FALLUJAH, IRAQ – Standing on-stage in front of a large crowd, Dawud Muhammad makes a quick assessment of his audience.
Addressing a large pudgy man sitting in front of him, he asks, "Have you ever seen a man catch a bullet in his teeth?"
When the man says no, Dawud draws his Tariq 19mm pistol and shoots him point-blank in the face, adding "And you never will!" to uproarious laughter.
For Dawud "Abu Sayyaf" Muhammad, it's been a long journey from Al Qaeda in Iraq's (AQI) top executioner to the lead stage magician at Fallujah's prestigious Babylon Club.
"When I was a young man I really wanted to be a magician, so it was a natural choice to join Saddam's intelligence service," says Dawud as he wipes blood from his forehead.
"The first trick I mastered was having a prisoner pick a random card out of a deck. Later, when I was eviscerating him with a rusty saw, I would pull a Three of Clubs out of his lung and ask 'Is this your card?'"
Dawud said that the first few months after the invasion of Iraq were boring. "After they disbanded the Ba'ath Party I was out of a job, so I spent several months at home seeing if there was any comedic value from crucifying animals. Turns out it's only a little."
His luck turned when his former commanding officer, Colonel Walid Mishan, showed up at his house and offered him a suitcase of money to join AQI.
"He said we need you to 'disappear' some people for us, so of course I said yes -- and not just because he also had a gun to my son's head."
Dawud wound up spending the next year in Fallujah, making execution videos with AQI leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.
"He really helped me bring out my creative side. In our first video, we held a police chief down while I pretended to saw off his head, and then we stood him up to show how it was only an illusion... of course then Zarqawi shoved an ice pick through his skull."
Dawud's execution videos became famous for both their bloody killings and witty magic tricks. Within several months he was already being asked for by-name in different AQI emirates, such as Mosul, Ramadi, Baquba, and Tikrit.
After Zarqawi's death in 2006, AQI's new leadership was not as supportive, claiming that tricks like pulling a human head out of a top hat were throwing the videos "off-message".
According to Dawud, the turning point came after he made it look like a flock of doves were flying out of the severed neck of a local sheikh. From then on the group insisted that he just kill his prisoners.
After the American occupation ended in 2011, Dawud tried freelance work for a mobile shariah court, but eventually got tired of it.
"They had me torturing these 'emo' kids, but they had already cut themselves up so much I thought, 'what's the point?'" At that time he heard about a job opening at the Babylon Club, whose previous stage magician had accidentally been shot in the head during a routine haircut.
Dawud quickly made a name for himself, with his witty self-deprecating humor and tendency to kill critics who gave him a bad review.
At this point Dawud's female assistant appeared on-stage, signaling it was time to perform his famous 'disappearing act'.
"If you will watch my lovely and whorish assistant Fatima climb into the box, I will make her and her womanly evils disappear," Dawud said, closing the box door.
Whipping out a long sword, Dawud promptly plunged into into the box, eliciting a shriek from within. He then drove several more swords into the box until the screaming eventually stopped.
Standing back, he then opened the door to reveal a box that was completely empty, except for its bloodstained walls and impaled body parts, as the crowd took to their feet with applause.