ISIS

PBS Explores the Origins of the Islamic State's Terror Campaign

Frontline details the history of ISIS.

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ISIS
PBS, "Frontline"

Frontline: The Secret History of ISIS. PBS. Tuesday, May 17, 10 p.m.

The most significant TV show in the world doesn't air on American television. It's the steady stream of appallingly bloodthirsty videos released on the Internet by ISIS, which provide a ghastly blueprint of the group's plans for a worldwide Islamic caliphate.

"I get a steady diet of these videos they put out," says New Yorker correspondent Dexter Filkins. "So today they stoned to death a man because they suspected him for being gay, or they stoned to death a woman, or they put a man in a car and exploded it, or they skinned somebody alive, or they crucified somebody, or they beheaded somebody. Every day."

Filkins' recitation of video highlights comes from The Secret History of ISIS, a grim, incisive episode of the PBS documentary series Frontline, produced, directed, and co-written by Michael Kirk, a veteran chronicler of both U.S. intelligence and the Middle East. It's a fine work of journalism that explains the origins of the jihadist group that President Obama once contemptuously referred to as "a JV team" that now controls roughly a quarter of the territory of Iraq and Syria.

And though The Secret History of ISIS is neither ideological nor prescriptive, it necessarily implies a lot of troubling questions about American ability to even understand, much less control, events in the Middle East.

As Secret History notes, the sudden public materialization in 2014 of ISIS as a terrorist quasi-state presiding over a vast swath of western Iraq "seemed to come out of nowhere." Wasn't our chief enemy in the Middle East supposed to be the battered al Qaeda, virtually rudderless under a lethal rain of drone missile strikes?

Americans confused by the shuffled military deck may find it comforting (or perhaps just depressing) when former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel admits in Secret History that the seizure of Fallujah, Ramadi and other major Iraqi cities was, for the most of the U.S. government, "the jolting gong that said, how could this happen?"

In fact, the group that would eventually call itself ISIS had been on the CIA's radar since the days immediately following Sept. 11. Its leader was a Jordanian career criminal, radicalized in prison, who went by the name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. (His more prosaic prison nickname had been the Green Man, referring to the color of the tattoos covering his body, but when he turned jihadist, Zarqawi had them removed with a smuggled razor blade.) After his release from prison, Zarqawi went to Afghanistan in hope of bringing his small group into al Qaeda.

Secret History meticulously traces Zarqawi's fascinating passage from petty prison enforcer to theocratic madman, with special emphasis on his talent for (and grand luck at) exploiting the kinks in U.S. policy.

Rejected by Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi set up shop in Iraq. The CIA, certain he was tinkering with biochemical weapons inside his camp, devised a plan to kill him with a bomber strike … but the Bush administration, though on the verge of launching a massive shock-and-awe war against Iraq, had a sudden case of prissy-pants. "Let's not start the war before we're ready," former Secretary of State Colin Powell recalls arguing. Instead, administration officials contented themselves with arguing to disbelieving CIA analysts that Zarqawi's presence in Iraq proved a connection between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden.

Zarqawi, meanwhile, bided his time. When victorious American forces began purging the Iraqi army of all members of the vanquished Saddam's political party, which left hundreds of thousands of militarily trained Sunni Muslims out of work and tipped the balance of political power to their Shia rivals, Zarqawi launched a hellish assault of car-bombs spiced with the occasional on-line decapitation video. "It was murderous, it was psychopathic, it was horrific," recalls a journalist who was there.

The CIA had spotted Zarqawi's hand in the violence right away. But once again, Bush administration officials refused to go along with the agency's analysis, mostly because they didn't want to admit there was organized resistance to American occupation. Among the most captivating moments in Secret History is an interview with a CIA officer who answered the phone at her desk one afternoon and was stunned to find vice-presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby on the line, haranguing her for an unsigned analysis she'd written about Zarqawi in the presidential daily brief. It was only when Zarqawi himself appeared on a video beheading an American construction worker with a machete that the White House gave up the fight—and in a big way, posting a $25 million reward that gave new meaning to the old Green Man name. 

