August 17, 2022

Event Coverage Highlight

Martin Smith Traces Roots of Terror in ‘The Rise of ISIS’

Martin Smith

Martin Smith

The group once known as ISIS, now called the Islamic State, was taking root in Syria and Iraq long before it began its campaign of terror and brutality.

Before Islamic State seized a string of cities along the Tigris River, before its members killed thousands of people and drove hundreds of thousands more from their homes, and before the organization started claiming responsibility for the brutal murders of journalists and other captives, a quiet civil war was fueling anger from radicalized Sunni Muslims against the Iraqi government.

In the hourlong Frontline documentary “The Rise of ISIS,” OPC Board of Governors member Martin Smith, who wrote and produced the film, traced the group’s evolution from a dwindling band of extremists in 2011 to the international movement it has grown into today.

The film begins as American troops pull out of Iraq in late 2011, and explores early signs of the group’s rise and missteps that helped to inspire its members. The documentary covers key galvanizing events like Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s purge of Sunni members from the Iraqi government, a brutal crackdown on Sunni protesters across the country, and the simmering war that pit Sunnis against President Bashar Hafez al-Assad in Syria.

Smith spoke to attendees after a special screening of the film at Club Quarters on Jan. 22. He said many Sunnis took up arms after witnessing atrocities in Syria and brutality against protesters in Iraq.

“There is still a network of people who feel this is a righteous cause,” Smith said during a Q&A session. “We don’t spend time looking at the atrocities that [Sunni Muslims in Syria and Iraq] are enduring. And there’s tremendous power in that. There is a calling throughout the Sunni world that says ‘this is a just cause and we must support it.’”

“But there has been a sort of revulsion about the violence and there has been a coming together, but still no firm commitment, either from the Sunni tribesmen. Some sided against ISIS, some not.”

Smith added that many of ISIS’s victories were helped by notable intelligence failures.

“What I think we didn’t understand very well was how rotten the Iraqi army was. And that the fall of Fallujah and then Mosul and then a host of other towns up and down the Tigris was a big surprise.”

He said without American advisers in Iraq, the US government lacked tools to help stanch the extremists’ surge.

“This goes back to the decision that was made to pull out, and we couldn’t get an agreement with the Iraqi government to leave some people there, so we didn’t have advisers on the ground who could have told us that in the barracks where there was supposed to be a thousand fighters, there were only 200.”

A member of the audience asked what Smith made of the lack of coverage in Western media of precipitating events in Iraq and ISIS’s momentum before it gained a foothold and began seizing cities.

“It was a surprise. And it really was instructive about how little we know about what’s going on in the world when we’re not paying attention,” he said. “It just shows how much can fit on the front page of The New York Times. There’s a big world.”

Smith is currently working on a follow-up documentary that will focus on conditions inside Syria.

You can watch the half-hour Q&A session in the window below: