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How Washington Post headline for al-Baghdadi obit triggered outrage, meme fest on Twitter

The Washington Post headline, which referred to the ISIS leader as an “austere religious scholar”, causing widespread outrage, has been since changed.

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New Delhi: On Sunday, US President Donald Trump announced the death of Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL or ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a press conference in the White House. The international press scrambled to cover the announcement, some reporting details of the US Army’s raid in Syria that led to the death, to political analysis of the impact the move would have on Trump’s 2020 election campaign.

But one particular story published by the Washington Post grabbed most eyeballs, garnering a lot of negative attention.

The controversy began when the Post published an obituary for al-Baghdadi, written by its national security editor Joby Warrick, shortly after the announcement was made Sunday morning. The headline, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at the helm of Islamic State, dies at 48”, drew widespread outrage for how it represented the man who has often been called the world’s most wanted terrorist, with a bounty of 25 million US dollars on his head.

The first headline of the story, which some Twitter users were quick to take screenshots of, referred to Baghdadi as “Islamic State’s terrorist-in-chief”. It is unclear why the headline was changed.


The story, which maps the rise of the ISIS leader from the time he took over the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010, describes him as an “austere religious scholar with wire-frame glasses” who previously had “no known aptitude for fighting and killing”. Warrick writes that Baghdadi’s acquaintances remembered him as a “shy, nearsighted youth who liked soccer but preferred to spend his free time at the local mosque”. He further wrote that under his rule, the Islamic State came to “mirror its leader: a messianic figure drawn to the harshest interpretations of Islamic texts” and detailed out Baghdadi’s educational background in Koranic recitation.

The headline was updated to “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, extremist leader of Islamic State, dies at 48” around 7pm (local time) Sunday.

Politicians, journalists and many others expressed their disappointment with the Post, a Pulitzer prize-winning publication that was founded more than a hundred years ago. Conservative American news network Fox News described the mishap as a “gasp-inducing headline for the ages”, while White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham wrote that she had “no words” in response to the incident.

The Post’s Vice President, Communications, Kristine Coratti Kelly took to Twitter to apologise and clarify the publication’s stance. But it seems the damage is already done, as screenshots of the headline are being widely shared on social media, with many questioning the Post’s credibility.

The hashtag #WaPoDeathNotices is now trending on Twitter, with many taking a shot at providing their own headlines for various contentious personalities such as Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, serial killer Ted Bundy, the Star Wars character Darth Vader, and even Satan.


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