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.