American newspaper The Washington Post has faced a barrage of criticism since Sunday for describing Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as an “austere religious scholar” in a headline. Baghdadi, who had led the jihadist group since 2010, killed himself on Saturday by detonating a suicide vest after fleeing into a dead-end tunnel as US forces closed in on him in a compound in Northwest Syria.

The Washington Post, considered one of the world’s major newspapers, described Baghdadi as someone who “maintained a canny pragmatism”, and an “austere religious scholar with wire-frame glasses and no known aptitude for fighting and killing”. It also mentioned some humane characteristics of the terrorist leader.

Soon after criticism started pouring in on social media, the newspaper changed the headline to: “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, extremist leader of Islamic State, dies at 48” and also tweaked some minor portions of its article. The newspaper’s Communications General Manager Kristine Coratti Kelly wrote on Twitter: “Regarding our al-Baghdadi obituary, the headline should never have read that way and we changed it quickly.”

But the damage was already done. Users across Twitter used the headline to create memes, and soon hashtags such as #WaPoDeathNotices and #WaPoDeathNotice were trending worldwide.

Users on social media created fake obituaries for other extremist leaders and mass murderers. The subjects ranged from German dictator Adolf Hitler and terrorist Osama bin Laden to Idi Amin. Congress leader Shashi Tharoor tweeted a fake obituary for Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse.

Many other users used fictional characters such as Voldemort from Harry Potter, Mogambo from the 1987 film Mr India, Smeagol from The Lord of the Rings, Thanos from the Marvel series and the Night King from Game of Thrones to make their point.

Described as the most-wanted individual in the world, the Islamic State leader was designated a terrorist almost eight years ago. The United States had announced a reward of $10 million (approximately Rs 70 crore) for his capture. Baghdadi, born in 1971, declared himself the caliph of the Islamic State in 2013.

Baghdadi’s death is the biggest victory for the United States’ international anti-terror operations since Navy SEAL forces killed al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011.

In the last few years, several reports on Baghdadi’s death had surfaced. In June 2017, Russia claimed to have killed him in an airstrike near the Syrian city of Raqqa. On Sunday, Russia refused to confirm Baghdadi’s death. Major-General Igor Konashenkov said, according to RIA news agency: “The Russian Ministry of Defence does not have reliable information on the operation by US servicemen... on yet another ‘elimination’ of former IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

Baghdadi was last seen in April, when the Islamic State released a video in which he described the Easter Day attacks in Sri Lanka as revenge for the losses suffered by the group in the Syrian town of Al-Baghuz Fawqani.

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