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CNN SPECIAL REPORTS
Blindsided: How ISIS Shook the World
Aired December 28, 2015 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bodies lying on the floor.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Paris, November 13th.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Horrified screams coming from inside the theater.
ZAKARIA: Each time we meet the face of evil, we ask how? Why? Young men, boys, turned into butchers, maiming and murdering hundreds of innocents, striking at the heart of one of the world's great cities. Blowing a plane out of the sky, entire families turned to dust. All of it done with the reach and precision we had not imagined ISIS capable of.
As the world cries out for vengeance, perhaps the most important question is this: how could we not have known?
MULTIPLE SPEAKERS: Hallelujah
ZAKARIA: The answer is we did. This is the story of what we knew about ISIS and when we knew it. It is a story that has not been told before, not in its entirety, told by the people who have made the journey into the mind and heart of ISIS.
We begin with an extraordinary chance to look into the Islamic state. Not a single reporter has dared to venture there since the gruesome beheadings of journalists began last year. Imagine seeing this.
JOHN CANTLIE, BRITISH ISLAMIC STATE HOSTAGE: I'm John Cantlie, the British citizen abandoned by my own government.
ZAKARIA: And this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These could be my last hours in this world.
ZAKARIA: And then heading straight into the heart of darkness. But that is precisely what this man did.
JURGEN TODENHOFER, GERMAN JOURNALIST: During the months, I was preparing the trip, every night I felt a knife on my throat. I felt it physically.
ZAKARIA: Jurgen Todenhofer is a German journalist. Last year, he crossed the border into ISIS territory.
TODENHOFER: I think you must know your enemy if you want to defeat him.
ZAKARIA: He went to Mosul, an Iraqi city about the size of Philadelphia. Population around 1.5 million. It's the biggest prize ISIS has captured. This extraordinary video gives us a rare look into every day life under ISIS. It brings to mind the writer, Hannah Arendt's concept, "The Banality of Evil".
ISIS has its own license plates and traffic cops who give parking tickets. And there are friendly shop keepers.
TODENHOFER: Completely brainwashed. I've never in my life met people like this.
ZAKARIA: This, of course is the Mosul, ISIS officials wanted Todenhofer to see. They gave him written permission to come to the city, and he believes they let him leave alive to make a point.
TODENHOFER: They wanted to show me that they are a state, and that this state is working. It's not a perfect state, it's not like the United States. It's a state.
ZAKARIA: And it's getting bigger. Todenhofer saw new recruits pouring in every day.
TODENHOFER: In this recruitment center, we had every day more than 50 new fighters. They can lose fighters, they don't care.
The amazing thing is that they are completely enthusiastic. They think it's the time of their life. They think that they are part of an historical event. Changing the whole Middle East.
ZAKARIA: Among them were Americans.
[21:05:04] TODENHOFER: I met many Americans. I met many Germans and French people and English people, but many Americans. Guys from New Jersey.
ZAKARIA: There were also American weapons. Soldiers carry them like a badge of honor, even the children.
TODENHOFER: How old are you?
ZAKARIA: These child soldiers, 12 and 13 years old, now go to what ISIS calls schools.
TODENHOFER: They start a new school system, which I found is completely wrong, completely crazy. But it's a system.
ZAKARIA: ISIS officials trotted out a few prisoners for Todenhofer to talk to. This man is one of a group of captured Kurdish soldiers.
TODENHOFER: When did they capture you?
ZAKARIA: He told Todenhofer he was afraid.
Shortly after, ISIS put Kurdish prisoners in cages, dressed in orange jumpsuits. They were paraded through the streets and ISIS made a propaganda video out of it. It's hard to believe, but according to Todenhofer, there are people in Mosul who say they are better off under the Islamic state. Almost all are Sunni and they have suffered at the hands of Iraq's Shiite government.
TODENHOFER: First of all, instead of anarchy, they have now law and order. And people don't like -- I ask if they like the security, so they take taxes. They take care of the poor.
