family. Later testing revealed that it was Abu Tubar’s nephew’s blood.

The last murder that he confessed to was, perplexingly, that of a barber, whom he killed and robbed of his cash, but also his furniture and carpets. During his confession, Abu Tubar would claim that he killed the barber because they disagreed on the price of a haircut.

By the end of his onslaught his official death toll stood at 12, but he was largely believed to have murdered many more.

By late 1973 the search for the hatchet man reached a fervor that encompassed a city-wide curfew, a manhunt (that he himself took part in!) and extensive police searches. Ominously, these searches were utilized by the ruling party as an underhanded way of arresting and eliminating dissidents, malcontents and those who spoke of anything but adoration to Saddam Hussein.

French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, left, and Saddam Hussein sign an agreement in December 1974. Source.

This intense public focus on catching this abhorred criminal only lasted until the October 1973 war between Egypt and Israel, which was possibly the only thing that could have made Iraqis forget about Abu Tubar. Interestingly, he was largely inactive from October 1973 until his capture in September 1974, with some reports suggesting that he must have taken part in the war, although no official records corroborate this claim.

He was finally caught when a witness reported a suspicious man loitering in the garden of a nearby abandoned house. Police arrived and arrested Abu Tubar, and when they searched his home they found his bloody bounty that tied him to the crimes above. During his interrogation he confessed, saying that he killed his victims to “set them free.”

He was executed by hanging at 5 am on the 8th October 1974, after the first two attempts at execution failed earlier that day.

How did this bizarre man become the boogieman of Baghdad in the 1970s? To understand the mystery of Abu Tubar, we must examine his past, as well as Iraq’s history.  

The making of a criminal

Born in 1932 in the town of Musayib in the Babel province to a notable family, Al-Hadum’s first real job was as a policeman in 1951, although he was fired only a year later for “professional misconduct” – an ominous prediction for what was to follow. Undeterred by this set back, he completed his high school education in the same year and joined the Iraqi Air Force Academy, only to be dismissed in his third year as a cadet for deliberating and recklessly damaging a training aircraft. After a brief 2-year stint in neighboring Kuwait in 1957, Abu Tubar returned to his homeland and took a job as a collections accountant in Kirkuk, until he was once again dismissed, this time for misappropriating state funds which led to a two-year prison sentence.

Figuring his good luck had run out in Iraq, Abu Tubar, after forging a clean criminal background check, travelled to Europe in 1962, where his startling transformation really took flight.

Travelling between Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Italy and working based in Munich, Abu Tubar smuggled arms and vehicles from Germany and Belgium to Greece, Turkey and Syria, where he amassed more connections, more charges and a ballooning criminal record.

It takes quite a stretch of the imagination to accept that an Iraqi Air Force drop out and petty embezzler could find himself by mere chance or force of will, as an international arms dealer and smuggler, all without some sort of state-backing, or other serious machinations. Although no evidence exists to back this claim, it would be wise to at least consider the possibility that his rise as a criminal did not correlate with Saddam’s rise to power by mere chance, that he was in fact working with Saddam or his Ba’ath Party in some capacity as a clandestine state actor.

This is all the more perplexing given his unclear ties to Saddam, having been photographed at least once with the former dictator.

Abu Tubar (right) and Saddam Hussein

How a serial killer was used to justify secret police

In the 1970s, Iraq was on the precipice of a state-induced paranoia that would flood its collective psyche for decades to come, exploding into near-hysteria after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This diffuse sense of distrust was not unfounded. The Iraqi Secret Police conducted incredibly pervasive surveillance, including forcing citizens to sell their properties that were then converted into surveillance centers.

Photography was always suspect (much like modern day Egypt) especially without written pre-authorization from the Ministry of Interior, even taking a picture of something as innocuous and cliched as the Tigris at sunset. No one was considered innocent, and everyone was watched, measured and dispatched as needed. While so little is known of these institutions, thanks to their secretive nature, the Secret Police’s omnipotence and omnipresence cannot be separated from Iraqi politics at the time, which in turn, can’t be extricated from the murders of Abu Tubar, who was literally and figuratively, the manifestation of the subversive underbelly of state control. A pioneering example of state-sponsored terror as a tool of mass manipulation.  

Understanding Iraq’s social and political atmosphere and its ruling Ba’ath Party in the 70s, as well as the undercurrent of fear that hummed its way through daily life then, is critical to understanding how someone like Al-Hadum could commit brazen robberies and kill entire families in the process, despite the suffocating surveillance of an Iraqi police state at the pinnacle of its power.  

Turbulent times

While hardly ever serene, the true turbulence in Iraq’s modern history arguably began with the 1958 military coup d’état that overthrew the British-backed Hashemite monarchy, breaking Iraq’s 6-month old union with Jordan, and ending the reign of King Faisal II, as well as his life. Abd al-Karim Qasim led the revolution and held onto power as Prime Minister until 1963, when he was overthrown and killed in the Ramadan Revolution. In 1968, Saddam’s Ba’ath Party came to power in yet another coup, although this time bloodless, his grip unrelinquished until the U.S. invasion of Iraq forty years later.

This historical context is pivotal in understanding the equally unsettled life of Abu Tubar. By looking at the environment that spawned him, we can gain a clearer vision of how he went from a life of petty crime, to an international weapons smuggler, to an intelligent robber and vicious murderer.

How a failed coup helped create Baghdad’s boogieman

Nadhim Kzar was the first chief of Iraq’s Internal State Security, or secret police. Appointed to this position by Saddam in 1969, Kzar was a ruthless, hard man, favoring force as his preferred method of control above all else, especially in relation to the Kurds in Iraq. During his tenure, the secret police was responsible for the killings of a few thousand people, mainly Kurds and communists.

Nadhim Kzar

But by July 1973 he was executed along with 35 others, after Kzar took the minsters of interior and defense as hostages and planned on assassinating the president, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr. When his coup failed, he attempted to flee to nearby Iran but when he was cornered by the police in pursuit, he killed both ministers. The whole terrible incident was used as a perfect predicate to purge the party of any dissent.

With the state of the secret police in disarray and under unusually heavy scrutiny, it is hardly a coincidence then, that Abu Tubar was allowed to unleash havoc on the people of Baghdad as a means of reasserting the need for this oppressive, ultimately failing state entity.  

Fomenting fear

To appreciate the extent and intensity of the enormous paranoia and fear that was paralyzed the residents of Baghdad thanks to Abu Tubar, one only has to look at a first-hand accounts:

“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. People came home as soon as they could; they locked their doors.” – From Juman Kubba’s book “The First Evidence: A Memoir of Life in Iraq Under Saddam Hussein”

Today, his dark imprint still leaves destructive traces, with an active gang in Baghdad known for armed robbery, calling themselves Abu Tubar’s Gang.


Republic of Fear, Kanan Makiya, 1998

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