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'The Rise of ISIS': 'Frontline' examines how it gained and grew

'Frontline' correspondent Martin Smith reports from Iraq on

'Frontline' correspondent Martin Smith reports from Iraq on how and why the brutal jihadist group ISIS came to power. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Azhar Shallal

THE SHOW "The Rise of ISIS"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 10 on "Frontline," WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Veteran "Frontline" producer Martin Smith -- who has covered Iraq for more than a decade (in "Truth, War, and Consequences," and other films) -- explores here not just the root causes that led to the Islamic State group -- which has now occupied vast swaths of northern Iraq, declaring it a "caliphate" -- but also its brutal tactics. Interviews include deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey.

MY SAY One may as well begin at the end of Smith's superlative and sobering overview of the unfolding Islamic State calamity. There have been 400 bombing runs against targets over the last month or so, but "ISIS continues to make gains [and] the front lines are just outside Baghdad." Smith also ends with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who says he is "not optimistic" about the outcome (but nonetheless supports the current strategy). "The Rise of ISIS," in other words, is all part of a moving, fluid, complicated story, with the end nowhere in sight.

This broadcast, however, concerns itself with the past, not the future -- and with what it essentially calls a now-in-hindsight tragic disengagement by the Obama administration, allowing former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to continue a brutal campaign of persecution against the Sunni majority. That led many to welcome the ISIS invaders, which seemed to be (as Martin reports) a complete reversal of that old line, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't . . ."

"Frontline" traces this tragedy back to al-Maliki's persecution of his own vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi -- interviewed by Smith from Doha, capital of Qatar -- who says his bodyguards were tortured into making false confessions. That was the tinder, "Frontline," reports. Sunnis were slaughtered, leaving behind -- in the words of New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins -- a "band of hardened killers." They crossed into Syria, and ISIS was born.

"The Rise of ISIS" covers a story that has been told elsewhere, but as usual, "Frontline" gives it all the patina of hard-core, irrefutable truth. That doesn't make this any easier to watch, but probably necessary to watch.

BOTTOM LINE As always, first-rate explanatory journalism from "Frontline."

GRADE A

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