Understanding the rise of the Islamic State

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now the latest addition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

It’s a closer look at the roots of the Islamic State in the wake of 9/11 and the people affected by its spread in an unstable Middle East.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lawrence Wright first went to the Middle East as a young man to teach English in Cairo. It was the beginning of a long relationship with the region that would coincide with the rise of terrorism and American wars that continue to this day.

His 2006 book, “The Looming Tower,” on the growth of al-Qaida and events leading to 9/11, won the Pulitzer Prize. Now he’s pulled together writings from “The New Yorker” magazine, the product of many years of reporting, in a new book titled “The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State.”

And, Larry Wright, welcome back to you.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT, Author, “The Terror Years”: Thank you, Jeff. It’s good to be with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fifteen years after 9/11, I suppose there is a sense of wanting to tie things together. Did you see a guiding thread in your work when you went back to look at it?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes.

I was planning just to put together a collection of articles, but then when I looked at all the work that I had done on terrorism since 9/11, I never thought that I would still be writing about that 15 years later.

But I realized these pieces told — had a kind of narrative quality in terms of the evolution of ISIS and al-Qaida and how it’s developed from 9/11 until today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your weigh-in has always been the individual stories, right..

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … to tell a larger story, whether they’re Americans or Egyptians, Saudis, a Syrian filmmaker. These people stay with you?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It’s a privilege, first of all, to be able to go out and tell these stories, but to meet these remarkable individuals and tell their stories.

It’s what I was born to do. But I don’t think you can understand terrorism, radicalization. You know, we can analyze it to death, but unless you understand a single individual’s journey, that makes it much more clear, I think, to the reader, and that’s what I aspire to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: I wanted to ask you one particular essay that hit me going back to it, “Captured on Film.”

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was from Syria in 2006 about the very small film industry at that time.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you work, “I found a people who had been beaten into silence.”

Now, these years later, it’s impossible to think about a film industry when we think about Syria. But do you see a connection to what you saw then to today?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes, unfortunately.

The reason I went there is, you know, the Middle East is a very valuable place. It’s a paradise for reporters, except when they’re targeted.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: But I thought, one day, Syria is so quiet. And it was like the dog that didn’t bark.

And I went to the editor at “The New Yorker” with this observation. But that’s not a story. So, I thought, well, people know about America through our movies. So, I will go to Syria and I will watch their movies and talk to their filmmakers and see if I can understand their culture.

And physical abuse was a common element. Everybody I met had been beaten, by their parents, or their schoolteachers or the police. You know, it was a culture that had already suffered an enormous amount of trauma.

And you know, my fixer, this lovely young woman, her…

JEFFREY BROWN: Fixer is the local producer there.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes.

Her parents had been in political prison, her mother for two-and-a-half years, her father for 13 years. He had been tortured. He had been locked in isolation. And so he came home. And what did he do? He beat her up on a number of occasions and locked her in her room.

That was a common tale. And I think a lot of times, when America wanders into regions that it so poorly understands, we don’t know what we’re facing. Iraq was a classic example of us becoming involved in a culture that we totally didn’t understand.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, I want to ask you about — because you’re also looking at us, right, 15 years later.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fifteen years later, 15 years ago, people said the world has changed; 9/11 changed everything.

Did it, when you look back now?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: America’s changed profoundly.

And I reflect on the fact that I took a date to the airport one time when I was a young man in high school. I didn’t have money to take her out. It was Dallas, Texas. It was called Love Field.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: So — but back, then we walked out on the tarmac and climbed up into this international jetliner that had just come in from Paris, we supposed.

And we sat in the first-class section, and the stewardess brought us a snack. And then we went up in the FAA tower. And I opened the unlocked door. And they said, come on in, kids. And we sat down and watched them land the planes.

That America is long dead, and terrorism killed it. But if it’s forgotten, if that community of trust and safety is forgotten, then I think that we will have lost in some way in this battle against terrorism.

Those are the liberties that we had, freedoms. And we often talk about that that’s what we’re fighting for. But, at the same time, we’re compromising all those very freedoms.

I’m not saying that some of those compromises aren’t necessary, but we need to keep in our heart the idea that there was a country where those kinds of freedoms were freely exercised.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book is “The Terror Years.”

Lawrence Wright, thank you so much.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: My pleasure.

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