Mythologising terrorists obscures an unpalatable truth: that they are just people.
If you are inclined to believe much of the corporate media, the world is apparently teeming with terrorist “masterminds” – dead or alive.
I was reminded of this media concoction while digesting a spate of hyperbolic stories about the still-disputed killing of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group’s chief spokesman and the group’s alleged No 2, Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, in Syria in late August.
Before and after his reported death, Adnani was repeatedly referred to as a “terrorist mastermind” by the western press. (The White House has expressed doubts about whether Adnani was, in fact, killed in an air strike.)
Here is the London Sunday Times, for example, affixing that recycled moniker in an account of Adnani’s death and ISIL’s subsequent succession plans.
In its September 4 dispatch, the Sunday Times suggested that Adnani had achieved his vaunted status as a “terrorist mastermind” in large part because he “ran [ISIL’s] external operations group” and “he was also the architect of the group’s ‘lone wolf’ strategy.”
Lone wolf attacks
This may be belated news to the Sunday Times, but “lone wolf” attacks were a grisly part of the lethal terrorist handbook long before Adnani and ISIL arrived on the global scene.
In any event, for a “mastermind”, Adnani seemed adept at cribbing from other “masterminds” for the countless ways and means to kill innocent people.
The Sunday Times story, and others like it, prompted me to attempt to answer this question: How many times has a terrorist been described by western media outlets as a “mastermind”?
How many times has a terrorist been described by western media outlets as a 'mastermind'?
Not surprisingly, a perfunctory database search revealed that “terrorist mastermind” has been employed thousands of times by scores of news organisations to describe all sorts of mostly bad guys doing bad things to good people.
The West’s list of “mastermind” terrorists is long and includes notorious, as well as many more by now obscure and forgotten, “masterminds” who are quickly succeeded by other obscure, soon-to-be forgotten “masterminds”.
This triggered another question: Why?
The phrase “terrorist mastermind” has become part of the cliched vernacular of the coverage of the “war on terror” for several rarely discussed reasons.
First, and perhaps most importantly, the term is designed to ascribe unique, almost other-worldly powers to the West’s latest iteration of the “bad guys”.
The intent, of course, is to create the spectre – wittingly or unwittingly – that the West is facing an existential threat from a legion of virtual “supermen” (and superwomen, for that matter) that requires an equally unique, powerful and commensurate response.
This is the predictable rationale that often accompanies the invocation of draconian “anti-terror laws” by western governments of disparate political persuasions, that are engineered, rhetorically speaking, to confront and, ultimately defeat, the terrorist “superman”.
In this context, it is instructive to note that the architect of the US Patriot Act was the reactionary Republican president, George W Bush. The architect of what still amounts to martial law in France, is the reactionary socialist president, Francois Hollande.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the Bastille Day “lone wolf” lorry attack in Nice, Hollande promptly extended – with the approval of the French national assembly – the country’s state of emergency until January 2017, despite rising popular opposition.
The same news organisations will reach for the same refrain to trumpet the killing or capture of a 'terrorist mastermind' as either a 'victory' in the latest round in the perpetual 'war on terror', or as having dealt a debilitating ... blow...
The necessary corollary to this is that when a “terrorist mastermind” like Adnani is captured or killed, western media enthusiastically tout it as not only tangible evidence of the effectiveness and potency of the “war on terror”, but also celebrate it as affirmation of the military and legislative tools used to wage it.
Invariably, the same news organisations will reach for the same refrain to trumpet the killing or capture of a “terrorist mastermind” as either a “victory” in the latest round in the perpetual “war on terror”, or as having dealt a debilitating, verging on fatal, blow to the structure and hierarchy of the terror group du jour.
On cue, the Sunday Times claimed that Adnani’s death “was the greatest blow to date to the organisation”. Quoting one member of the ubiquitous, quote-friendly cadre of western “security experts”, the Sunday Times insisted that given Adnani’s “expertise and longevity … [he] is not likely to prove easy for [ISIL] to replace”.
No one is irreplaceable
The stubborn reality is that “terrorist masterminds” resemble rabbits in a big field: Once you bag one, another one quickly pops up to swap places with its departed brethren. No one, particularly in the precarious world of terrorism, is indispensable or irreplaceable.
This inconvenient truth is buried in the Sunday Times story and it is delivered by another, arguably, wiser “security expert” who resists the easy temptation to elevate Adnani to “mastermind” ranking.
“Adnani’s killing is another mile marker on the road to nowhere,” the Sunday Times quoted retired US Lieutenant-General Daniel Bolger, who led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We kill leaders. They kill villagers over there and our fellow citizens over here. A war of attrition is an ugly thing.”
Ironically, a leaked 2009 CIA report supports Bolger’s blunt assessment. The secret study into the efficacy of the West’s High Value Target (HVT) strategy found that while occasionally upsetting and demoralising, “Insurgent groups’ succession planning, breadth and depth of military and political competence, and ability to elevate promising commanders through their ranks contribute to their resilience to HVT operations”.
Simply put, when top-tier terrorists like Adnani get killed, they get replaced in a never-ending, tit-for-tat cycle of violence.
Wars, wherever they’re fought, whenever they’re fought, for whatever reasons they’re fought, are myth-making exercises. In the so-called “war on terror”, there are few true “masterminds”, but there are many killers.
Andrew Mitrovica is an award-winning investigative reporter and journalism instructor.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.