Frontline: The Secret History of ISIS

It is good to see organizations like PBS take on the history of ISIS, with their piece this week, The Secret History of ISIS. It’s not horrible, and it’s good to see that they were able to interview some of the key players – original sources matter. You should make time to watch it; it’s about 45 minutes in length, and it will stream on just about any device.

Three things, though, after you watch it.

1) Frontline does a good job of pointing out that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) / Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) had been defeated. PBS even goes to the point of defining what defeat means – unable to reconstitute. Three years later, al-Baghdadi was able to birth a new, different organization in Syria – seemingly riding from the ashes. Whole ISIL may trace its lineage back through AQI to Zarqawi’s Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in pre-invasion Iraq, these are all different organizations. This Long War is a movement, a struggle – what doesn’t work today, or is defeated, is only going to be transformed into something else that does work, with new members, new tactics, new techniques.

2) When Zarqawi and crew blew up the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra in 2006, they did more than ignite a sectarian war. They brought the state of Iran into the war. The Frontline piece hinted at the wholesale violence that began with the attack, but I don’t think they really captured it. It was terrifying. The Shia militias, and the Iraqi security forces for that matter, went primeval. The Government of Iraq responded with security measures and with violence, but so do Iran. And when we look at the conflict today, we can see that this is the proximate cause for state involvement in this greater Sunni/Shia war across the region. It began with the attack on the Al-Askari Shrine.

3) This is a very good example of the politicization of the intelligence process. If you listen carefully, the CIA analyst Nada Bakos talks about how she and the others worked to carefully describe the role that Zarqawi had in Iraq, prior to 9/11, and what role he would / would not have had between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. But then when you listen to Colin Powell, he very clearly talks about how the language of his speech before the UN was changed by the time it got to him – either by the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) – because he can do that, since his name is the one on the assessment – or be others, like those in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. If it’s the former, well, he’s the DCI and he can do that. If it’s the latter, that’s politicization, and that’s not right.

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