PARIS—President Donald J. Trump wants you to see his new movie: “Bring Me the Head of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
At a special Sunday morning press conference in Washington D.C., Trump described the way U.S. Special Operations Forces attacked Baghdadi’s compound and killed him in such graphic and explicit detail that some intelligence professionals worried he may have revealed, again, too much about sources and methods.
But Trump knows great television when he sees it, and he was enthusiastic about the images he was watching from the White House situation room Saturday night. “It was absolutely perfect, as though you were watching a movie,” he said.
Baghdadi “died like a dog,” Trump said repeatedly. “He died like a dog, he died like a coward. He died whimpering, screaming and crying, and, frankly, I think it’s something that should be brought out so that his followers and all these young kids that want to leave various countries, including the United States, they should see how he died. He didn’t die a hero, he died a coward, crying, whimpering, screaming, and bringing three kids with him to die. Certain death.”
Trump makes an important point. In fact, it may be an imperative. Al Qaeda and ISIS leaders have built their reputations among their followers extolling their medieval vision of Islam and claiming the chivalric virtues of the past. Trump wanted to make it clear that when Baghdadi died he was anything but a brave knight under the Prophet Muhammad’s banner.
Some of the many thousands of radical jihadis and sympathizers around the world who revered Baghdadi will refuse to believe that he is dead; others will honor him as a martyr, and in the realm of Islamic sects, especially a cult like the so-called Islamic State, the “disappearance” of a leader—in Baghdadi’s case a self-proclaimed “caliph”—only serves to intensify the passionate devotion of the faithful. That is one reason the Obama administration buried Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden at sea in 2011. There would be no grave to become a shrine.
It’s a given that very few jihadists or would-be jihadists will believe Trump’s version of Baghdadi’s death: cornered as his cronies and family were killed or surrendered, then running into a dead-end tunnel with three of his kids where he detonated a suicide vest to blow them up along with himself. In what truly seemed a Hollywood touch, Trump said the only American injured was a brave K9 soldier (“I call it a dog, a talented dog, a beautiful dog”) who had chased Baghdadi and the kids down the tunnel.
No doubt a fictional movie about the raid already is being planned and scripts written, but if Trump’s account is accurate, the actual video would be much more powerful than a docudrama for the purpose of dissuading potential jihadists and, in his mind, impressing potential voters for Donald J. Trump in next year’s presidential election.
The reasons such a video of the 2011 Osama operation was not released are the same ones that the intelligence community will use to argue against dissemination of the Baghdadi death: because such images could compromise so much about the operation.
But quite apart from Trump’s worthy desire to undermine the messaging of the still virulent ISIS organization, there is also his unworthy inclination to gloat. Remember when Trump tweeted a highly classified high-resolution image of a failed Iranian missile launch earlier this year for little more reason, it would seem, that smug self-satisfaction?
Trump hates it when the fast-turning news cycle that he uses effectively to obscure his failings also works to push his accomplishments into oblivion. (His announcement in September that the son of Osama bin Laden had been confirmed killed fell flat. It had been reported months earlier, but confirmation was delayed, apparently while awaiting DNA from what was left after a missile strike.)
So it’s fair to ask how far how far Trump will go to keep this deadly triumph alive.
One possibility: leaked images of the physical proof that Baghdadi died.
I have covered a fair number of suicide bombings over the years, and the effect of explosive vests is fairly predictable. The torso is destroyed and the extremities, including the head, detach.
So I was not surprised to see it reported by Jennifer Griffin, a national security correspondent for Fox News, that Baghdadi was identified so quickly because there was no need to wait for DNA tests. His head had popped off more or less like a cork, and proof came through “biometrics (facial recognition).”
Trump told the press on Sunday “there wasn’t much left” of Baghdadi, but there were “substantial pieces they brought back.” The head no doubt is among them.