How U.S. Prisons in Iraq Became “Jihadi Universities” for ISIS

U.S. prisons housed Iraqis swept up by American forces during the early days of the invasion, and would come to be known as "jihadi universities."

U.S. prisons housed Iraqis swept up by American forces during the early days of the invasion, and would come to be known as "jihadi universities."

May 17, 2016

Shortly after his inauguration in 2009, President Barack Obama announced his intention to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

Now, ISIS has taken hold inside the country, as well as in neighboring Syria, and the U.S. is sending more troops back to Iraq, with the goal of helping government forces recapture the strategic city of Mosul from the group’s grip.

Tonight, a new FRONTLINE documentary, The Secret History of ISIS, examines the role that America’s invasion of Iraq — and its eventual withdrawal from the country — have played in the terror group’s brutal rise.

“We disengaged not only militarily at the end of 2011, we disengaged politically,” former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker tells FRONTLINE in the below excerpt from the film. “Well, I don’t think we thought through exactly how many chips were going to fall and what the consequences of that would be.”

The documentary, from veteran FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk, is a deep look at how a petty criminal-turned-jihadist firebrand, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, capitalized on the American invasion to develop what would become the ISIS playbook — fomenting sectarian violence among Muslims, stepping in to take advantage of power vacuums, and broadcasting brutality far and wide on the Internet — and how his eventual successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, followed Zarqawi’s method and created a self-proclaimed Islamic state founded on deadly violence and fear.

As the film details, it was inside a U.S. prison in Iraq that Baghdadi made the transition from religious scholar and soccer player to terrorist leader. These prisons housed Iraqis swept up by U.S. forces during the early days of the invasion, and would come to be known as “jihadi universities.”

“For a number of people who had spent time in these jails, they spoke about them as jihadi training camps,” Emma Sky, formerly of the Iraq coalition authority, tells FRONTLINE in the below scene from The Secret History of ISIS. “Through being in jail together, people created new networks.”

In prison, Baghdadi was “able to network with other committed jihadists, capable jihadists that were attached to major organizations like Al Qaeda in Iraq, and he begins to network with these men, many of whom he would rise with through the ranks of Al Qaeda in Iraq, later the Islamic State,” Will McCants, author of The ISIS Apocalypse, tells FRONTLINE.

After his release, Baghdadi moved up inside Zarqawi’s organization, drawing on what he had learned in prison. Once American forces left Iraq in late 2011, what was left of Zarqawi’s group — then isolated in northern Iraq — began to rebuild under Baghdadi’s leadership.

They soon expanded into Syria, and in the two years since ISIS declared its own caliphate, it has formally recognized nearly 20 affiliates in nine countries.

For more on how the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the decisions of two presidents laid the groundwork for the rise of ISIS, watch The Secret History of ISIS on May 17, 2016, at 10 p.m. EST on PBS stations and online.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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