Just when you thought the war in Iraq couldn't get any stranger, a high-ranking al-Qaeda figure who was first captured and then killed -- his body displayed on state-run TV -- turns out to have been a fiction.
He didn't exist.
The apparently invented character called Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was known as the head of the Islamic State of Iraq -- believed to be a front group for al-Qaeda.
He wasn't captured, as was reported previously. He wasn't killed May 1 by hostile fire from U.S. forces, as reported in a May 3 New York Times story. He wasn't even real, according to the U.S. military.
All this we learn from a leading al-Qaeda figure captured July 4 by U.S. forces in Mosul. Khalid Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who in the interest of economy will be referred to hereinafter as "Smitty," told interrogators that Baghdadi was invented by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, aka Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, hereinafter referred to as "Jimbo."
According to Smitty, Jimbo invented Baghdadi to create the impression among Iraqis that al-Qaeda is a nationalistic group in Iraq when, in fact, the Islamic State was a Sunni Muslim insurgent group run by an Egyptian, who hired an Iraqi actor to read statements from the fictional al-Baghdadi.
Well, it's good to have all that straight.
If you're confused, feel the love. Confusion is the coin of the kingdom in Iraq, an always-reliable weapon made sharper by cyber-technology and alphabet-exhausting names.
Whatever else Baghdadi may or may not have done during his fake life leading up to his fake capture and fake death, he has effectively killed comedy. How do you satirize satire? How do you parody a parody? How do you caricature caricature?
In a war theater of the absurd, where war is waged by actors pretending to speak for fictional leaders, does the world die laughing?
Given that al-Baghdadi wasn't real and his organization existed in cyberspace, a cynic might be tempted to ask: If there's no Islamic State of Iraq except in cyberspace, is there also no al-Qaeda?
If there's no al-Baghdadi, is there no Osama bin Laden?
But of course there's an al-Qaeda. We've all seen that videotape tape with the black-hooded guys hopping through an obstacle exercise. And of course there's a bin Laden -- or at least there was. Maybe he's alive; maybe not. If you can invent an organization and a leader in cyberspace, you can surely keep a bin Laden alive in the hearts and minds of suicide-lemming squads.
What we have here isn't a failure to communicate, but an excessive ability to communicate without the ability to differentiate between what is real and what is merely perceived. The world of virtuality has lifted war from the trenches into the realm of the imagination.
We have real enemies on the ground -- real people who bleed real blood -- but we also have virtual enemies who create impressions of force. Which is more deadly? Is it necessary to kill one's enemy or is it sufficient to inflict the psychic equivalent of death -- to convince the enemy that he has been defeated?
Nations have always employed propaganda in war, though the U.S. isn't very good at it. We don't like propaganda much -- the American media are contemptuous of "disinformation" -- and almost think of it as dishonest compared to the virtue of hands-on courage. But virtuality has amped up the reach and power of information and disinformation, and we're losing that battle. Today entire universes of perception can be convincingly created and integrated into the global psyche.
If the conglomerate of female voices known as "Tokyo Rose" speaking seductively over the airwaves could rattle homesick American warriors during World War II, imagine what a Web site accessible to millions can accomplish among whole populations primed for demoralization -- or dominion.
The idea of al-Qaeda is nearly as potent as the pathology that drives it. The terrorist wins by cultivating the expectation of horror with a few events strategically staged. A handful of psychopaths thwarts the armies of powerful nations through the propagation of perception.
In the virtual world of myth and viral propaganda, Osama bin Laden achieves immortality and the war on terror becomes a clash of phantoms. If our enemies can invent people and organizations, perhaps we might begin to invent victory.
We are limited only by our imagination -- or defeated by a lack thereof.