ZAKARIA: Bizarrely, ISIS even reaches out to the disabled. This is a recruitment video for deaf Jihadists who wish to join ISIS.
Todenhofer's ISIS minders kept him away from only one group. He was not permitted to speak to or even go near a single woman.
TODENHOFER: And you think that you would win the war?
ZAKARIA: Perhaps the most astonishing thing Todenhofer heard from both ISIS soldiers and leaders is this.
TODENHOFER: They want to provoke the United States to bring ground troops to the country.
It's a clear target. They want that the Americans bring their boots on the ground. They want to fight the Americans. That's their dream, the ultimate fight against Americans. That's what they want. That's what they hope.
ZAKARIA: They do want to fight the Americans, mainly on their own turf. In this regard, ISIS has a different dream than al-Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden wanted to perpetrate large scale terror attacks against the west. But he did not want his own state. ISIS does and it uses its caliphate as a base to launch its terror attacks.
The best way to understand the difference between the two groups is to go back to al-Qaeda's signature moment. Its most spectacular attack. September 11th, 2001. Nineteen al-Qaeda operatives hijack four planes, knock down two skyscrapers, crash into the Pentagon and kill almost 3,000 people.
FMR. PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.
ZAKARIA: At that moment, with the American people terrorized, the American government searched for a fitting response to this attack. At that moment, the seeds of ISIS were planted. It would take years, and untold numbers of dead before ISIS would supplant al-Qaeda, but you can draw a line from the horrifying events of 9/11 and the American response to the creation of the Islamic state. That line begins 18 months after September 11th, the United States invades Iraq.
BUSH: My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.
EMMA SKY, FORMER ADVISER TO COMMANDER OF U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ: When the U.S. invaded, it hadn't really thought much about the day after. It was very much focused on overthrowing Saddam.
[21:10:03] And what happened in the initial weeks was a total power vacuum.
ZAKARIA: As the American occupation quickly devolved into chaos, one man seized the moment. That man is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the godfather of ISS. In 2004, Zarqawi swore allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and became the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The U.S. has described him as one of the world's most dangerous terrorists.
ZAKARIA: Zarqawi's ultimate goal was to create an Islamic state. And events in Iraq were going to give him the chance to realize his dream.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The old military need to be formally disbanded.
ZAKARIA: Saddam Hussein's military was out on the street. And then American soldiers captured Saddam himself.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got him.
ZAKARIA: Sunnis were out of favor and out of jobs, but they had guns and organizational prowess. Zarqawi began recruiting them.
FAWAZ GERGES, PROFESSOR, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: Zarqawi was a major celebrity in 2004, he became I mean a rock star.
ZAKARIA: Some of the worst violence Americans saw on their T.V. screens during the Iraq war came courtesy of Zarqawi.
SKY: He was like a terrorist psychopath.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sunni insurgents inspired by al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi blew up a holy Shia shrine.
ZAKARIA: The murders of innocent civilians, indiscriminate bombings, even beheadings, the focus not just on foreigners but on Shiites. Other Muslims, seen as heretics, tactics that today sound hauntingly familiar.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With a $25 million price on his head, there is no one the U.S. wants to capture or kill more than Zarqawi.
ZAKARIA: The CIA had been tracking his every move. In June of 2006, U.S. forces killed him with two 500-pound bombs.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tonight, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq is killed in a massive United States airstrike.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Zarqawi he said was eliminated.
BUSH: Zarqawi's death is a severe blow to al-Qaeda.
ZAKARIA: But as it turned out, the movement Zarqawi began would survive that blow. When we come back, the rise of the leader of ISIS. ALI SOUFAN, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: He wasn't considered from
everything that we know now, a high level detainee.
ZAKARIA: Inside an American prison.
