Trump, the Austere Religious Scholar and Kremlin Propaganda

Why it’s not worth making fun of the Americans discussing the elimination of “the No. 1 terrorist.”

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria has condemned the Kurds, who defeated the Islamic State on the Americans’ behalf, to ethnic cleansing carried out with Turkish artillery and aircraft at the hands of the same Islamic terrorists that Recip Tayyip Erdoğan is using as his paramilitary. Following this decision, Trump’s image on the domestic political scene was severely shaken, and some kind of event was urgently needed to neutralize the foul aftertaste of treachery.

Fortunately, this event was nearly at hand: the very same Kurds had captured one of the numerous wives of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, as well as the nephew and wife of one of his messengers. The information obtained from these three individuals (so the official version goes) led to the seizure of one of the Islamic State group’s secret hideouts in western Iraq, inside which happened to be detailed plans of the refuge of no other than al-Baghdadi himself, cunningly hidden in an unexpected place, northwestern Syria, territory controlled by his sworn enemies from al-Qaida.

It was a dangerous operation. There were 14 children in the house, who were clearly being used as human shields, and the task force sent to eliminate al-Baghdadi had to cross 700 km of airspace (approximately 435 miles) that is controlled by Russia, Syria and Turkey. In the current tense situation, this could easily have led to a misunderstanding. However, there was no other choice; the U.S. warned the Russians without providing a reason for the flight, while Trump and his advisers sat in the White House watching the action via live broadcast, “as though [they] were watching a movie,” said the president. The special operation forces rushed into the house, blowing up the walls with overhead charges. (They feared that the doors had been mined.)

To heighten the public relations effect, the operation was called “Kayla Mueller,” after an American human rights worker who was taken hostage in Syria and repeatedly raped by al-Baghdadi before her murder. Eleven children survived, but al-Baghdadi and many of his bodyguards, as well as his two wives and three children, were killed.

Under Barack Obama, the mere presence of women and children in the house would either have stopped the entire operation or served as a pretext for a long investigation into war crimes committed by the U.S. Delta Force operation.

But here we are told that the women were “black widows” and the children were blown up by al-Baghdadi himself, which could well be true.

Trump announced the success of this operation to the whole world in a manner that would have befitted Saddam Hussein, not missing the opportunity to give the dead terrorist one last kick by declaring that he died whimpering and sniveling (which is unlikely). Trump thanked the Russians for not striking the American chopper, and the Mueller’s parents said that if Obama had acted so decisively, their daughter would still be alive. But The Washington Post published news of the death of the No. 1 terrorist under the headline: “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State, dead at 48.” This isn’t that surprising for The Washington Post, considering the fact that another, slightly less austere religious scholar was one of the newspaper’s columnists, one of the main Saudi ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamal Khashoggi. (The Washington Post quickly came to its senses and changed the headline.)

We could have ended this tale here, if it weren’t for the Russian authorities’ surprising reaction.

Apparently, the impressive operation seemed terribly offensive to the Kremlin, and it decided to view it with the same level of skepticism as some viewed the American moon landing.

The chief spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defense, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov (the very same Igor Konashenkov who has lied repeatedly about Malaysian Air flight MH17), declared that the “Ministry of Defense does not have reliable information about the elimination of al-Baghdadi” and questioned the reality of the operation.

We can, of course, congratulate the Americans. If Konashenkov is questioning something, then it most likely happened.

Here’s another question: which “reliable information” is Konashenkov actually talking about? Does he doubt the reality of the operation because he wasn’t invited into the White House situation room along with the Joint Chiefs of Staff? How exactly is the U.S. supposed to plan special operations in a way that the Russian Ministry of Defense, God forbid, doesn’t question them? Should it publish its plans ahead of the operation or take the plans along for discussion at the State Duma?

At the same time, Konashenkov got in a second dig by saying that another announcement of the death of al-Baghdadi, doesn’t change anything. The Americans, he says, have already announced his elimination a number of times.

But this is not true. In contrast to the Russian Ministry of Defense and the FSB Russian Federal Security Service, which actually declared the deaths of Shamil Basayev, then Dokka Umarov, before rewarding two dozen people (including, it seems, the secretaries) “for the special operation” after Basayev accidentally blew himself up while unloading explosives, this is not what the Americans do.

The death of al-Baghdadi has indeed been reported more than once, but not by the Americans.

On June 16, 2017, none other than the office of Konashenkov reported that al-Baghdadi had been destroyed as a result of a Russian airstrike.

At one point, the Islamic State group itself also announced the death of al-Baghdadi, most likely trying to throw the Americans off the scent.

What we can clearly see from al-Baghdadi’s elimination and Konashenkov’s statements is the different approaches to public relations by the White House and the Kremlin.

Indeed, this operation was vital for Trump, particularly for his image, and he got what he wanted. But he took a risk, a serious risk: the operation could have failed, or something could have gone wrong and resulted in 14 child corpses and no al-Baghdadi. However, Trump really did eliminate the No. 1 terrorist and can now cash in 100% on his success against the Islamic State group.

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