In "American Sniper," the wildly successful yet controversial film that tells the story of Chris Kyle, said to be the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, the titular marksman has a clear foe: A mysterious insurgent dubbed "Mustafa," believed to be a former Syrian Olympian.
While the film portrays Mustafa as a mighty rival to Kyle, in the autobiographical book upon which the film is based, Mustafa earns just one paragraph.“From the reports we heard, Mustafa was an Olympics marksman who was using his skills against Americans and Iraqi police and soldiers," Kyle wrote. "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.”
It's not clear who Mustafa was or if he ever existed, but there were similar legends of Iraqi insurgent snipers. Probably the most famous was that of "Juba," a sniper with the Sunni insurgent group Islamic Army in Iraq, whose exploits were touted in several videos released between 2005 and 2007. Some attributed scores, even hundreds, of kills to the sniper, and accounts from the time suggest that he got deep under U.S. troops' skins.
"He's good," Spec. Travis Burress, a sniper based in Camp Rustamiyah near Baghdad, told the Guardian in 2005. "Every time we dismount, I'm sure everyone has got him in the back of their minds. He's a serious threat to us."
According to ABC News, one video claiming to show "Juba" showed at least a dozen attacks on U.S. troops. In that video, the sniper claimed to have killed 143 U.S. service members. "He definitely knows what to do with a rifle," Maj. John Plaster, a retired Green Beret sniper instructor, told ABC upon seeing the tape. "And he has the judgment and discipline to take a shot, wisely choose an escape route, and immediately depart to avoid capture. This is not a zealot; this is a calculated shooter."
"Juba" even sent a message to the U.S. president in one video. "I have nine bullets in this gun and I have a present for George Bush," the sniper tells the camera. "I am going to kill nine people."
Snipers have long been a terrifyingly evocative feature of warfare: Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsev was said to have killed more than 200 Germans during the Battle of Stalingrad, though his famous duel with a German rival is probably a myth. Finnish sniper Simo Hayha became a national hero after he killed more than 500 Soviet soldiers during the 1939-1940 Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union
In Iraq, where much of the fighting was taking place in urban areas, U.S. troops seemed especially vulnerable to snipers. The Islamic Army in Iraq's distribution of DVDs showing the sniper operating in Baghdad seemed to be a successful act of psychological warfare.
After a couple of years, "Juba" seems to have ceased activity. Some have suggested that the sniper must have been killed, while others say that no one sniper ever actually existed. “Juba the Sniper? He’s a product of the U.S. military,” Capt. Brendan Hobbs told Stars and Stripes in 2007. “We've built up this myth ourselves.” Certainly, some of the higher death tolls attributed to Juba seem far-fetched.
However, the legend of Juba lives on online. Many videos claiming to show "Juba" in action still float around the Internet, purportedly showing the mysterious sniper picking off American personnel. At one point, there was even a Web site and blog that claimed to have been set up by the "Baghdad sniper" with messages in English and French. A few years ago, rumors circulated on conspiracy Web sites that "Juba" had been – shock! – an Israeli agent all along.
Much like the Mustafa of "American Sniper," at some point the legend of Juba seems to have become intertwined with that of Chris Kyle. Kyle is said to have had his own nickname among the insurgents – "The Devil of Ramadi" – and his high kill rate likely struck fear into them. When Alex Horton, a former infantryman in Iraq, wrote a remembrance of Kyle for the New York Times, he referenced the Iraqi sniper.
"For American troops, Juba was a terror, but for the insurgents, he must have been a comforting legend," Horton wrote. "I’m willing to bet Iraqi insurgents had the same debates and fears about the Devil of Ramadi that we did about Juba."