WaPo headline for Baghdadi obit: "Austere religious scholar"

The headline has changed already following an avalanche of criticism on social media, but this was WaPo’s read on the death of public enemy number one as of 11:15 a.m. ET. Good lord:

“John Wayne Gacy, children’s party clown, dead at 52.”

Even weirder, reporter Yashar Ali noticed that the headline originally described Baghdadi as the “terrorist-in-chief,” which was perfectly apt. They softened it to downplay his terrorist activities and play up his “scholarship” for God knows what twisted reason:

Not even “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, cult leader,” WaPo? Read this, via a Twitter pal, for a taste of Baghdadi’s theology. They did him and ISIS a favor in death by stressing scholarship as the basis of their worldview. Maybe the Washington press corps has been convinced: Salafism is the one true legitimate Islam.

Lotta reporting out there to sift through this afternoon about Baghdadi’s demise but I’m preoccupied with the question of how — and when — we finally got a bead on him. Note the timeline provided by the NYT:

Maj. Gen. John W. Brennan Jr., as deputy commander of the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command, oversaw the mission, which had been staged for a week before taking place on Saturday, an American official said…

The official said Mr. al-Baghdadi arrived at the location of the strike 48 hours before the raid, but the official did not confirm his death.

This wasn’t a case of “quick, get dressed, we’ve got a report that he’s in Idlib!” This was a case, it seems, of someone knowing where Baghdadi would be several days before he actually got there. That’s some gooooood intelligence. How close to Baghdadi was the tipster?

And why now? Another bit from the Times story has me scratching my head:

An American official said on Saturday night that senior military officials had decided that, with American forces largely withdrawing from Syria, commandos should take action quickly to try to kill or capture senior terrorists in northwest Syria before the United States lost that ability.

Weren’t we … already trying to kill or capture senior terrorists in northern Syria, starting with the most senior of all? Presumably what the Times means is that Trump and the Pentagon were more willing to roll the dice on a hot tip about Baghdadi’s location now that we’re on our way out of the region than they might have been a month ago, say. A mission like yesterday’s is obviously highly dangerous for U.S. troops. If you go in on a weak tip and he’s not there, American soldiers might die for nothing. But with the U.S. withdrawing from the area, it may have been now or never.

Because I have boundless cynicism about the willingness of regional powers to quietly cooperate with terrorists, I’ve spent the morning gaming out which bad actor might conceivably have had an idea of where Baghdadi was all along and only decided to share that information with us now. Could … Iraq have known? Reportedly the Iraqis did provide intelligence for the mission. Iraq is also miffed that U.S. troops who are withdrawing from Syria have moved into their country and have given us a deadline of four weeks to get out. Maybe they thought if they dropped a dime on Baghdadi, the White House’s justifications for remaining there would diminish.

Could … Turkey have known? Amazingly, the village in which Baghdadi was killed is located just a few miles from the Turkish border. Maybe Erdogan had some reason to believe Baghdadi was in northern Syria but wasn’t eager to rat him out since, after all, ISIS is useful to Turkey in keeping the Kurds busy. But since Trump has been so accommodating in getting out of Turkey’s way in its new Kurdish offensive and has taken such withering heat for it here at home, maybe Turkish intelligence decided to do him a solid by finally spilling what they knew about Baghdadi’s whereabouts. Plus, from Erdogan’s perspective, if Turkey really is about to take over northern Syria then ISIS’s usefulness to him in the area is over. If he could get America to solve his new Baghdadi problem for him and help Trump out in the process, so be it.

Could … the Saudis have known? I have zero evidence of any Saudi connection to the operation, I just assume they know where all the terrorists in the region are. The Saudis do owe Trump for his support against Iran, though, replete with 1,800 U.S. soldiers being newly deployed to the country even though Trump is trying to convince the public that he’s reducing America’s footprint in the region. If the Saudis knew something about Baghdadi, handing the info to the president at a moment when he’s facing impeachment and being pilloried by his own party for pulling out of Syria would have been a political godsend. He’d owe them bigly!

Could … the Kurds have known? That’s a tougher hypothesis to sell, but they too provided key intelligence for the mission — strangely, at the very moment when they should have been least inclined to do America a favor, with Trump on his way out of the country. Why wouldn’t the Kurds have taken out Baghdadi ages ago if they knew where he was, though, given the threat ISIS posed to them? Maybe they had an idea of where he was but concluded they didn’t have the capability to strike quickly. (Or maybe they didn’t want to try a major operation so close to the Turkish border, for understandable reasons.) Having Baghdadi at large also gave the Kurds a way to appeal to Trump to keep U.S. troops in place: “You can’t leave, he’s still out there!” Now that we’re leaving, though, and the Kurds are suddenly facing not just Turkey but a potentially revived ISIS, they may have decided that it’s time to tip the U.S. off and let us liquidate Baghdadi. They don’t need to worry about him anymore. And maybe Trump will feel like he owes them a favor.