As the body count mounted, even bin Laden—who at first was impressed and persuaded Zarqawi to operate under the name al Qaeda In Iraq—became appalled, sending a letter telling him to stop killing so many Muslims lest he launch a civil war between Sunnis and Shia. But that was precisely Zarqawi's strategy: to use the chaos of a civil war to make a power grab. He soon released another video, this time without a balaclava covering his face, to proclaim his goal of a worldwide Islamic caliphate, a goal beyond even bin Laden's grandiose ambitions.

Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. air strike in 2006, and his group pushed near the point of extinction when Sunni Muslims weary of the violence allied with U.S. troops in the so-called surge strategy. Perhaps as few as three dozen survived, now led by an Iraqi calling himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who learned the jihadist trade in a U.S. military prison early in the war.

If anything, Baghdadi's bloodlust was even more intense than Zarqawi's. "Degradation cannot be erased except by sacrificing souls and lives, spilling blood, scattering carnage, skulls, martyrs and injured all along the way," he declared. When civil war broke out in Syria, creating more bedlam, he was ready to pounce.

ISIS now not only controls enough territory to justify its description of itself as a state, it has proven itself a worldwide threat, planning or inspiring more than 90 overseas attacks that have taken more than 1,000 civilian lives. Its alliances with more 40 other terrorist organizations will only extend its reach. Flatly declares Secret State: "The worst is yet to come."

That's an unsettling idea without any easy solutions—or even hard ones—in sight. ISIS's forthrightly internationalist ambitions for mayhem cannot be ignored. Yet there's nothing in the past four decades of American policy in the Middle East that suggests we have the capacity to control or even contain events there. From CIA aid to anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan to American support of Kuwait against Saddam Hussein's invasion, it's been one long, grisly and as yet unlearned lesson in unforeseen consequences. Watching Secret State, it's chillingly clear that it isn't over yet.

NEXT: Kim Kardashian Loves Cuba! "Like We Stepped Back into a Different Time Period"

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  1. Query: Would it be a huge mistake to recognize the Islamic State diplomatically? I know it would give them legitimacy, but it would also allow them to be prodded with the threat of total war.

    1. No, because then you can declare war on it, drive them before us and hear the lamentations of their women.

      1. I think their women are already lamenting.

        1. But why? Sex slaves get equal pay for equal work!

    2. Would it be a huge mistake to recognize the Islamic State diplomatically?

      Well, it might be seen as validating their claim as the “Vatican City” of Islam, which if we were to declare war upon such a “legitimized” Caliphate would fit into all of their rhetoric about a Western war on Islam proper.

      1. I doubt the Syrians or Iraqis would appreciate us recognizing a new country occupying 1/3 of their territory.

        1. I doubt the Syrians or Iraqis would appreciate us recognizing a new country occupying 1/3 of their territory.

          There isn’t really any such thing as a “Syrian” or an “Iraqi.” These are conglomerate countries anyway, with complicated interwoven ethnic and religious groups left over from 500 years of the Ottoman Empire.

          The identities are far more localized (and border-crossing) than “Iraq” or “Syria,” which are largely UN-created fictions. Especially since “Syria,” historically, = Antioch + surrounding land, while Antioch is currently part of Turkey. This makes Syria an essentially unworkable country.

          But the long-standing UN-mandated status quo in the region is NO CHANGE. No matter what. No matter how awkward and unworkable the borders, no matter how incongruously cobbled-together the populations, NO BORDER ARE TO CHANGE EVAR.

          1. I don’t see why being multi-ethnic lends a country any less legitmacy. The nation-state triad of geographic region, ethnicity, and language (These people are French, they live in France, and they speak French) really only works in modern Europe and breaks down into absurdity elsewhere. China is a complicated conglomerate of interwoven ethnic and religious groups of over 5,000 years of empire building and internecine warfare. Does this make the PRC an “essentially unworkable country”?

            1. Legitimacy is a sticky word, and I 100% agree that the ethnic-nation-state as a model works only in Europe, and not even really there (“French” being “really” only the people who live around Paris – southerners and Bretons are somewhat less “French”), and the idea of ethnic-nation-states are a plague on modern history IMHO.

              That said, what I mean is that “Iraq” is not a nation-state that developed the same way that, say, “France” did. From about 1525 to 1919, Iraq was simply part of the Ottoman Empire, and for about 1000 years before that was part of the Persian Empire.

              The various different groups of people who live there didn’t decide to make the country “Iraq” – the UN did.

