WaPo: Headline Calling ISIS Leader 'Austere Religious Scholar' Was 'Written in Haste'

'Unfortunately, a headline written in haste to portray the origins of al-Baghdadi and ISIS didn't communicate that brutality'

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October 28, 2019

The Washington Post expressed regret Sunday after running a headline that described ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a "religious scholar."

The White House announced Sunday that al-Baghdadi killed himself by detonating a suicide vest as U.S. forces raided his Syrian compound.

The Post originally described him in a headline as the "Islamic State's 'terrorist-in-chief,'" but the headline was changed after publication to "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State, dies at 48."

The questionable language was taken from the lede of the obituary, which said, "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, then an austere religious scholar with wire-frame glasses and no known aptitude for fighting and killing." The next paragraph noted how quickly he embraced terrorism, noting that "just four years later, Mr. Baghdadi had helped transform his failing movement into one of the most notorious, vicious and—for a time—successful terrorist groups of modern times."

The Post's bizarre framing was roundly criticized and prompted the viral hashtag #WaPoDeathNotices, in which Twitter users parodied the headline with their own glowing obituaries for evil figures.

The Post's headline was quietly changed to refer to al-Baghdadi as the "extremist leader of Islamic State." A newspaper spokeswoman soon apologized for the headline. "Regarding our al-Baghdadi obituary, the headline should never have read that way and we changed it quickly," the Post's vice president for communications Kris Coratti said in a tweet.

Coratti later attempted to blame the breaking nature of the news for the decision to change the headline from the original "terrorist-in-chief" framing. She told CNN that "Post correspondents have spent years in Iraq and Syria documenting ISIS savagery, often at great personal risk. Unfortunately, a headline written in haste to portray the origins of al-Baghdadi and ISIS didn't communicate that brutality. The headline was promptly changed."