U.S. forces this week killed top ISIS chief Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, prompting a very different reaction and headline from The Washington Post than when the United States hunted down Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Back in the Trump era, the Post’s obituary offered this shocking and much-mocked response: “Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State, dies at 48.” The paper changed it after much derision, but the damage was done.
On Friday, the Post had a very different headline for Qurayshi: “Islamic State’s ‘ghost’ of a leader was plotting comeback when U.S. commandos cornered him.” Writer Joby Warrick wrote the Baghdadi obit in 2019 and co-wrote (with Souad Mekhennet) this new one.
As Tim Graham noted back in 2019, the Post got the headline right for Baghdadi on the first try: “Islamic State terrorist-in-chief.” Then the paper changed it to the pathetic “austere religious scholar” version. After being mocked for that, the journalists at the Post finally ended up with “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, extremist leader of Islamic State, dies at 48.”
But Warrick can’t blame this on the headline writers at the newspaper because the offending line about the brutal murderer was in his very first paragraph.
When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the reins of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010, few had heard of the organization or its new leader, an austere religious scholar with wire-frame glasses and no known aptitude for fighting and killing.
But just four years later, Mr. Baghdadi had helped transform his failing movement into one of the most notorious and successful terrorist groups of modern times. Under his guidance it would burst into the public consciousness as the Islamic State, an organization that would seize control of entire cities in Iraq and Syria and become a byword for shocking brutality.
The sub-headline also called Baghdadi a “conservative academic.” It was so bad, the Post’s VP for Communications Kris Coratti Kelly conceded:
There’s no “austere religious scholar” line in the article on Qurayshi. Instead, readers learn that he was “reviled” by critics as a “turncoat.” Here's the opening paragraphs by Warrick and Mekhennet:
Captured Islamic State fighters described him as a “ghost,” a mysterious and nearly invisible leader with little practical sway over his weakened terrorist organization. Rivals questioned his credentials and reviled him as a turncoat who ratted out his comrades during a stint in a U.S. military prison.
But the Islamic State chief dubbed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi also was known as a survivor, one who had weathered multiple setbacks and defeats. In recent months he had been plotting a comeback, U.S. officials and terrorism experts say, including a second act for the violent Islamist self-declared caliphate that had terrorized the region and, along with its affiliates, other parts of the world until its destruction three years ago.
Washington Post headlines are a perfect visual to see just how out of touch the media outlet really is. For Fidel Castro, the paper touted, “Revolutionary remade Cuba.” The obit gushed that he was “a romantic figure in olive-drab fatigues and combat boots” and a “spiritual beacon for the world’s political far left.”
It's the same story for politics. The headline for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia? “Supreme Court conservative dismayed liberals.” As opposed to the late liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “A pioneer devoted to equality.”