The video starts out like so many of the dozens coming out of the war in Syria every day, with the camera hovering over the body of a dead Syrian soldier. But the next frame makes it clear why this video, smuggled out of the city of Homs and into Lebanon with a rebel fighter, and obtained by TIME in April, is particularly shocking. In the video a man who is believed to be a rebel commander named Khalid al-Hamad, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Sakkar, bends over the government soldier, knife in hand. With his right hand he moves what appears to be the dead man’s heart onto a flat piece of wood or metal lying across the body. With his left hand he pulls what appears to be a lung across the open cavity in the man’s chest. According to two of Abu Sakkar’s fellow rebels, who said they were present at the scene, Abu Sakkar had cut the organs out of the man’s body. The man believed to be Abu Sakkar then works his knife through the flesh of the dead man’s torso before he stands 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 Syrian President Bashar Assad. Off camera, a small crowd can be heard calling out “Allahu akbar” — God is great. Then the man raises one of the bloodied organs to his lips and starts to tear off a chunk with his teeth.
Two TIME reporters first saw the video in April in the presence of several of Abu Sakkar’s fighters and supporters, including his brother. They all said the video was authentic. We later obtained a copy. Since then TIME has been trying to ensure that the footage is not digitally manipulated in any way — a faked film like this would be powerful propaganda for the regime, which portrays the rebels as terrorists — and, as yet, TIME has not been able to confirm its integrity. Abu Sakkar has not commented on whether the man in the video is indeed him because he is currently fighting on the front lines in Syria, according to fighters under his command. The video became public on May 12 when it was posted online by a proregime group and is indeed now being used as propaganda by regime supporters (and has already been shared 1,115 times on Facebook and has over 46,000 views on YouTube). These 27 seconds of footage provide a glimpse at how brutal the Syrian war has become — and a startling example of how technology appears to be fueling that brutality.
War is rarely anything but violent, but in Syria, where more than 70,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict since it started as a peaceful uprising inspired by the Arab Spring more than two years ago, the savagery has reached ghoulish proportions. And it seems that soldiers on both sides of the war are committing what appear to be crimes of war at least in part so that those acts can be viewed on the Internet. The ubiquity of camera phones and social media are enabling a mixture of propaganda, intimidation and boastful exhibitionism. In this, the first YouTube war, videos have driven the conflict even as they document its horrors.