American ISIS Offers a Firsthand Look Inside the Caliphate

A new podcast from The Intercept and Topic Studios chronicles the life and death of an American ISIS fighter.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Obtained by The Intercept

For more than six months, The Intercept’s Trevor Aaronson communicated with Russell Dennison, an American man who traveled to Syria and joined the Islamic State. This week on Intercepted: Aaronson, an investigative reporter, discusses American ISIS, the newest Audible Original podcast documentary from The Intercept and Topic Studios, in which he chronicles the story of Russell Dennison, one of the first American citizens to join ISIS and fight with the group in Syria. Almost daily, Dennison communicated with Aaronson, sending him hours of audio chronicling his conversion to Islam, his turn to extremism, and his journey to Syria. Aaronson talks with Intercept reporter Murtaza Hussain about his reporting and what he learned from Dennison.


[Musical introduction.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. 

Murtaza Hussain: I’m Murtaza Hussain, a reporter at The Intercept. 

It’s been nearly 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. military continues to be present in the Middle East. We have seen conflict after conflict in this endless war, with one of the most recent episodes being the campaign against ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

ISIS, a militant jihadi group, grew and advanced in 2014 after it declared itself a global caliphate. People from around the world flew in to join the group, among them an American named Russell Dennison.

Russell Dennison: I would go into this blown up destroyed police building, it was like four stories tall, and I would just watch them from the window. I would make sure they don’t try to come inside from my side. And I would shoot on them like every single night. I would shoot at least like three, four, or five bullets, just so they know: Don’t try to enter the city from this side. It was kind of like Rambo, you know? I was doing my own thing. I was, like, alone, spending hours at night, watching the enemy, shooting on them. These kafir, they knew they could not enter. And I shot on them many times.

MH: Russell Dennison was a white American raised Catholic in Pennsylvania, who joined ISIS and fought for the organization. And now, a new Audible original podcast documentary from The Intercept and Topic Studios chronicles his life and death. 

For over six months, Intercept reporter Trevor Aaronson spoke with Russell. Trevor received over 30 hours of audio recordings from him, providing a firsthand account of life inside ISIS controlled territory. The eight-episode podcast, called American ISIS, is out now. 

Trevor Aaronson, welcome to Intercepted. 

Trevor Aaronson: Hey, Maz, thanks for having me. 

MH: Can you tell us a bit about: Who is Russell Dennison? And how did you first connect with him?

TA: Russell Dennison was a guy who was born in New Hampshire and raised in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, outside Reading, Pennsylvania. What I think is so interesting about this story is just how ordinary his life was. I mean, he was raised with an-all American family, went to school like all other Americans, then, in his early 20s, kind of drifted and didn’t really know what to do in life, had kind of a dead end job, and then ended up getting busted for selling a small amount of marijuana. He was a small-time dealer. And just before going to prison, he’s introduced to Islam, and he converts, meets some people in prison who kind of introduce him more into the religion, and then after his release he comes to Florida. And he just gets more and more extreme, and eventually finds himself feeling like he needed to leave the country, and he travels to Syria during the civil war. 

And the way I came into contact with him was that I was investigating an FBI sting case involving a friend of his, a man in Florida named Sami Osmakac. And Sami had been wrapped up in one of these typical FBI terrorism stings where the FBI came to him and provided everything he needed for a plot to bomb a bar in Tampa, and shoot up a casino. The FBI, of course, provided all of the weapons and all of the transportation he needed.

And I was initially looking at this case for all of the reasons that I’ve looked at other terrorism sting cases in the past. And one of the things that Sami’s family had consistently told me was like, Look, this red-bearded American guy named Russell Dennison had “radicalized” Sami — in their terms — and that they suspected he was actually an FBI informant. His job was to groom Sami. And I often, in the beginning, had that as my working theory. 

At the same time, I’d gotten some emails back in 2014, when I was researching this story, that were said to have been from Russell, and he was describing how he was fighting in Syria. And so I really had these two ideas that were in conflict. Was Russell an FBI informant? Or was he an American who had gone to fight in the Syrian civil war? And so, in 2014, when I had this email address for him, I sent him an email trying to engage him and never heard back. And I published the story about Sami Osmakac, moved on with my work and my life. And then, years later, in the summer of 2018, is when suddenly Russell Dennison pops up and contacts me. And it turned out that he wasn’t an informant at all, he was actually an American who had gone to Syria and had joined the Islamic State.

