Email share

Watch Tuesday, October 28, 2014 at 10pm on WMHT TV.

In 2013, few people had heard of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — the brutal jihadist group that President Obama calls a “network of death.”

How did ISIS become a major force so quickly? And what does it mean for the U.S. to be back in Iraq, fighting a new war on terror, less than three years after American troops pulled out of the country?

FRONTLINE presents The Rise of ISIS— a major, in-depth investigation of the brutal terrorist group’s ascent, from veteran producer and journalist Martin Smith.

“This documentary lays out, in chilling detail, the buildup of unheeded warnings, failures, and missed opportunities that allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to become ISIS,” says Smith, who was on the ground in Iraq when the U.S. began airstrikes this summer, and who has been documenting the Iraq conflict for FRONTLINE since 2003 (Gangs of Iraq, Private Warriors, Beyond Baghdad, Truth, War and Consequences).

In The Rise of ISIS, Smith draws on in-depth interviews with Iraqi politicians, and American policymakers and military leaders (including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta) to explore and explain how ISIS developed into what one interviewee calls “the Al Qaeda that Osama bin Laden only dreamed of building.”

Along the way, Smith delivers a revelatory look at how ISIS grew out of the disaffection of Iraqi Sunnis who were sidelined and targeted by Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after the American withdrawal. 

“By the time Americans left Iraq in 2011, al Qaeda in Iraq had been almost completely destroyed,” Smith says. “But the ISIS of 2014 is reborn out of Sunni fears, and by the people the U.S. couldn’t manage to kill during the war — described to me as ‘a collection of killers very good at surviving’: the most battle-hardened Al Qaeda militants, a few embittered tribesmen, and some remnants of Saddam's Baathist military hoping to regain power.”

The Rise of ISIS traces how they gained strength in Syria, how they're funded, how they operate, and how, city by city, from Ramadi to Fallujah to Mosul, ISIS swept across Iraq — seizing territory, recording and broadcasting mass executions, and drawing recruits from an estimated 80 countries.

“[ISIS] became a movement by manipulation of the information space, and by playing on the fears of Sunnis, and by confronting the tribes,” Gen. Dempsey tells FRONTLINE.

“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,’” says counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan, whose The Soufan Group will issue a special report on ISIS’s leadership in tandem with FRONTLINE’s broadcast.

With ISIS continuing to take and hold territory in Iraq and Syria despite U.S. and coalition airstrikes, and President Obama’s foreign policy legacy hanging in the balance, The Rise of ISIS is the definitive account of how we reached this point.