In advance of the HBO special airing on Sunday at 10 PM EST, we talked to reporter Ben Anderson about what it was like to speak to an ISIS fighter who said he would kill him if he got the chance.
The new VICE special "Fighting ISIS," which first airs at 10 PM EST this Sunday on HBO, is an hour-long deep dive into the current state of Iraq. The current state of Iraq is not good. Since the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush declared "Mission Accomplished," a series of mistakes made by both the US and local authorities turned the country into an incubator of extremism and violence and led to the rise of ISIS.
In the documentary, VICE reporter Ben Anderson embeds with various groups fighting ISIS, interviews captured jihadist fighters, and investigates the troubles that have led to the region's destabilization. We won't give too much away here—you should really tune in this Sunday night—but suffice it to say that the soundbite solutions offered by some bloodthirsty American politicians isn't going to make things better.
Recently we sat down with Anderson ahead of the special to talk about the challenge America faces with ISIS, and what it was like to sit across from a man who wants to kill you.
VICE: Iraq right now is one of the most dangerous places on earth for a reporter. Did you feel that danger on a personal level?
Ben Anderson: For foreign reporters, Syria still feels more dangerous. For local reporters, Iraq is hideous. But yes, even away from the frontlines we visited, there is an awful tension in Iraq, a feeling that anything could happen at any time, anywhere. It's a feeling you get in few other places around the world: Gaza, Helmand [a province in Afghanistan], Eastern Congo. It's a feeling that everyone is so tense the tiniest things could spill over into major incidents, or that a bomb could go off, or an attack could start, at any point.
Did you ever feel like your life was in danger while you were making the special?
The fighting there is awful. Often victories are followed up by looting, torture, executions. And everywhere we went either came under attack while we were there, or was attacked just before or after we were there.
When we were with the Shiite militias, [Major General of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps] Qassem Suleimani walked right past me. Luckily he didn't see me, but when he did hear that we were there, we were told to leave immediately. Not under his orders, but because people we were with thought he'd have us taken or killed.
A captured ISIS fighter told you that he would kill you if he captured you. What was that moment like?
I had no doubt he was totally genuine. Everything he said, he said with utter conviction. I have no doubt he'd have stood by that and not doubted his actions for a second. It was my last question to him, kind of a throwaway, and afterwards, he got up, shook my hand, and said he wished we had more time to talk. I think he believed he could have convinced me more if he had enough time.
For more on the doc, check out Ben Anderson's Ask Me Anything Q&A on Reddit, starting 1 PM EST on Friday (today)
What did you learn on the ground that ordinary people couldn't learn from reading coverage of Iraq?
Just how far away the goal of the [US] invasion—creating a democratic central government that protects and represents all Iraqis—really is. Around Baghdad, you pass through checkpoints manned by a number of different nasty militias. In non-Shiite areas, there is no faith that the government in Baghdad will look after the rest of Iraqis. Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Yazidis... They all told us life under the [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki government was hell. That's why many welcomed ISIS when they first appeared.
Speaking of Maliki, his name comes up when one of the diplomats talks about what went wrong in Iraq under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Can you explain that?
He says Bush's original sin was invading; Obama's was allowing Maliki to have a second term, despite not winning the second election and having an awful sectarian record. I'd add the post-invasion plan, or absence of one, to Bush's original sin, and Obama's withdrawal being based on the calendar, not conditions on the ground. Although, in fairness, [Obama] didn't support the invasion. And I'm not sure anyone in the US supported an extended US presence when the withdrawal was under way.
When you talked to the captured ISIS fighters and they tell you things like, "For every ten of us killed, 100 more join," did you get the sense that there was some truth in that or they were engaging in some good old-fashioned propaganda?
There was plenty of propaganda, of course. But these claims that we are killing our way to victory are absurd. We heard the same thing in Afghanistan, in Vietnam, and elsewhere. Yet these groups continue to grow. You can't defeat an insurgency, or a group like ISIS, with bombing alone. And while it's encouraging to see many Muslims now challenging or mocking ISIS across social media, they remain attractive to too many people.
When you hear tough talk from folks like Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Donald Trump, who say they'll make it a top priority to destroy ISIS the moment they come into office, what do you think?
It's astounding. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still raging, and people like Ted Cruz—who I'm constantly told is the smart one—seem to believe there is a simple solution to this. Sadly, there isn't.
Is there anything the candidates aren't saying about ISIS that they should be?
That the government the Bush administration installed in Baghdad laid the conditions for ISIS to spread so quickly and so easily. And that the vast majority of Muslims absolutely reject its interpretation of Islam.
In your opinion, what was the worst move that America made after the invasion?
De-Baathification and disbanding the military—ensuring 500,000 largely Sunni people and their families were jobless and angry, for no good reason. Then installing a sectarian government who made life for non-Shiites hell. By the time ISIS came along, they were often welcomed because anything was preferable to the government.
Watch the HBO special Sunday night at 10 PM EST and 1 AM on the West Coast.