MH: A lot of your reporting has focused on these cases of entrapment and cases where it is an FBI informant who is sort of the precipitating driver of certain terrorism cases. And it’s interesting, in Russell’s case, he seems to fit this stereotype in that he’s actually like, ethnically, he’s white, he has a big, red beard. What was your first initial take on who he is? How similar or dissimilar was he to other people you’ve seen in similar cases like this?

TA: The reason that I thought there was credibility to this theory that he was an informant was that he acted like so many of the other FBI informants I’ve seen in other cases, which is to say that often these informants will be, basically, loudmouths and firebrands and try to encourage people to take strong — or even extreme — ideological or political positions, and then push them to act on it. Like: What are you going to do about it? Like: We have to do something! 

And in Russell’s case, he was like that, and then at the same time would post these YouTube videos:

RD: Assalamu’alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh, to all the brothers and sisters worldwide. Subhanallah. We muslims, alhamdulillah. We want the truth! We have the path to success to Jannah. We are the believers, inshallah! We know why we’re here. We know who our creator is. We know our purpose. All the kafir are lost. Here we are, 2010.

TA: You know, the FBI, as a tactic, will often use these people as informants to kind of ferret out like-minded people. So they have their informants express these very strong or even extreme views, and then that attracts other people who share those views and may be interested, in the FBI’s view, in crossing that line from sympathizer to violent actor of some sort. 

And so in that way, Russell very much fit this:

RD: Right now, I’m in America. And when you live here, and you drive around, and you interact with the people, you see that these people, they have no religion, they have nothing. These people are lost. They don’t know. They don’t even know what the word God means. To them, God —

TA: And so it turned out that what was happening and what was leading me to believe, at the time, he was an informant, was that the FBI was basically using him as one person in the podcast describes as a bug light, which means that they knew that Russell was attracting the people that they wanted to investigate. So anyone who Russell communicated with, they would then get an interest in and investigate them. And so, in a way, Russell was a bit of an unwitting informant. 

And all of that kind of comes to bear, I think, in this question that the podcast raises, which is: To what extent did the FBI push Russell out of the country? I mean, what Russell describes as his motivations for leaving the United States and going to Syria was this feeling that he couldn’t live freely in United States, he couldn’t be the Muslim he wanted to be in the United States because the FBI was after him. And to a certain extent, that’s true. They were investigating all of the people around him. The FBI was making constant visits to Russell, asking him questions, asking about his videos. And so there certainly was this side to it that, I think you can question: Would Russell Dennison have been an ISIS fighter either way? Or was the FBI investigation of Russell and his friends kind of that final push that sent him ISIS’ way?

MH: What was his life trajectory that led him to becoming Muslim, and then eventually becoming a very radicalized Muslim and supporting ISIS?

TA: So Russell was raised Catholic, but talks about how he never really felt like the religion was for him. As soon as he got old enough to rebel against his parents, he was no longer going to Catholic church. 

And I think Russell was this person who, despite his religious views growing up, I think he really wanted to belong to something. And he wanted this identity. And you see that in his teenage years when he becomes interested in hip-hop music, and so that just becomes his identity. And he gets involved as a late teenager in spray paint, and tagging buildings, and listening to hip-hop music, and modifying his car and kind of taking on this identity. He is that for several years, and I think that ultimately just wasn’t enough for him. 

And when he’s ultimately arrested for selling marijuana, at the time, right around then, he is working at this FedEx where he is sorting packages. And he meets this Black Muslim, who he didn’t even know was Muslim, he was just this man that he really admired for his calm demeanor. And he drives him home one night, and they have a conversation, and the guy describes how he’s Muslim, and Russell immediately becomes interested in it. And the guy then goes into his house and gives Russell a Quran, which is his first, and Russell just devours it. And over the course of several days just reads it every evening. And that was enough for Russell. He’s just like: I’m Muslim, at this point.

RD: When I opened the Quran, there was light inside the book. And I don’t mean light, like coming outside of the book, like lighting up the room. No. But, I mean, there was light inside the book. All of the pages were lit up.

TA: But you know, he’s never really met any other Muslims. He hadn’t necessarily taken shahada, and even in his booking papers, when he accepts a plea deal for his marijuana charge, they asked him if he had any drugs or alcohol in the last 48 hours and he mentions that he had some rum, which, of course, as a Muslim, he wouldn’t have been able to. 

