A question that bothers everyone regarding the ongoing downfall of ISIS is what’s going on with the leader of the self-proclaimed caliphate under the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The secretive figure behind the terrorist group was never too keen on public appearances: there is little in terms of photos, and he’s rumored to wear a mask when addressing his commanders. There is still only a single video of the man available, where he is filmed giving a sermon at a mosque in Mosul in 2014.
The fact of the matter is, no one knows where he is now or whether he is still alive. Most recently, an Iraqi official stated that al-Baghdadi hides in desert border areas between Iraq and Syria. “Al-Baghdadi is not dead and still moving in the desert areas on the border between Iraq and Syria,” Spokesperson for the Joint Operations Command Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said on December 3. The US-led coalition stated on November 10 they have no “releasable information” concerning al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts.
There have been various reports saying different things regarding Baghdadi’s ultimate fate. There was a report by official Iraqi military claiming that it wounded the ISIS leader in an airstrike west of Baghdad in February. US officials and some of their Iraqi comrades in arms were skeptical, as Iraqi government previously claimed that al-Baghdadi had been wounded or killed multiple times. In June Russia claimed that it may have killed al-Baghdadi in one of the airstrikes near Raqqa on May 28. Turkey followed it up on on July 11 with an apprehensive report that he may have indeed been killed during those Russian airstrikes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said they had “confirmed information” of al-Baghdadi’s death on the same day. Iraqi intelligence officials claimed he was still alive and hiding in Syria on July 16. Syrian ambassador to Moscow said on July 17 that he was alive, but wounded. ISIS itself hurried to put all doubts regarding the state of their leader to rest by publishing an audio recording in late September, where he (or someone else with a similar voice) discusses the current dynamic between the US and North Korea.
This media blitz, with al-Baghdadi being simultaneously dead, alive, wounded and even almost captured, results in an opaque image of a person that barely exists, a Schrodinger’s Cat by way of media. Schrodinger’s al-Baghdadi.
This state of being both alive and dead at the same time is not limited to al-Baghdadi exclusively. Abu Muhammad al-Shimali, an ISIS commander believed to be linked to the 2015 Paris attacks was reported to be killed in September, but the US officials still consider him alive.
This, in a way, contributes to the nature of terror: making sure you can never be certain about anything. Traditional media unwittingly or deliberately fan the flames of terror without any concern for what they are doing. By incessantly reporting this way, they are doing ISIS’s job. They are filling the collective consciousness with phantoms draped in black robes, neither alive nor dead, but always present in the mind. Because of this their inevitable reappearance comes as no surprise. It is expected. The world of unconfirmed kills is a terrorist’s best friend in terms of media presence.