“They came out of nowhere.” That was the common refrain when ISIS captured the world’s attention by seizing large swaths of Iraq, declaring an Islamic caliphate, and initiating a series of deadly terrorist attacks around the globe, including in Paris and Brussels.
But as the new FRONTLINE documentary The Secret History of ISIS reveals in grim detail, the emergence of the brutal terrorist group should not have been a surprise — especially to the U.S. government.
“Time and time again, American officials over two administrations missed their chance to stop the rise of ISIS,” says veteran FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk (Gunned Down,Losing Iraq, United States of Secrets, League of Denial, Bush’s War, The Choice). “Our new film lays out how and why we got here. We’ve found that it’s a story of unintended consequences, compounding over time in catastrophic and tragic ways.”
The Secret History of ISIS investigates the inside political story of how the American invasion of Iraq and the decisions of two Presidents helped to lay the groundwork for ISIS to grow into the world’s most feared terrorist group.
Going behind the headlines, the film shows how Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a one-time thug turned jihadi leader, was able to outmaneuver the American government for a time and build a brutal terrorist organization that would destabilize the Middle East and inflict violence around the world.
“There were many steps along the way where the United States government made decisions that seemed to make sense at the time,” former White House counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke tells FRONTLINE. “But without those series of decisions, there would be no ISIS.”
An epic story spanning more than a decade, The Secret History of ISIS lays out those decisions and their unintended consequences: from a missed opportunity to kill Zarqawi in 2002, to a speech by Secretary of State Colin Powell that inadvertently turned Zarqawi into a jihadist celebrity, to multiple missteps in the occupation of Iraq, to the Obama administration’s failure to counter the threat posed by ISIS in Syria.
The film draws on a rich archive of footage, documents, and more than 20 revelatory interviews with key policymakers including Powell, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford; CIA insiders including Nada Bakos and Sam Faddis; and numerous journalists and counterterrorism experts.
The film shows how Zarqawi developed what would become the ISIS playbook right under the U.S. government’s nose — fomenting sectarian violence among Muslims, stepping in to take advantage of power vacuums, and broadcasting beheadings far and wide on the internet — and how Zarqawi’s successor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi then followed Zarqawi’s method and created an Islamic state founded on brutal violence and fear
“Now, they have countries. They have armies. They have tanks. They have missiles. They have stuff that Osama bin Laden did not dream to have in his wildest dreams,” says counterterrorism expert and former FBI agent Ali Soufan.
From one of the most acclaimed investigative teams in broadcast journalism, The Secret History of ISIS is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand how ISIS came to be, and how we got here.
The Secret History of ISIS premieres Tuesday, May 17, at 10/9c on PBS (check local listings) and will stream in full, for free, online at pbs.org/frontline.