Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews refused to speak the name of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a TV interview this week. Australia is sending another 330 troops to assist Iraqi forces against the Islamic State. Interviewer Leigh Sales notes that the United States put great effort into taking down Osama bin Laden after 9/11, and wonders if similar emphasis could be put on capturing the leader of ISIS.
Andrews wishes to make the point that focusing on one individual is a mistake. Taking out a charismatic titular leader is usually a blow to enemy morale, but nowhere near a fatal a blow. He is right, as the refusal of al-Qaeda to become “decimated and on the run” after the bin Laden kill demonstrated. While this did not make the elimination of bin Laden irrelevant, it illustrates the danger of over-emphasizing the personal — an easy mistake to make when the propaganda of terror groups and dictatorships tends to glorify individual leaders.
Unfortunately, Andrews chose to make his point in a very strange fashion, by adamantly refusing to speak the widely-known name of Islamic State chief al-Baghdadi, despite comically insistent prodding from Sales. A transcript is provided by Australia’s ABC News:
Kevin Andrews: “Well, there’s a cadre of leaders in the ISIL [IS] forces and we’re not just dealing with one organisation. There’s fluidity between organisations and individuals who are involved.”
Leigh Sales: “But there is a leader and a cabinet of IS, they run like a government.”
KA: “And that makes it more difficult in terms of the overall objective we’re seeking to achieve here. But we will continue along the lines that we are.”
LS: “So just to be clear, who is the leader and what is the focus on his capture?”
KA: “I’m not going to go into operational matters obviously.”
LS: “Can you name the leader of IS?”
KA: “I’m not going to go into operational matters.”
LS: “I don’t think it’s operational, I think it’s a matter of public record.”
KA: “I’m trying to answer your question as best as I can and that is ultimately our aim here is to degrade and to defeat ISIL. ISIL operates not just in Iraq but across Syria as well and there is fluidity between groups. There’s not just one group involved and not one just group of individuals involved and so we have to counter that as best we can over the coming weeks and months.”
LS: “Minister, you’re responsible for putting Australian men and women in harm’s way in the cause of this mission, I’m surprised that you can’t tell me the name of Islamic State’s leader. The US State Department has a $10 million bounty on his head.”
KA: “As I said, ISIL is a combination of groups, Leigh, there is not just one individual involved in this. There are Australians involved in the senior leadership of ISIL or Daesh, and there is a fluidity between groups that we’ve seen over the past few months in that area. It’s not just one person involved, there’s a series of people involved and we must ultimately destroy all of them if we’re going to degrade their operations in that area.”
LS: “The specific person who I have been referring is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
Aussie media had a field day. The Sydney Morning Herald put together an “interactive quiz” of “10 other questions we hope Defense Minister Kevin Andrews can answer.” The first question is, “How many full-time members does the Australian Defense Force have?” It’s a bit more subtle than a cartoon of Andrews sitting in the corner wearing a dunce cap, but not much.
In its news report on the interview, the Herald stated Andrews was “unable to name the leader of the Islamic State militant group in an embarrassing gaffe on the day the government committed additional troops to Iraq.” Perhaps he really did forget al-Baghdadi’s name, but it seems more likely that he was stubbornly refusing to say it, an impression reinforced by his post-interview Tweet that “focusing on individuals ignores the threat that extremist organizations present.”
Perception becomes reality in mediaspace, so there’s not much of an effective difference between not knowing a fact, and refusing to state it. Either way, you just come off looking foolish, even if you started out with a solid point to make.