Last Wednesday, after ISIS released its gruesome video of a Jordanian fighter pilot being burned alive in a cage, a remarkable statement appeared in Arabic-language news outlets across the Middle East and North Africa:
It was announced in Jordan today that King Abdullah II will participate personally tomorrow—Thursday—in an aerial assault on the terrorist group ISIS, to avenge the execution of Jordanian pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasbeh. Reports quoted the Jordanian monarch as saying, “The war against ISIS shall be relentless, and we will strike them in their strongholds.”
The venues that carried the item included Egypt’s Akhbar al-Yawm, a seventy-year-old government-backed newspaper with a print distribution in excess of 1.5 million; the Kuwaiti print daily Annahar; online-only newspapers in Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia; and a news aggregator in Ramallah. In addition to publishing the message verbatim, most of the outlets also featured the same photograph of Jordan’s ruler in military fatigues. The picture had appeared earlier that day in Jordan itself—on the official Facebook page of the Royal Hashemite Court.
By the time I came across the story via social media, it had already reached millions of Arabic speakers from Baghdad to Casablanca. But I seem to have been one of the first to tweet about it in English:
Reports that Jordanian King Abdullah, himself a pilot, will fly sorties on ISIS targets. pic.twitter.com/mZetDARLOI
— Joseph Braude (@josephbraude) February 4, 2015
The tweet, with its misleading picture of a warrior king leading an air raid against the forces of barbarism, went viral in the United States: nearly 1,600 retweets in 24 hours, at least a thousand more based on modified versions, and hundreds of comments, among them:
“If he does this … I am putting a poster of him, like some crazy fanboy, in my office.”
“Now that’s a whole new level of pissed.”
“After which he will board an aircraft carrier with a huge banner proclaiming MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.”
The lion’s share of responses had a right-wing tone:
“I wish our President were as brave as the King of Jordan. Go get ‘em!”
“[M]eanwhile Obama is going on another fundraising & golf trip before going on vacation.”
“Now that’s some kinda leader! Obama could never measure up!”
Conservative print and broadcast media went on to describe King Abdullah last week as a model combatant in the war on terror—the opposite of “leadership from behind.” The Washington Examiner has published a roundup of praise he received on FOX News from Sean Hannity and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, as well as Business Insider and London’s Independent. They conveyed support for the monarch on his visit to Washington, where he met the President and lobbied Congress for more military aid. Some pundits seem to have combined the false claim from the Arabic press about the king’s personal flight plans with the king’s actual statements, wherein he quoted the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven and promised “retribution like ISIS hasn’t seen.” The story served to crystallize his reputation as a “total badass,” to quote Israel Defense Forces spokesman Peter Lerner in a tweet of his own.
This blitz of chatter, whether intentionally or unintentionally, may have been the first time a group of people opposed to ISIS effectively countered the organization’s notoriously successful social media campaign to dominate the public psyche. In Arabic as well as English, the week began in gut-wrenching contemplation of a ritual burning, which ISIS believed would demoralize its opponents and attract new recruits. Instead, the week ended with millions of Arabs as well as Americans picturing a moderate Muslim leader attacking the anti-caliph in his own backyard. There was a feeling in the air not only that the organization could be defeated, but also that the searing images of hate it projects could be eviscerated.
If, as I suspect, the sortie story was launched in the Arab world as part of a proactive effort, a review of the Arab countries in which it first appeared gives a sense of who was involved: Egypt, now ruled by a stridently anti-Islamist military government; Saudi Arabia, which is also flying air raids on ISIS and has been a leader in the push against the Muslim Brotherhood; Saudi-friendly Kuwait, another key financial backer of Egypt’s Sisi; post-revolutionary Tunisia, with its newly elected anti-Islamist head of state; Lebanon, now deluged by waves of Syrian refugees fleeing Assad as well as ISIS; the U.S.-aligned Palestinian Authority; and the remnants of a nation called Iraq.
The “warrior king” image is characteristic of a mindset stemming from the distinctive political culture of Jordan, an oil-poor desert kingdom that has long struggled to maintain social cohesion in the face of ethnic and political fissures. The royal family shares tribal roots with the indigenous Bedouin inhabitants of the country, whereas the majority of its citizens identify as ethnically Palestinian—mainly descendants of refugees from the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. The past 12 years have seen new waves of refugees, fleeing the bloodshed in Iraq after the American-led ouster of Saddam, and now Syria’s devastating civil war. Some of the kingdom’s policies, meanwhile, have come into conflict with strong currents within the population: a peace treaty and staunch security cooperation with Israel, for example; assistance to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq; and, most recently, the king’s support for the American-led military struggle against ISIS, which was unpopular in Jordan before last week.
In trying times, the present king and his late father have taken pains to renew their emotional bond with the population by using deeply personal gestures that carry symbolic meaning. For example, a few months after assuming the throne in 1999, King Abdullah went undercover, posing as a taxi driver, to hear the grievances of his people. A few days earlier he had worn a long white beard and traditional Arab robe in a trade zone frequented by men in suits, to learn firsthand about corruption and inequality in the country’s private sector. The royal court issued news releases after these actions, to great fanfare. Some of the king’s supporters even likened him to the Caliph Omar bin al-Khattab, the prophet Muhammad’s second successor, who famously walked through neighborhoods incognito at night to check on the welfare of his subjects. A year later, during the 2000 Al-Aqsa Intifada in neighboring Palestine and Israel, the rookie king faced his people’s anger about his cooperation with the Jewish state. He donated blood to the Palestinians in an Amman hospital. A photograph of the procedure appeared on the front page of the Jordanian dailies, transmitting a visceral message of solidarity that could have softened objections to his relationship with Israel. First place for chutzpah surely goes to the father, Hussein, who late in life rode a motorcycle well above the speed limit to test out his kingdom’s new radar gear. It took police 90 minutes to overtake him.
The image of King Abdullah personally avenging the murder of one of his pilots fell naturally into this tradition. The story was improbable but plausible: Though not a fighter pilot, he is a trained attack helicopter pilot and former commander of the country’s Special Forces, and he flies his own private plane. He is capable of riding shotgun and contributing to a sortie, if only symbolically—a calculated risk with strategic benefits in his play for greater domestic and international support.
Later on the day the story first spread, a Jordanian government spokesman officially denied it. With a twinkle in his eye, he characterized the reports as false but “creative.” I tweeted his denial repeatedly and alerted colleagues to the correction. Alas, only a few dozen people passed it on. Meanwhile, even as I write this, the warrior king continues soaring—one re-tweet after another.