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New documentary explores perfect storm that allowed ISIS to grow

October 29th, 2014
01:18 PM ET

By Madalena Araujo, CNN

A new documentary from producer and journalist Martin Smith gives insight into the series of failures and unheeded warning signs that allowed ISIS to grow into one of most brutal terrorist groups in the world.

The Rise of ISIS, by PBS’s FRONTLINE, draws on numerous interviews with both Iraqi politicians and U.S. decision makers. It points to Syria’s bloody civil war as the organization’s main breeding ground.

“Maliki's crackdown [on Sunnis] was a factor. But without Syria, I don't think ISIS would have become ISIS,” Smith told CNN’s Michael Holmes, in for Christiane Amanpour, on Tuesday.

Smith added that it was around 2011 that “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of then Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS, sent a few men over into Syria and guerrilla movements need sanctuary and they need open spaces where they can exploit, grow.”

Some former Obama administration officials have criticized the President for not supporting moderate rebels earlier, so that extreme jihadi militants would not gain strength.

“But now many of those people, like his Defense secretary, his secretary of state, the head of the CIA, Petraeus, and indeed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of whom were counseling him, now feel that in fact maybe had we been involved, things would have gone better. But again, we'll not know; it's a hypothetical,” Smith said.

Smith also made the point that the White House overlooked two crucial warnings concerning ISIS’s rapid expansion.

“One was the warning that ISIS was gaining strength in Syria and was threatening to come back into Iraq. They had already taken, of course, Fallujah in January of this year. But we get to June and they're threatening Mosul. Those warnings were taken and received at the White House,” he explained.

And then there was “the warning that they didn't get,” Smith added, “where there was, I think, an intelligence failure of some kind.” This had to do with “the fact that the Iraqi army was pretty much a shell. It had been gutted by Maliki, who had been fearing a coup d’état and had replaced many of the best commanders with cronies,” he said.

Despite the group’s recent territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, Smith does not think ISIS stands a chance of taking the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

“I don't see the taking of Baghdad as a real possibility, at least in the short run and even in the long term. It's a Shia city. It's a city that must be more than 80 percent Shia. Militias are operating there in some strength. It's unlike Mosul, that was a Sunni city,” he said.

Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Iraq • Latest Episode • Syria
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