[21:16:21] ZAKARIA: ISIS came to life in this desolate landscape, the windswept desert of Southern Iraq. This is Camp Bucca, an American prison. During the Iraq war, the most dangerous jihadists were locked up here, up to 20,000 of the country's angriest men. Some Americans who worked at Camp Bucca called it simply camp hell. It wasn't just crowded, it was violent.
In 2005, riots broke out. Detainees went on a rampage, taking over whole sections of the prison camp. American forces massed outside the fences firing into the crowds. At least four prisoners were killed.
MAJOR GEN. DOUG STONE: Now, this is Camp Bucca.
ZAKARIA: Major General Doug Stone was brought in to fix Camp Bucca. Even he was wary of the inmates. Here he is giving CNN's Nic Robertson a tour in 2008.
STONE: We've got about 2,000 identified al-Qaeda here in the theater. They are hard to break.
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You have shields up here to protect us. Everyone down here is crowded around looking at us now.
STONE: Right, but this is not a place that you want to hang around. So we really don't want to stand here that much longer because they will now organize around us.
ZAKARIA: There were beatings, unexplained prisoner deaths and several dangerous jihadists escaped.
Into this (inaudible) one day in early 2004, a new man arrived. We know him now as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. And yes, he was in American custody during the Iraq war. Al-Baghdadi has shown his face publicly only once. Last year when he gave a sermon to his followers.
But back when the U.S. had him under lock and key, he was seen as, believe it or not, a man who could be trusted.
MARTIN CHULOV, THE GUARDIAN: The Americans seem to see Abu Bakr as somebody who could keep the prison quiet. There are 24 camps within the Sunni side of Camp Bucca, he was allowed open access to all of them.
SOUFAN: He wasn't considered from everything we know now, a high level detainee, and he was allowed to lead to prayers, he was allowed to give religious lessons.
ZAKARIA: The future leader of ISIS was giving other inmates lessons on Islam. Those inmates were jihadists or former baathists, henchmen of Saddam, or simply common criminals.
STONE: It most assuredly was a jihadist university. Unquestionably.
ZAKARIA: Put them all together in the baking heat of Southern Iraq, with al-Baghdadi, a man who dreamed of a new kind of terror, it was a recipe for ISIS.
SOUFAN: They were meeting, they were playing soccer together, they were strategizing together.
ZAKARIA: One thing is clear, al-Baghdadi went through a transformation at Camp Bucca.
GERGES: Baghdadi was an average person. He was just a Sunni foot soldier when he was arrested by the Americans.
[21:20:07] ZAKARIA: But by the time al-Baghdadi left, he was someone else.
GERGES: All we know is that Baghdadi became an entirely different creature, in terms of radicalization, in terms of militarization, in terms of building a huge network of militants in the prison.
ZAKARIA: At Camp Bucca, al-Baghdadi networked with hundreds of jihadists, at least some of whom would later join ISIS, and the day would come when he would also need military expertise. Enter Saddam Hussein's army. Dismissed by the Americans, many now at Camp Bucca. Men with exactly the skill set al-Baghdadi could later make use of, and then he was set free.
The future leader of ISIS was recommended for unconditional release by a military review board in December 2004. They did not consider him a threat. Whether it turns out al-Baghdadi is the mastermind of ISIS or a figure head, the fact remains the United States has put a $10 million price tag on his head.
When we come back, the dangerous way that ISIS is using us. Television news.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: While the U.S. is backing Sunni Arabs in Yemen, in Iraq it is fighting.
[21:25:25] ZAKARIA: Evil just a click away. It takes no more than a few seconds to find ISIS propaganda online. Thousands of videos are strewn across the internet. Much of it of course is sickeningly violent, unbearable to watch. The awful beheadings, the fiery murders, but all of it may add up to the single biggest reason for the success of ISIS. Like so much of what the group does, this is a terror tactic we have not seen before. And it is frighteningly effective.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN, AUTHOR, NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST: Twenty years ago, you could not find the three people in Minnesota who would be attracted to the ISIS ideology. Today you can, and they can find you. ISIS has used Facebook, Twitter, Google and the world wide web as its
command control system.