              Likewise, I say “Syria” is unworkable not because of ethnic diversity, but because of its artificial separation from Antioch, on which the interior region has always depended.

              IOW, I posit that the Gulf Arabs, for example, don’t feel much actual nationalistic kinship as “Iraqis” with the Arabs of al-Anbar, let alone with the Kurds or the large Persian population of the Baghdad-Bosra region. The fact that this nationalistic relationship was imposed from outside doesn’t help.

              China works because China came to be China all on its own. That is the difference that I’m pointing to.

              1. China works because China came to be China all on its own. That is the difference that I’m pointing to.

                Well, there was some early 20th-century tomfoolerly with Tibet and parts of Mongolia, but yeah. I do agree that culturally, tribal identification is a stronger factor than any pan-Arabic identity..remember both Syria and Iraqi are failed Baathist states and that whole UAR thing. That having been said, pan-Arabism and Arabic socialism are indigenous creations, and the irony is that the Islamic State’s and Islamism as a whole, raison d’etre is the the unification of all Muslims under one banner.

                1. pan-Arabism and Arabic socialism are indigenous creations, and the irony is that the Islamic State’s and Islamism as a whole, raison d’etre is the the unification of all Muslims under one banner.

                  Indeed – it’s their own Trump phenomenon. Enthusiasm for the UAR (at the political level) seemed to be confined to those who thought they were going to be in charge of it. When Saddam found out Egypt was going to be the flagship, and not Iraq, he dropped out. Only Syria and Egypt wound up changing their names, and it never really went any further than that.

                  The general populace of (linguistic) Arabs, though, does have a medium of cultural unity in their written language – much like China, actually. I wonder whether the same populist element that is critical of the Saudis for not taking their role as guardians of the Holy Places seriously was also disgusted with the politics that led the UAR to fail, and have taken matters into their own hands, so to speak.

                  You have to be careful with rhetoric about national unity and “making your country great again” (Ba’ath / al-Mahdi) – people can start taking you seriously.

            2. But there is also no good reason to insist that borders must remain as they are from now on.

      2. BTW, if the modern day Vatican was engaging in the same things the modern day [recognized] Caliphate was doing, I’d have little objection to bombing the Pope back to blighty.

        1. I think Italy would be pissed off at the collateral damage.

          1. What about San Marino? It too lies entirely within Italy, and has a most interesting past, mostly off the record and off the radar until 1929.

      3. Well, it might be seen as validating their claim as the “Vatican City” of Islam

        They should probably do something about Mecca too if they want that honor.

      4. We need to not declare a war on ISIS. We need to declare jihad on ISIS. Site the many, varied rules in the Quran they’ve broken, declare them apostates and transgressors, and declare a righteous struggle against them in the name of Allah and his Law, calling upon the ummah to resist these infidels.

        Would spoil their narrative, or at the very least, force them to spend time explaining themselves.

        1. ^ I like this.

        2. Like I give a shit about the Koran’s rules. I don’t need to accuse them on their own terms.

  2. Rejected by Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi set up shop in Iraq.

    That can’t be true. Iraq was a peaceful nation and Saddam never supported or fostered terrorists.

    1. Iraq was a peaceful nation and Saddam never supported or fostered terrorists.

      The bullshit lie we were told was that Saddam was actively supporting and training al-Qaeda, not that he supported and fostered terrorists.

  3. Hmmmm? Where have I heard this story before?

      1. I’m not sure why this is so controversial among the commentariat, but you should definitely plan on blowback for this argument.

    1. And here.

      And not even a hat tip from PBS.

  4. What this world could use is a religion of peace.

  5. “(His more prosaic prison nickname had been the Green Man, referring to the color of the tattoos covering his body, but when he turned jihadist, Zarqawi had them removed with a smuggled razor blade.)”

    Sounds like a round of the fun game “fanatical, insane, or both (a) and (b)?”

  6. ISIS now not only controls enough territory to justify its description of itself as a state, it has proven itself a worldwide threat, planning or inspiring more than 90 overseas attacks that have taken more than 1,000 civilian lives. Its alliances with more 40 other terrorist organizations will only extend its reach. Flatly declares Secret State: “The worst is yet to come.”

    I’ve been reading reports that ISIS– like Al Qaeda was– is on the ropes, has had its black market oil sales routes and markets devastated and has trouble paying its own troops.

