Read a review by John Doyle.
Who Runs the Islamic State? See an interactive graphic from Frontline.
A year ago, few people had heard of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — the brutal jihadist group that President Obama calls a “network of death.” How did ISIS become a major force so quickly? And what does it mean for the U.S. and coalition forces to be back in Iraq, fighting a new war on terror?
The Rise of ISIS is a major, in-depth investigation of the brutal terrorist group’s ascent, from veteran journalist Martin Smith. It investigates the miscalculations and mistakes behind the rise of the ruthless jihadist group. “This documentary lays out, in chilling detail, the buildup of unheeded warnings, failures, and missed opportunities that allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to become ISIS,” says Smith, who was on the ground in Iraq when the U.S. began airstrikes this summer.
In The Rise of ISIS, Smith draws on comprehensive interviews with Iraqi politicians, American policymakers and military leaders (including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta) to explore and explain how ISIS developed into what one interviewee calls “the al-Qaeda that Osama bin Laden only dreamed of building.”
Along the way, Smith delivers a revelatory look at how ISIS grew out of the disaffection of Iraqi Sunnis who were sidelined and targeted by Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after the American withdrawal.
“By the time Americans left Iraq in 2011, al-Qaeda in Iraq had been almost completely destroyed,” Smith says. “But the ISIS of 2014 is reborn out of Sunni fears, and by the people the U.S. couldn’t manage to kill during the war — described to me as ‘a collection of killers very good at surviving’: the most battle-hardened al-Qaeda militants, a few embittered tribesmen, and some remnants of Saddam's Baathist military hoping to regain power.”
The Rise of ISIS traces how they gained strength in Syria, how they're funded, how they operate, and how, city by city, from Ramadi to Fallujah to Mosul, ISIS swept across Iraq — seizing territory, recording and broadcasting mass executions, and drawing recruits from an estimated 80 countries.
“[ISIS] became a movement by manipulation of the information space, and by playing on the fears of Sunnis, and by confronting the tribes,” says Gen. Dempsey.
“This is one of the first terrorist groups saying, ‘You know what? We're not going to hit and run, and we're never going to participate in politics as you know it. We actually want to kill everyone who disagrees with us,’” says counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan.
With ISIS continuing to take and hold territory in Iraq and Syria despite U.S. and coalition airstrikes, and President Obama’s foreign policy legacy hanging in the balance, The Rise of ISIS is the definitive account of how we reached this point.
The Rise of ISIS is a PBS production with Rain Media. The writer, producer and correspondent is Martin Smith. The co-producer is Linda Hirsch.
Find more content and analysis on the Frontline website.
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