And then he goes to prison for a short period of time, less than two years. He identifies as a Muslim and learns about the religion more from prisoners who are Muslim, and then after his release comes to Florida where his parents have lived. Russell ideas, at first, were really fueled by both a fair amount of ignorance about Islam, like not really being around other Muslims, except the ones in prison and from what he read in the Quran, and then at the same time, stuff after he is released that he was watching online, such as Anwar al-Awlaki.

Anwar al-Awlaki: [in Arabic, with Voiceover] Do not seek any permission when it comes to the killing of Americans. Fighting the devil doesn’t need a religious edict, deliberation, prayer, or guidance. They are the party of the devil and fighting them is a personal duty of our times.

TA: Anwar al-Awlaki was, of course, the cleric here in the United States who eventually left and became a propagandist for Osama bin Laden. 

But eventually he meets a man in Florida who is a Salafi Muslim. And he described Salafism to Russell; Russell engages with that, and then kind of more and more just became attracted to the kind of hardline view of Islam. But he didn’t have any ambitions at that time to become a fighter, to get involved in any sort of violence. But what he was interested in was leaving the United States. And so one of the first steps for that was Russell taking a trip to Egypt, and thinking that it’ll be great in the Muslim world, he can live as the Muslim he wants to be, and what happens to him is ultimately, he is then detained by security forces and put in a torture prison, and he is then interrogated by Egyptian officials who ask him questions that only the FBI would be interested in, like people that he associated with at mosques in Florida. And this, to him, was this kind of breakthrough for him this idea that these people that he viewed as kind of antagonistic toward Islam and enemies of his religion, weren’t just the Americans in United States, it was also the Egyptians in Egypt and others in the Muslim world. And I think then you begin to see Russell’s extremism, after he returned from Egypt, really beginning to take shape.

MH: You know, all these cases, as you know, are very different. And there’s different precipitating factors that lead people sometimes to join these groups and so forth. But in Russell’s case, the perception I get from reading about him, and hearing you talk about him, and listening to the podcast, is that, in his own way, he was actually quite educated, in the sense that he was very self-motivated and self-educated to learn about this issue. It makes me wonder, does the fact that he ended up eventually joining ISIS and leaving the country and so forth, was it some outlet for a psychological issue or a desire to change the world in some way that he thought was better? Or was it because of pressure by the authorities here? Or was it a combination of the three? How do you see it, getting to know him so well?

TA: It’s a huge topic, this idea of what drives people like Russell to groups like ISIS. And I think in Russell’s case, as I think is the case generally, is that it’s really hard to kind of create a formula. There are so many drivers in place that it really is kind of unique to each person why they make this really extreme decision to join a group like ISIS. 

People will listen to Russell and maybe not come to the conclusion that he’s a very smart guy, based on some of the things he says, and I don’t think that’s the case. I actually think he’s a pretty smart guy. I think Russell did a good job of educating himself as best he could about Islam, and was a voracious reader. I think where Russell had faults is that he had a bit of tunnel vision. He would just read and study about the things that he wanted to study, and really didn’t understand the world as well as I think a lot of people do. 

An example of this is Russell having such a firm understanding of Islam as he views it, but then, at the same time, he goes to Beirut, in Lebanon, and what he’s expecting is this really pious city of worshipping Muslims. And instead he sees what is in Beirut, right? A very modern city and women wearing high heels and miniskirts and something that is more comparable to Miami Beach, even. And that was something that was just so surprising to Russell. 

Russell’s drivers were, really, I think two things. I think one, Russell had trouble fitting into American life in general. In his early 20s, he was arrested for dealing marijuana, so he’s basically a felon, then he has trouble kind of finding a good job as a result, as many ex-convicts do in the United States. He doesn’t have a whole lot of social luck; doesn’t have a lot of friends. And so I think, you know, Russell was really dissatisfied with this life.

A lot of people in America are dissatisfied with the life they have. And in Russell’s case, it’s coupled by the fact that he then kind of really identifies with this a kind of extreme brand of Islam, and begins to think that there is this place he can go where there are others like him, and that he can live this better life if he can just find that place. He really set off to the Middle East, initially, just thinking that he was going to find this kind of place where all the Muslims are just like him and share his viewpoints. And so he goes to Iraq, he goes to Egypt, he goes to Beirut, and he finds that the Muslims that he was searching for are not there. And then ultimately, that’s what drives him to cross into Syria during the civil war, this belief that the Muslim society that he was hoping to find, he hasn’t found it, and maybe he’s going to find it amidst the civil war in Syria.

