The inside story of the the radicals who became the leaders of ISIS, the many missed warning signs and the U.S. failures to stop the terror group's brutal rise.

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Jim Gilmore ...
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The inside story of the the radicals who became the leaders of ISIS, the many missed warning signs and the U.S. failures to stop the terror group's brutal rise.

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17 May 2016 (USA)  »

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How ISIS came to be what it is
30 May 2016 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

This program describes the progression of ISIS from the days it was an idea in the head of a Jordanian street tough to its status today as the world's most feared terrorist organization.

"We created chaos. We abandoned that chaos. We created ISIS," we are told by one of the well-spoken and -informed experts who are quoted in this episode.

To an uncomprehending world, ISIS seemed to arise out of nowhere in early 2014, spreading out to capture a third of western Iraq, whose army didn't even put up a fight. Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, "fell in a day."

We hear here the story of how ISIS wasn't new. Indeed, it had been at war for more than a decade, since the United States had occupied Iraq following the attacks of 9/11.

A little-known ex-con, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had gone to Kandahar, Afghanistan, hoping to gain the favor of Osama bin Ladin, and failed to do so, had come to the attention of US intelligence as a potential danger to US troops in the region after 9/11. However, the Bush administration opted against eliminating Zarqawi when it had the chance.

Adding to problems at this time was the US's firing of toppled dictator Saddam Hussein's army of 250,000 troops, leaving them feeling they didn't matter anymore and leaving many to become "easy targets to recruit" to Zarqawi's cause. And so, "the insurgency began," but, at that point, no one in the West knew yet who was really behind it.

"We believed our own spin that everything was under control," we're told. An endless series of car bombings and other violence left the US on its own in dealing with this incarnation of the crisis. (Key players at the time, Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby, declined to be interviewed by Frontline.)

It wasn't till Zarqawi gained world attention in a video that showed him personally beheading American hostage Nick Berg that the US began to take him seriously.

"Finally, Zarqawi had the full attention of the US government. We put a $25 million price on his head...Zarqawi's standing over the mutilated body delivers his message to the world."

Zarqawi's violence toward fellow Arabs was too much even for Bin Laden to take and he ordered him to stop. However, when Zarqawi's forces blew up the most important Shia shrine, the Golden Dome in Samarra, it was clear that wasn't going to happen. Zarqawi wanted to create "an Islamic state, the first step toward a global caliphate...the fulfillment of prophecy."

Finally came the "surge" headed by US Gen. David Petraeus, who made an alliance with Sunni tribes who had once worked with Zarqawi. As American troops started to kill off Zarqawi's fighters, "we had our boot on their neck," Petraeus recalls here. Zarqawi was killed in a US bomb strike in 2006, but his operation simply went underground to emerge with a vengeance two years ago.

President Obama had been elected on a promise to withdraw troops from Iraq, and he had decided that would happen by the end of 2011, after almost nine years of war in the region. And with that withdrawal started to come the re-emergence of ISIS, helmed by its new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a former religious scholar, who, it turned out, was zealously eager to continue Zarqawi's bloody campaign.

Baghdadi was looking for a vulnerable state to exploit and found it in Syria, where dictator Assad had been violently putting down protests. The US ambassador had advocated helping the rebels, but Obama didn't want to get involved in another internecine quagmire.

"The civil war in Syria gave Baghdadi an opportunity." ISIS started taking over territory in Syria, and Baghdadi declared ISIS a state with its capital in Raqqa. And "inside its territory it rules with violence and fear."

ISIS later set its sights on Iraq, where Shia prime minister Malaki had earlier imposed a crackdown on Sunnis.

Today, ISIS dominates Mosul and other cities in Iraq -- a total of 5 million people. It reportedly has 40 affiliated groups operating in 16 countries, and we have seen the deadly effects in Paris, Belgium, and other places; violent attacks have occurred in 90 nations.

I took notes throughout this episode, in the hopes I could keep everything in this byzantine story straight. I've related it as I THINK it occurred.

There is a lot to sort through here, and it's quite confusing in the end. But I don't think that's "Frontline's" fault. Such is our extremely messy world...


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