ZAKARIA: The violence in ISIS propaganda is enhanced by artful editing, special effects and powerful music. Some videos really are like small films, done with real skill, ironically, it is the barbarism that makes these clips go viral. No one has ever seen anything like it. Most of us look at this and this and wonder how it could possibly attract recruits. But for some young men raised on violent video games and shoot 'em up movies, it's a powerful lure.
GERGES: Actions speak louder than words. It's savagery and viciousness all of us here, we look at it as a horrible evil. Of course, it's evil. But this is part of its strategy, convince young men and women while on the fringe, while deluded, who have no purpose in life, who suffer from torn identities, come to us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dear all brothers and sisters, come to jihad and feel the honor we are feeling, feel the happiness that we are feeling.
SOUFAN: They want killing machines, and that's why you see them, you know, doing these videos and making kids watch these videos, making kids commit crimes and kill because they are trying to establish a new generation of killers.
It's the gang mentality.
ZAKARIA: The gang idea is important because ISIS uses it to manipulate kids. A lot of the propaganda mixes the violence with scenes of camaraderie, friendship, the people in ISIS videos seem to be saying, "We did not belong where we were, but now we have found a home," a powerful message to the millions of unemployed, disconnected young Muslims across the Middle East. And even in countries like France and Germany.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm your brother in Islam here in Syria, I originally come from Canada.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm thinking like I'm still dreaming. I'm feeling like I'm still dreaming and I'm thinking like I'm in the dream world. You have to be here to understand what I'm saying.
ZAKARIA: And, of course, ISIS also manipulates us, television news. They put their videos online, we put them on television and in a bizarre twist, ISIS turns around and makes clever use of what it sees on T.V.
This video is called Victory in Kobani. It glorifies the ISIS capture of that Syrian city, while mocking President Obama and other western leaders.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Power alone. First of all, there's no military solution to ISIS. I have a military-only solution, OK.
The angry rhetoric of cable news fits right into the script. MICHAEL SCHEUER, FORMER CIA INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: We've proven that
we cannot defeat these people. We are so incompetent in terms of conducting a foreign policy and in terms of conducting military operation.
ZAKARIA: CNN makes an occasional appearance.
TOM MCINERNEY, RETIRED U.S. AIR FORCE LT. GEN.: Enter that city of Kobani.
ZAKARIA: But Fox News is a favorite of ISIS, with commentators who demand boots on ground, playing into ISIS' dreams of a grand battle against America.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The United States will look absolutely foolish for doing some pin picked strikes that had no effect on the outcome, and ISIS is going to come out more empowered than ever. ISIS will be the big winner and the United States will be the big loser.
[21:30:00] ZAKARIA: All of it is frighteningly effective, creating a 21st century machine designed perfectly for the young and built to recruit followers from across the world.
FRIEDMAN; They were raised on Twitter, they were raised on YouTube, they were raised on Facebook.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ISIS is CNN to somebody's home T.V. These guys are very sophisticated. They're a whole different generation.
ZAKARIA: In just a moment, ISIS and the White House, the story of what we knew about the terror group and when we knew it.
LT. GEN. MICHAEL FLYNN, FORMER DIRECTOR, DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: We failed to understand the enemy that we faced.
ZAKARIA: It is a moment Americans will never forget. U.S. contractors brutally murdered. Their bodies burned and hung from a bridge.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Four U.S. civilians butchered, dragged through the street.
ZAKARIA: This was Fallujah, Iraq. The year was 2004. The atrocity aroused deep American anger and brought promises of retribution.
[21:35:08] PAUL BREMER, AMERICAN DIPLOMAT: We will hunt down the criminals, we will kill them or we will capture them. And we will pacify Fallujah.
