Frontline’s “The Secret History of ISIS” not only traces the roots of the terror organization to far earlier than many believe, it shows a series of missed opportunities and mistakes on the part of the Bush and Obama administrations in halting its progression.
In an interview with Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM, Michael Kirk, the director of “ISIS,” which debuts on PBS stations on Tuesday, says that they were at times “astonished” at “the number of administration errors in judgment along the way.”
One thing that is revealing in the documentary is how ISIS actually can be traced to the years leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “a little known Jordanian thug who was a terrorist wannabe,” is elevated to worldwide prominence during the 2002 speech that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell gives to the United Nations. Al-Zarqawi is falsely identified as the lynch pin between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and the net effect is to make him look “like a rock star,” Kirk says.
During that year, the U.S. also had the opportunity to take al-Zarqawi out, but the White House declined. In an interview, Powell suggests that the administration wanted to wait for the invasion. “We didn’t want to steal our own thunder,” Kirk says. “…If they had done it, who knows if ISIS would have been created in the way it had been?”
Instead, al-Zarqawi went on to organize and lead the insurgency, until he was finally killed in 2006. And while the surge of U.S. troops in late 2006 and 2007 helped quell the unrest and eliminate much of al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq, the remnants of the insurgency remained. After the U.S. left Iraq in 2011 came the rise of ISIS, including remnants of the insurgency, which seized on the civil war in neighboring Syria.
President Obama refused to arm moderate Syrian rebels — against the advice of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
“How could you blame him for not wanting to get back into a region?” Kirk says. “The problem is that they are there, and it is happening.”
Not until 2014 did Obama recognize that ISIS was “maybe more than what he had one time called a JV team.”
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“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety‘s Ted Johnson, airs Thursdays at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand.