How ISIS Came to Be: Four Docs to Watch

December 11, 2017
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

After more than three years of fighting, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has announced the end of major military operations against ISIS. In a speech declaring victory over ISIS, Abadi said, “Our battle was with the enemy that wanted to kill our civilization, but we have won with unity and determination.” At one point, ISIS controlled nearly one-third of Iraq, but in his speech this past weekend, Abadi said government forces now “fully control the Iraqi-Syrian border.”

But Iraq still faces a steep rebuilding process, and military experts have cautioned that ISIS and those who share its ideology will continue to pose a threat to Iraq. In fact, as The New York Times reported, “Iraqi intelligence and other officials over recent weeks have documented the rise of a possibly new violent Islamist movement in the country.”

How did the self-proclaimed Islamic State come to be in the first place? How has the battle against it played out across the Middle East? And how has the group’s brutal strategy changed over the years? FRONTLINE has been covering ISIS’s bloody and complex evolution since its earliest days. Here are four documentaries that explore the ISIS threat. 

This story, originally posted on June 16, 2017, was updated on Dec. 11, 2017.

Losing Iraq (July 2014)

In June of 2014, ISIS stunned the world by seizing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, after taking control of wide swaths of territory in Syria. But as this film from Michael Kirk and his team explored, ISIS didn’t come out of nowhere: Its roots were laid in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The film traces the U.S.’s role in the country from the 2003 invasion to the bloody emergence of a terror group that, as former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told FRONTLINE, made “bin Laden’s al Qaeda look like Boy Scouts.”

The Rise of ISIS (October 2014)

Reporting from Iraq as U.S. airstrikes against ISIS began, Martin Smith examined the buildup of unheeded warnings, failures and missed opportunities that allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to become ISIS. The film offers a revelatory look at how ISIS grew out of the disaffection of Iraqi Sunnis who were sidelined after the American withdrawal, how the group gained strength in Syria, and how it developed and funded its brutal strategy. “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,’” counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan told FRONTLINE.

The Secret History of ISIS (May 2016)

How was ISIS’s founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once a small-time criminal, able to build a brutal terrorist organization that would destabilize the Middle East and inflict violence around the world? Michael Kirk’s film takes an in-depth look at how Zarqawi developed what would become the ISIS playbook — fomenting sectarian violence among Muslims, stepping in to take advantage of power vacuums, and broadcasting beheadings on the internet — right under the U.S. government’s nose. The film also explores how Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, followed Zarqawi’s method to make ISIS an even more powerful threat. Watch an encore presentation of The Secret History of ISIS Tuesday, June 20 on PBS stations.

Confronting ISIS (October 2016)

 

 

Martin Smith traveled to five countries with key roles in the anti-ISIS fight — Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Turkey — to report on successes, failures and challenges as ISIS lost ground in the region, but lashed out with attacks abroad. He found that the conditions that helped give rise to ISIS in the first place, including sectarianism, were still prevailing in many cases — and that America and its allies in the fight against ISIS often had clashing agendas.

Explore FRONTLINE’s full archive of reporting on the ISIS threat here.

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