ZAKARIA: And U.S. forces fought two long and bloody battles to retake the city. Nearly 70 Americans lost their lives liberating Fallujah, and hundreds more were left seriously wounded. Ten years later, Fallujah falls back into the hands of an enemy. But this time, it's ISIS. Just a few days after Fallujah fell, the president talked about the threat from the terror group in an interview with the New Yorker magazine. He said, "The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant."
FLYNN: I was disappointed. I was disappointed that he said that. I don't think he was well served.
The need for intelligence surveillance.
ZAKARIA: Lieutenant General Michael Flynn had a front row seat to the rise of ISIS. He led the Defense Intelligence Agency until late last year.
FLYNN: We failed to understand the enemy that we faced.
ZAKARIA: Flynn says intelligence officials had warned the administration that ISIS was growing more dangerous before the president made his infamous jayvee comment. But the president has said the intelligence on ISIS was inadequate. Here he is on "60 Minutes."
STEVE KROFT, "60 MINUTES" HOST: How did they end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?
PRES. BARACK OBAMA, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Well, I think our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.
ZAKARIA: You were DIA at the time?
ZAKARIA: Do you think it was an intelligence failure?
FLYNN: No, no, I don't. I don't. I really look at that and -- I mean, it's easy to -- I mean, I will take one for the team, you know. The president has to decide who he's going to listen to and what information he's going to use and I think that he was poorly advised to say that.
BENJAMIN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The president makes no apologies for being measured and deliberate about committing U.S. military resources.
ZAKARIA: Benjamin Rhodes is the deputy national security advisor and a close aide to President Obama.
ZAKARIA: Do you think we should have been alerted to the threat that ISIS posed earlier?
RHODES: You know, it's always easy to look back and say you could have been alerted to a specific threat at a specific time, but the question is then, you know, what action would that have triggered? Part of what the president has brought, his approach to national security is some degree of restraint in saying that we're not going to chase every rabbit down every hole in the Middle East.
ZAKARIA: The White House did underestimate ISIS. And republicans seized on the issue, excoriating the president, growing increasingly strident.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our strategy will fail yet again. This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.
ZAKARIA: Even former top officials in the Obama administration had tough words.
LEON PANETTA, AUTHOR OF THE BOOK "WORTHY FIGHTS": It's more than an intelligence failure, it's a policy failure as well.
ZAKARIA: Of course, the solution offered by most critics is the one thing ISIS wants the most. American boots on the ground. The United States now has 3,500 military advisers in Iraq, helping the Iraqi government take on ISIS.
But the biggest intelligence failure, the biggest policy failure, the biggest underestimation was not of the strength of the self-styled Islamic state but of the weakness of the Iraqi state.
In the middle of 2014, when ISIS started taking town after town in Iraq, the Iraqi army essentially laid down its arms and ran away.
Remember, this was an army that the United States had spent more than $25 billion building up, an army more than 200,000 strong. That's more than six times the size of ISIS and maybe more. And it was all rendered useless against the ISIS assault. Why? Well, much of it can be pinned on one man.
GERGES: If you ask me, what's the most important factor in Iraq, driver behind the resurgence of ISIS, I would say Nouri al-Maliki.
[21:40:07]ZAKARIA: Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister whom the Bush administration had helped put into power in 2006.
BUSH: I appreciate your commitment to representing the people of Iraq.
ZAKARIA: Back then, Maliki's appointment was touted by the administration as a triumphant moment for the new democratic Iraq.
BUSH: I appreciate you recognize the fact the future of your country is in your hands.
ZAKARIA: To ensure the success of democracy, Maliki, a Shiite needed to heal the powerful schism between the Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, but he never did. So when asked by the Shiite abusers to fight against ISIS, the Sunni soldiers in the Iraqi army simply said no.
SKY: For many Sunnis, they looked at the Iranian backed regime in Baghdad and they looked at ISIS, and some of them made the disastrous calculation that ISIS was the lesser of two evils.
ZAKARIA: The last American soldier left the country in 2011, after the U.S. could not reach agreement with Maliki to maintain a military presence.