RD: I was asked to work in a group that plans on making attacks outside the Islamic State, to help them and advise them to prepare an attack inside America or France or in Britain. And this, I declined. Because in reality, I didn’t want anything to do with this. I wanted to keep my jihad personal, in the lens I was in, and let things happen naturally. I didn’t want to involve myself in any real acts of terror.

MH: Can you tell me a bit about your first correspondence with Russell and how the conversation went?

TA: I got this anonymous email with this WhatsApp number. And it just said, I think I have a story you might be interested in. And the message I received back when I sent a message, just saying, Hey, this is Trevor Aaronson responding to your email was, I believe the exact words were, “Do you remember Sami Osmakac?” And I said, “Yes.” The next question was, “Do you know who I am now?” And, I knew it was Russell. I mean, I knew Russell was the only person I would have tried to contact in the past who would ask a question like that. And so I said, “Dennison?” And he said, “Yes, that’s correct.” And that’s what started our correspondence.

We started communicating through WhatsApp exclusively, that was Russell’s idea. And the way that we ultimately communicated was through voice memos. At the time Russell contacted me, ISIS’s de facto capital, Raqqa, had already fallen. And so he and a lot of the other ISIS fighters were in Deir ez-Zor. The infrastructure there wasn’t great, so he devised this system to communicate where he would record his messages to me at night when he was alone and he had time. And then when he would go to an internet hotspot, those messages would then be uploaded. And so every, every morning or so, I would usually wake up at the time to, you know, 30 or 40, voice memos varying in length from 30 seconds to four or five minutes. And that became our system. 

And then, because the internet was a challenge for him, I would then listen to the recordings. And then rather than send voice memos, I would write questions back and he would then respond. And so it became this kind of confessional quality that like every evening, Russell would sit down after his wife and children were asleep and record these messages to me. And what we had devised as a basic system was that I wanted him to tell me about his life from the United States through to his time in the present as he was recording in ISIS controlled Syria.

RD: When I left Florida, and I remember I hugged my father and I hugged and kissed my mother, man, I knew that I would never see them again. And it’s very sad, you know? I had to let them go. And this is the sacrifice that we do for this religion.

TA: You know, this guy is what has been characterized as you know, evil, right? Like an ISIS fighter. And yet, I’m hearing these recordings, and I’m struck by the charisma in his voice. I’m struck by his humanity in telling me his stories and sharing this with me. 

And so one of the reasons it works well as a podcast is that Russell is able to tell his story in a really effective way that brings you into it, makes you feel like you’re there.

MH: Yeah, that’s actually something I was very curious about, because at the time that you’re having this conversation with Russell, ISIS was one of the biggest news stories in the world. And there was a lot of curiosity, and fear, and anger about their actions and what was going on. And you had a very, very unique view into ISIS, because you actually were speaking to a member of ISIS at the time, and he was in the group talking to you from their controlled territories. How did you feel having this relationship with him? What did you take away from knowing him?

TA: It was really engaging in the sense that I felt like I had this window into this world that few other people, other journalists had, right? Which is that he’s in ISIS at that moment, and daily communicating with me with what life is like there, and what’s happening within the group. And I just didn’t know of anyone, any journalist, who really had that type of access. 

And the reason it was, at the same time, strange was that it was this relationship that I really couldn’t talk about with anyone. You know, Russell was concerned that any of the information that he had provided, unless it was kind of explicit, that it was OK to release, would potentially put him in harm’s way, either with the ISIS security forces, because he was, at times very critical of ISIS, or with the U.S. government, perhaps he would be targeted for killing by the U.S. government was his concern. 

And so it was strange, because I felt like we were having this very unique relationship where he was in a very difficult position. I mean, he’s literally in a war zone, he’s with his small family, and every day is a struggle for life. And here I am, in comfortable United States, getting his messages and hearing about this.

RD: I saw many brothers from us killed. And I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I’ve seen these brothers die and die laughing. I’ve seen them die with the biggest smile, and it looks so beautiful in the state of death.

TA: I was really his only connection outside of Syria. And so it really created this unique relationship. I very much viewed it as I am the journalist, and he is the subject. But I think for him, toward the end of our communications, he began to realize that he was very likely to die and die soon. And so he just was honest with me in his recordings in a way that I think was quite extraordinary.

RD: And I’ll try not to leave anything out, and explain everything to the best of my ability, like I usually tried to do. And after that, then we’ll just see what’s the next thing I should focus on talking about. But that’s going to be my priority is trying to finish this last chapter, and get us caught up to where we are now, inshallah.

