Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"The Secret History of ISIS" on PBS Frontline


Tuesday night, PBS Frontline aired “The Secret History of ISIS”, which it bills as a “Tale of Two Presidents” (W. Bush and Obama) and prevent a new terror movement.

The documentary focuses first on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who, like so many militants, was hardened in prison.  At one point, he did the ultimate body shave, to remove tattoos that were un-Islamic.  The documentary traces his desire to outdo Osama bin Laden, coming up with the idea of a caliphate.  The strategy was at first to foment extreme violence against Shiites in Iraq, starting a major secondary war, leading to increased militancy among Sunnis and ability to recruit youth.


Much of the early part of the film deals with the work of the CIA; analyst Nada Bakos often speaks. When Colin Powell made his big speech arguing for intervention in Iraq in early 2003, the Bush administration ignored a lot of the recommendations of the CIA, which had vetted the speech and recommended many changes to reflect its factual analysis.  This would particularly apply to how Zarqawi as perceived, as well as the collapse of the Iraqi military after Sadam Hussein fell.  A major incident was the assassination by beheading of volunteer Nick Berg .

The documentary shifts all too quickly to later history in the Obama years, with the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the history from early 2014 now well known.  What seems shocking is the ability of ISIS to recruit fighters on social media, especially from Europe, and the nihilistic psychology that tempts to many young men and some young men into this “cult” of fighting. The result has been coordinated attacks in Paris and Brussels and some lone wolf attempts in the US.  This fits into the narrative of an early CNN documentary, “Blindsided” (May 11, 2015, and anticipates the delayed “Why They Hate Us” bu Fareed Zakaria).

Wikipedia attribution link for Baghdad picture  p.d., by “zzztriple”.

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