RHODES: The question that we ask today when people look back at that decision is what would we have done with 10,000 U.S. troops? Would they have enforced security? And frankly would we have wanted them to be fighting in places like Mosul and Fallujah against ISIL?
ZAKARIA: Republicans have criticized President Obama for not leaving troops in Iraq. Some have said if American forces had stayed, there would be no ISIS. But Emma Sky believes that was never in the cards. Iraq's prime minister, Maliki, had a new set of patrons, his fellow Shiites in Tehran, and the Mullahs made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
SKY: That was part of Iran's deal with Maliki, we'll give you a third term, but the conditions are, no American soldiers. That was what Tehran had demanded. There was no way it would have gone through the parliament.
ZAKARIA: One thing is clear, it was only Iraq's army that could have stopped ISIS. Instead Iraqi soldiers threw down their weapons and ran.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hello.
ZAKARIA: Next on "Blindsided." What drives these people, what makes them tick. You'll go inside the mind of a radical. Meet a man who was prepared to die for a fantasy. The idea of an Islamic caliphate
[21:46:23] ZAKARIA: The 1980s and '90s in Afghanistan and Pakistan were crucial years for jihad. Bin Laden was there, Zawahiri was there, it's where al-Qaeda and thus Islamic terrorism as we know it today was born. Foreign fighters were constantly flowing in. But now incredibly, foreign fighters are flowing in even faster to Iraq and Syria, an estimated 20,000 of them in total. What drives these people there? What makes them leave home to go far away and fight for an idea, a fantasy? You're about to find out.
In the days that followed 9/11, just about everyone in the world seemed to be standing with the United States, even Yasser Arafat.
YASSER ARAFAT: I am offering my condolences to the American President, President Bush.
ZAKARIA: But not this man.
MAAJID NAWAZ, FORMER RADICAL: And I'm very, very sorry to your viewers for saying this. But I lacked any empathy with the victims.
ZAKARIA: Maajid Nawaz didn't start his life as a radical. He grew up here in Essex, England. The beneficiary of a middle class upbringing. The son of hardworking Pakistani parents. But he didn't quite feel at home in Britain. And yet had no other place to call home. No community to call his own. He read for us what he wrote in his diary after seeing the towers fall.
NAWAZ: Don't you think we've been crying, too, like you are now for years? Do you think we felt no pain as you raped and plundered our lands and bombed our cities. What lands, what cities you ask? Your arrogance is only compounded by your ignorance. You chose your side and we have chosen ours.
ZAKARIA: Nawaz had become convinced that the world of Islam was under constant and brutal attack from the west. Muslims had to fight back. Nawaz's chosen army was a radical group, Hizb Ut-Tahrir. The day before 9/11, he had landed in Egypt to recruit for the group, which in some ways was a forerunner to ISIS.
NAWAZ: It's the first Islamic organization responsible for popularizing the notion of resurrecting the so-called Islamic state, this caliphate, the so-called Islamic state is what Tahrir has been dreaming of since 1953.
ZAKARIA: The trigger for Nawaz was a Muslim slaughter he saw every night on T.V., every morning in the papers, the genocide in Bosnia.
NAWAZ: It had a profound impact on me. Up until that point, I didn't consider myself particularly Muslim. But almost in a form of defiance, we became so much more Muslim overnight.
ZAKARIA: And it made him a perfect prospect for a local recruiter.
NAWAZ: He said, look at Palestine, look at Kashmir, look at Chechnya, he said wherever you look, Muslims are the victims who are being killed because there's a global war going on against Islam and Muslims. I wholeheartedly bought that at 15, 16 years old, I subscribed to it and I dedicated the rest of my life to it. In fact, I was prepared to die for it.
[21:50:03] ZAKARIA: In the months after 9/11, Maajid Nawaz was arrested. In an Egyptian jail with what he calls the cream of the crop of jihadists, he was thrilled at first about all he could learn from them. But then, he had a jailhouse revelation.