TA: And that itself was a weird thing to have to deal with, that knowing the person I’m talking to, is, in all likelihood, gonna die fairly soon. 

It was interesting to me to have the human side of the perceived enemy. We live in this world now where we’re quick to dehumanize the people that we are fighting, whether it’s political battles, or very real battles, with enemies with tanks and bombs. That’s what I kind of saw in Russell’s story, was this ability to see this group and these people that we have labeled enemies [who] have done horrible things to civilians, and Americans, and many others. But who are these people? And Russell’s confessional tape, so to speak, gave me a window into that, into the humanity that’s even there for these people that I think we’ve come to term, rightly as enemies of ours.

MH: What did you learn about the people who join ISIS? What can we draw from your very unique and valuable relationship with Russell to say about why this phenomenon took place, where tens of thousands of people from all the world ended up traveling to join this group, which most of us were very repelled by?

TA: It’s believed that tens of thousands of fighters from all over the world came to join ISIS. And those reasons varied, obviously. But I think one of the unifying reasons for all of them was the feeling that the places they lived were no longer welcoming to the religion that they wanted to practice; that they felt their religion and their way of life was under attack, and that they could come to Syria, or Iraq, and join ISIS and be part of this movement. And I also think that they really felt, or at least through Russell’s eyes, that they were building something consequential, that they were building the society where they could finally be free, and they could live as Muslims as they want to live. 

And I think the way ISIS has been covered in the Western media as a whole, I think, has really played up — and ISIS wanted this — the grotesque brutality of the group, whether it’s the propaganda videos of murdering civilians and journalists or torturing people who they believed were spies, or were gay, or what have you. And you know, those things happened, and they were horrific, right? But not everyone who joined ISIS necessarily did those things or agreed 100 percent with what it was doing.

I think in Russell’s view, as he describes, he never came to Syria to fight the United States. He didn’t want to get involved in attacks in the United States. And he described his not being alone in this, that there were people who came there and truly believed that they were building this state where Muslims could be free, and that they were freeing the Iraqis and the Syrians from oppressive governments that were antagonistic to Islam.

RD: The U.S. maintains a dominant control globally, just about. In reality, we are no threat to the West. Yes, if you look at the Islamic State videos, and many of their fighting videos, and many things that people say, that they threaten the West, this and that — this is a personal thing. Many of the brothers here, we are not here to fight America. We didn’t come here to fight America. 

TA: Feeling that way requires Russell and others to dance around and avoid responsibility for some of the really horrific things that ISIS did. Inside the ISIS caliphate, there was a functioning society that people like Russell and others, who come from all over the world, were trying to build. 

To a certain extent, if you put yourself in their shoes, to the extent that you say like, you’re some 20 or 30-some-year-old, who’s come from a country where you really felt marginalized, or a society where you really felt marginalized. And then you arrive in Raqqa, and you’re part of this, you’re building this, and I think it gave someone like Russell this really quick identity to put themselves in a position where they’re having a consequential impact on the world.

And to Russell’s credit, to a certain extent, that’s true, right? Like, would anyone have told Russell’s story had he stayed in the United States and not done these things? Like, in the end, he did lead a fairly extraordinary life — so extraordinary that we’re talking about it now. That’s what some of these people really wanted was this feeling like they wanted to make a difference in this world, very much through the prism of fighting for the freedom to practice their religion.

MH: Some time ago, there was a big controversy over The New York Times’ podcast Caliphate, which was similarly based on an ISIS volunteer but, with later investigation, turned out to have not actually been a volunteer in the group. Can you tell us a bit about the verification process you went through with Russell, or how this case, because Russell actually got killed in Syria in the end, sort of different throughout your time of talking to him than what took place with the New York Times’ version of reporting?

TA: When I started communicating with Russell, and when I started researching him more, I knew that whatever form of journalism this would take, whether it was a story, or a book, or a podcast, or what have you, the verification process would really be the critical piece. How do we know this is really Russell Dennison? How do we know he’s really in Syria? And how do we know he’s really with ISIS? Because there are certainly, as in the case of Caliphate, examples of people hoaxing journalists and telling them stories that aren’t true. 

Caliphate hadn’t collapsed when I was first doing this. But I knew that verification and authentication was critical. And then, ultimately, when it was discovered that the Canadian authorities had arrested the primary subject of The New York Times’ podcast for what they termed “a terrorist hoax,” it was this reminder to me of how bad it could be if I slipped up as a journalist and trusted Russell’s story too much. 

