On Sunday, October 27, The U.S. President Donald Trump announced that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed during a U.S. special operation in northern Syria. Speaking from the White House, Trump provided a detailed account of the operation.
Among other nations, Trump praised Russia “for certain support they were able to give us.” Russia, in response, denied there was a hint of truth in any aspect of the U.S. operation.
Russia did not know, does not believe and it never happened anyway
Russian Defense Ministry and other government officials, along with top lawmakers and Middle East experts, were quoted in the reports in the country’s state-owned media denying Moscow had provided any support for the U.S. operation. They also denied any knowledge of such an operation and questioned whether it even took place, whether the U.S. was the country that conducted it, whether the operation was successful and whether al-Baghdadi was actually dead.
Speaking on behalf of Russia’s Defense Ministry, Major-General Igor Konashenkov said “[t]he increase in the number of direct participants and countries that allegedly took part in this ‘operation’, as well as conflicting information about the details of how it was conducted, generates reasonable questions and doubts about its reality, and even more so about its success.”
That claim is false.
The Islamic State confirmed the death of its leader on Thursday, October 31, an announcement that was reported by the Site Intelligence Group, which monitors the group's activities online.
According to President Trump, Kurdish forces and various press reports, U.S. intelligence was able to collect DNA samples before and after the raid, proving with 100% certainty that the human remains collected from the compound did indeed belong to al-Baghdadi.
The program director of the Project on Cold War studies at Harvard University, Mark Kramer, said in response to Polygraph.info questions: “Both Konashenkov and numerous other Russian officials and propagandists, including Mariya Zakharova and Dmitry Kiselev, have expressed doubt that the raid actually went as Trump and other U.S. officials claimed. No Russian official confirmed that Russia was notified in advance or that Russia had done anything to assist the raid.”
In his comments, Kramer referred to a raging U.S. domestic political dispute over the president’s comment that he notified Russia but not key Democratic leaders in Congress, particularly following Russia’s denials.
“There is no question that the raid happened and that the hurried DNA tests were able to confirm that al-Baghdadi was the one who blew himself up,” said Kramer. “But what we don't know is what role, if any, Russia actually played.”
The propaganda power of the quotation mark
Apart from direct claims denying the operation, Russian officials and the media made use of a peculiar tool --- Russian grammar punctuation marks, specifically the quotation mark.
In a 1967 essay titled “Attention: Quotation Mark!”, Russian linguist Boris Schwarzkopf analyzed the use of punctuation in Russian print media. He noted that for those using the quotation mark “as a professional weapon,” traditional punctuation rules are not enough. When a word or a phrase that is not part of a direct citation is surrounded by quotation marks, the purpose is to demonstrate that it is being used with irony or to give a negative connotation about something, creating “a sense of inaccuracy or conditionality” about what is being described.
A look through more than a dozen reports about the U.S. operation targeting al-Baghdadi posted by state-owned Russia Today (RT), Sputnik, and RIA Novosti media outlets showed that the references to the U.S. raid, its success and the death of al-Baghdadi were all put in quotation marks even though they were not part of a direct citation. As shown in the graphic below, the names of terrorist groups were also put in quotation marks.
Notably, Russian media emphasized the fact that the October 27 raid was not the first time that the Islamic State leader had been reported killed. In the Russian media reports and official statements, any mention of al-Baghdadi’s death/liquidation/killing/elimination was put in quotation marks and accompanied by such qualifiers as “again” “alleged” “yet another” etc.
What is missing from the Russian reports is that Russia itself claimed in 2017 that it had killed al-Baghdadi, and presented a fake photograph that has been circulating around the Internet since 2014 as a proof of Russia’s success. At the time, Polygraph.info debunked that claim and uncovered the origins of the photo and the Iranian source cited by the Russian media.
(Updated: This fact check was updated October 31 with the Islamic State's confirmation that its leader is dead).