NAWAZ: Living so close with them for four years in prison, I came to the conclusion that if these guys, any of them, ever got to power, if they ever declared a so-called caliphate, it would be hell on earth. It would be a living nightmare.
ZAKARIA: Something had clicked. Where once he felt no sympathy for the victims of 9/11, the 7/7 attacks in London, he says, made him feel revulsion. Recently, Nawaz's journey almost took him from prison to parliament. He ran for a seat in this year's British elections. He is currently the chairman of the Quilliam Foundation, a think-tank he co-founded to study extremism and challenge it. NAWAZ: People that join ISIL, they genuinely think that bringing
about an end of day scenario, they genuinely believe that they are working on behalf of God.
ZAKARIA: Maajid Nawaz's story sheds light on one crucial aspect of this picture. But what about the others? Why are hundreds, thousands of people streaming from four corners of the world to fight for ISIS? Why do young men, and they are almost all young men, lust for jihad? Thomas Friedman has a simple explanation.
FRIEDMAN: None of them have ever held jobs, power, or a girl's hand. And when you put large numbers of young males together and you offer them a wife, you offer them a salary, and you offer them the ability to lord it over somebody else, that is ISIS' value proposition.
ZAKARIA: Next on "Blindsided," is ISIS a threat to the United States? To the homeland? I'll give you my thoughts when we come back.
[21:56:02] ZAKARIA: You've heard so much and seen so much about ISIS that it's easy to get anxious, it is trying to scare you and confuse you. And the gruesome attacks in Paris have yet again done just that.
We still can't be certain how many of these attacks are planned or directed or simply inspired by ISIS. But that lack of knowledge only adds to our anxiety and fuels our fear. And indeed the terrible attacks in Paris have alarmed the entire world, making it all the more important that we understand the Islamic state fully and realistically.
ISIS presents itself as a global organization. But it has strived because of a local cause, the group has gained territory, cash and recruits, primarily because of the rage and rebellion of the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria. That Sunni cause is going to endure for some time. The Sunnis of the region will remain in rebellion. The Sunni- dominated areas will remain in turmoil. And ISIS will be able to capitalize on this chaos.
Now, in the long run, ISIS might find its greatest foes lie within its so-called caliphate. The few reports that are emerging from areas controlled by ISIS suggest that people do not like living under a brutal theocratic dictatorship. They live in fear, and even those who chose it as an alternative to Shiite rule are growing disenchanting.
In this respect, ISIS is like other radical Islamic groups such as the Taliban. They have allure in the abstract. But once they are actually governing in their medieval barbarous manner, the allure fades, the disenchantment builds and with it ever increasing repression. Remember, no one has ever voted ISIS into power anywhere. They slaughtered their way to victory.
Is ISIS a threat to the west? The group's leaders declare it is every day. But until recently, their ambitions appear to be mostly centered on their Arab enemies, on building a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. In recent months, however, with the attacks against Russia and Turkey and France, clearly ISIS has expanded its ambitions and its operations.
They understand, of course that to be terror group number one, they must battle the country that is the world's number one power, America. They seek that confrontation, and hope that the United States would come to the Middle East and fight them on their terms. On their terrain. Now, to be clear, they are opportunists and they ask and hope that their followers would act in America. But their main focus is not to come here, they want Americans to go there.
The leaders of ISIS have recognized that above all, they are a messaging machine, which in turn becomes a recruitment machine. Their gruesome videos would seem a repulsive turnoff, and are to most people, but they work on the web. The shock and awe they produce makes them go viral. And thus are seen by tens of millions. That ensures that these videos attract those utterly alienated young men, a few thousand among the world's 1.6 billion Muslims who seek revenge, glory, and gore. And as long as those young Muslim men scattered across the globe are attracted to ISIS and stream to its cause, the group presents the world with a danger that is impossible to fully assess and a danger that grows by the month.