Naming terrorism

The death of Baghdadi, while significant, does not mean the end of the global jihad he led.

A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There were many ways for the press to announce the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Jerusalem Post chose the headline “ISIS leader al-Baghdadi killed in US commando raid in Syria.” The Washington Post in its obituary didn’t so much err on the side of caution as err, period.
The first version of the headline that appeared online on Sunday, read: “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State’s ‘terrorist-in-chief,’ dies at 48.” For some unknown reason, this was then changed to “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at the helm of Islamic State, dies at 48.” After receiving severe flak on social media, the headline was changed again to “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, extremist leader of Islamic State, dies at 48.”
For hours, Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms were full of tongue-in-cheek similar mock obits, such as “Adolf Hitler, Austrian vegan activist and landscape painter, dies at 56” (David Burge) and “Pol Pot, gentle field tender, farming enthusiast dies at 72 of a heart attack” (@LegallyBae) and “Osama bin Laden, spiritual leader and architect of lower Manhattan urban revitalization projects, dead at 54” (John Noonan).
But this was no joking matter. Apart from the question of why honor Baghdadi with an “obituary,” the terminology of the second version is telling of a common phenomenon: the dangers of refusing to acknowledge evil.
Kristine Coratti Kelly, vice president (communications) and general manager of Washington Post Live, later tweeted the apology: “The headline should never have read that way and we changed it quickly.”
The obituary also depicted him in nuanced terms and with far more respect than he deserved. Referring to him as “Mr. Baghdadi,” the piece, written by Joby Warrick, described him as having “helped transform his failing movement into one of the most notorious, vicious and – for a time – successful terrorist groups of modern times.”
The piece also commented: “The man who would become the founding leader of the world’s most brutal terrorist group spent his early adult years as an obscure academic, aiming for a quiet life as a professor of Islamic law. But the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 upended his plans and launched him on a course toward insurgency, prison and violent jihad.”
According to this line of thought, Baghdadi would have remained an unknown religious teacher by the name of Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri if the US hadn’t provoked him. And what caused bin Laden to launch his global terrorist assault?
US President Donald Trump in his announcement of the American special ops raid during which Baghdadi apparently triggered the suicide vest he was wearing, described the ISIS leader dying “like a dog, whimpering, crying and screaming all the way.”
The mission was called Operation Kayla, after American Kayla Mueller, who was kidnapped by ISIS and reportedly forced to serve as a sex slave to Baghdadi. American officials have tended to focus on ISIS’s crimes in beheading two US journalists as well as Mueller.
But of course ISIS is guilty of far more than that: Hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions made homeless by the terrorist organization. It wiped out Christian, Kurdish, Yazidi and other minority communities across the Mideast. Its affiliated organizations, such as Boko Haram, continue to slaughter Christians and others throughout Africa and Asia. It has carried out terror atrocities across Europe and the US.
The death of Baghdadi, while significant, does not mean the end of the global jihad he led. The Washington Post is not alone in feeling unable to call terrorism by name. US president Barack Obama infamously described the 2015 terror attack on the French Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket as “a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”
Terrorists are routinely referred to as “gunmen” and “assailants” without acknowledging the Islamist ideology that drives them. But how can you fight a problem you refuse to name? Arguably, it was the refusal to see the problem of global jihad for fear of being accused of Islamophobia that contributed to its success in spreading its tentacles unchecked.
Those who contributed to the operation in which Baghdadi was killed should be congratulated, but their work and the risks they took will be in vain if it remains difficult to call out Baghdadi’s jihadist ideology. Terrorism exists. It’s evil. And it must be named to be defeated.