    1. I’ve been reading reports that ISIS– like Al Qaeda was– is on the ropes, has had its black market oil sales routes and markets devastated and has trouble paying its own troops.

      That’s just what they want you to think – so you’ll drop your guard.

  7. Spoiler: Everyone involved is a fucking sociopath.

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  9. Oh please. ISIS is just a Saudi mercenary army with help from CIA and Hollywood to create videos to incite your children to jihad against you. It’s repackaged drug war propaganda 102. Don’t believe it? Follow the State Dept’s twitter feed – supposedly propaganda designed to ‘deradicalize’.

  10. Issue letters of marque and reprisal naming individual terrorists to be slain, and declare unambiguously that formally supporting anybody attainted by those letters will be considered acts of war against the United States.

    1. Ha!! As if America was balsy enough to declare war on Saudi Arabia. No, we “need” them as allies for some satanic reason.

      1. No, we “need” them as allies for some satanic reason.

        $$$$$$$$$$$$

        Debts don’t pay themselves.

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  12. This is all cute, but sidesteps the question raised in the article. Why are islamofascist jihadists (and christianofascist crusaders for that matter) so fascinated by and attracted to death?

    “A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death. ” Ayn, 1957

    Of course, since 1957 one of these mystical factions has resorted to the subterfuge of elision, describing its Trilbys accurately–as far as it goes–but incompletely. “Absolutely in favor of life after death being more important than real life” is elided–skilfully enough to impress George Orwell–into “pro-life” by antichoice christianofascists. Do mohammedans resort to similarly pathetic dissimulation? Apparently not. The enticing promise of imposing their will on some 72 child-brides is more effective than continual noetic orgasm in the presence of Yaweh. The Antichoice seems to be the Mark of the Beast motivating both pathetic superstitions.

    So, just where is the Public Brainwashing System peddling these snuff flicks from Allah? All I can find is commie flicks on North Korea.

    1. …and christianofascist crusaders for that matter…

      Who would those be?

  13. RE: PBS Explores the Origins of the Islamic State’s Terror Campaign

    Gee, I wonder if the People’s Broadcasting System will ever explore the possibility that some of these people actually enjoy killing innocent people in order to launch a theocratic totalitarian state?
    Nah.
    That would hurt someone’s feelings plus it’s not politically correct.
    You know how it is.

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  17. (His more prosaic prison nickname had been the Green Man, referring to the color of the tattoos covering his body, but when he turned jihadist, Zarqawi had them removed with a smuggled razor blade.)

    I call B.S. on either the extent of his tattoos or the removal method. Whatever: Something doesn’t pass the smell test.

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  23. That’s right, we can’t control events in the ME, and NEITHER the R’s or the D’s understand that.

    So we have a mis-mash of conflicting ideas about how to solve the problems and/or protect the US from events in the ME from both the R’s and the D’s (sometimes by the same person in the same paragraph).

    The ONE lesson that should have been learned by now is that you can’t convince the vast majority in the ME to embrace Democracy.

    And why? Because the vast majority are Muslim and Islam isn’t about Democracy, or particularly the rights of the individual.

    Islam is about theft, rape, and murder. At its root it is piracy. At its’ most sophisticated it is a VIOLENT political ideology of conquest.

    And for certain bringing more Muslims to the US, and the West, is not going to change what Islam is.

    Right now Islam is conquering Europe. We’re next. The R’s and the D’s better figure that out.

    Maybe the L’s (libertarians) should too.

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  31. That’s right, we can’t control events in the ME, and NEITHER the R’s or the D’s understand that.

    So we have a mis-mash of conflicting ideas about how to solve the problems and/or protect the US from events in the ME from both the R’s and the D’s (sometimes by the same person in the same paragraph).

    The ONE lesson that should have been learned by now is that you can’t convince the vast majority in the ME to embrace Democracy.

    And why? Because the vast majority are Muslim and Islam isn’t about Democracy, or particularly the rights of the individual.

    Islam is about theft, rape, and murder. At its root it is piracy. At its’ most sophisticated it is a VIOLENT political ideology of conquest.

    And for certain bringing more Muslims to the US, and the West, is not going to change what Islam is.

    Right now Islam is conquering Europe. We’re next. The R’s and the D’s better figure that out.

    Maybe the L’s (libertarians) should too.????? ???
    ???????

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