Sometimes a good documentary merely confirms what is generally feared to be true. But as any government official (or journalist) will acknowledge, confirmation is not an easy task. Layers of nuance and obfuscation have to be scrubbed away before the truth emerges, and the result is often unpalatable. Truth, though cleansing, can also be disturbing, especially when it confirms fear.
That is what makes “The Rise of ISIS,” the latest from PBS’ “Frontline” documentary series, an especially potent moment of truth at this juncture. As the program details in interviews with government officials, journalists, and think-tank experts, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has become a veritable country within two countries, one based in terror and extremism to be sure, but a self-sustaining one with a fearsome army and the means to take by force great swaths of land once considered sovereign. Moreover, the documentary leads the viewer to draw the ineluctable conclusion that ISIS could have been stopped.
“The Rise of ISIS” begins by recapping the domino-crash in Iraq after the U.S. military withdrawal, a period that conversely coincided with the ascendance of ISIS: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s paranoia that Sunnis were out to destroy his tenuous regime and his ruthless attempt to quash their opposition to Shia domination; the war-weary United States’ disregard of how Syria’s civil war presented an irresistible opportunity for the splintered and mostly impotent al Qaeda in Iraq to rise again on both sides of the Syrian border; the Obama administration’s reluctance to apply diplomatic force even as the Maliki government flouted U.S. wishes for a more inclusive alliance in Iraq; and inaction and inertia on the part of the United States and its allies as ISIS swept over territory integral to the national identity of Iraq and Syria.
Correspondent Martin Smith, noted for documenting the turmoil in Iraq for “Frontline” since 2003 (“Beyond Baghdad,” “Gangs of Iraq”), builds his case against Western inaction compellingly, interweaving interviews with news footage (including some hard-to-watch summary executions — though no beheadings, thankfully). Among his sources are former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (who, as onetime director of the CIA, had knowledge of the emerging threat ISIS presented and herein expresses veiled frustration that his warnings were not heeded); current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey (who comes off as less than optimistic that the United States can avoid sending ground troops to fight ISIS); Ali Khedery, the young special assistant in Iraq from 2003 to 2009 who relates in chillingly direct language the goals of ISIS and its unyielding leaders; and journalist Dexter Filkins, the former New York Times reporter and author of “The Forever War,” who recounts the extraordinary exploits of ISIS with the deadpan intonation of a seasoned war correspondent.
Throughout, Smith presents evidence of the brutality and grim conviction with which ISIS figureheads and militants have gone about their conquest, at times showing the sang froid of young men gunning down apparent prisoners or uttering chants to Allah as they ride off on a suicide-bombing mission. And though Smith is careful not to paint the carnage as characteristic of mainstream Muslims, he doesn’t go far enough in depicting ISIS as a jihad rooted in a runaway, fanatical branch of Islam. He thus misses an opportunity to characterize the religious overtones to all the bloodlust and barbarity. Just as America and its allies consider it their moral imperative to confront ISIS, so does ISIS take the fight as its religious destiny, one that joins it with oppressed Muslims throughout the Mideast and also the world. As any war strategist will confirm, religious fervor always ups the ante in a conflict.
That missing element aside, “The Rise of ISIS” presents a fairly complete summary of just how awry things have gone since the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, the numerous policy blunders in the years that preceded the U.S. troop withdrawal, and the Obama administration’s misreading of the vacuum of power occasioned by that withdrawal — a void into which ISIS has stepped, with disquieting consequences.