I can say definitively Russell Dennison was an American who joined ISIS. And I say that not because he told me that and we had one corroborating piece of information — no, we had multiple, multiple sources. And so what ended up happening, while he was alive, I had devised a number of tests for him to get him to confirm to me that he was who he said he was. Fortunately, I had access to parts of his FBI file. And that FBI file included narrative descriptions of interviews that he had with FBI agents while he was in Florida. And so he described in detail what happened in those FBI interviews and those matched exactly with what was in the FBI file, which is not something that Russell or the public at all would have had access to, it’s a very limited number of people who have access to this. 

I had him send pictures of his passport, pictures of his ISIS ID card. And then I had him give me names of people he knew. After his death, I was able to track down people in Florida, I was able to track down someone he knew in Michigan who had traveled with him in Iraq, all of these people were able to confirm specific parts of Russell’s story. 

In addition to that, when Russell was communicating with me at the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, the U.S.-led coalition was bombing the area of Deir ez-Zor where Russell and his family were, and when Russell was making these recordings to me, he would accidentally, at times, record some of these bombings that he was listening to, so it’s this really dramatic audio of these bombings behind him.

RD: Amen. I’ll check it out. I’ll give it a shot, and I’ll do it. Nothing else is working out for me. Not that I’m giving up — [sounds of bombing very close by]. You hear this? You see, this is major American airstrikes. When I was in this city, there was sometimes — [sounds of bombing] — oh, Allahu Akbar. 

TA: And he would then, at the time, send me information about what was targeted, he would send me pictures from the ground, I was reporting for The Intercept on some of those bombings. And so we had a number of sources for the information we were providing. And one of those sources, I can reveal now, was Russell. So Russell was communicating with me at that time, and he had agreed to let me use this information that he was sending me about the bombings. And so among the information that he’d sent me was, you know, the fact that the hospital had been bombed in Deir ez-Zor and other specific targets. And the Department of Defense later verified and confirmed that indeed, they had targeted this hospital and other targets that Russell had told me about. And so in addition to all of the corroborating evidence that I had about Russell being in ISIS, I also had weeks of experience of him providing me, in real time, information from the ground that only an ISIS fighter could have provided.

RD: Yes, this is the worst night for airstrikes in this neighborhood I am in. This is the worst night. Today, maybe like all the families, they left. And it’s only like, military here now. And I’m here with my family. And there’s some crazy airstrikes tonight. So I hope that me and my family, we live through this night. But this is our life.

TA: When we were working on this project, you know, obviously there was this concern, like, how do we know it’s him? And how do we avoid a situation like The New York Times where it just collapses, right? This isn’t a story where we took Russell’s word for it. I mean, we did our best to verify all aspects of his story, and interrogate it in the most intense way possible. 

And, you know, throughout the podcast, I tried to reveal as transparently as possible how we confirmed what we confirmed, or if there’s an instance where it was just an unconfirmable thing that Russell was telling us something that happened, he’d say in specific conflict, or a specific moment, where there’s no way to otherwise verify that, we tried to be very transparent about that with the listener.

MH: Under the Trump administration, the caliphate that he went to build was destroyed. And victory was declared by the U.S. in this conflict. But what you learned about the motivations of Russell and this phenomenon as a whole, do you think this conflict is actually over? Or is it in a lull? Or is it still too early to say?

TA: I don’t think it’s over. I think we’re entering a new and different phase, particularly with the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan. And it’s hard to know what exactly will happen. But I think the idea that the conflicts that have existed in that part of the world, in large part because of U.S. intervention and U.S. wars there, I think are going to continue. One of the things that came out of Russell’s story that I think is important, is this idea that when the US coalition was trying to dislodge ISIS from the final territory that it controlled in eastern Syria, it was backed by Kurdish rebels on the ground as the ground force and that ground force was outmatched by the ground force of ISIS. And so they couldn’t directly engage on the ground, because the Kurds would have most likely been defeated. And so what the U.S. coalition did was they basically carpet bombed a lot of the Deir ez-Zor province as they were targeting ISIS fighters, and so killed civilians as well. 

And I think one of the things that Russell told me that I thought was really remarkable for its truth, he’d lived through one night of this bombing campaign and he was upset, and scared, and you could hear that in his voice, and he’s outside, and he basically says, I’m not sure how much longer I’m going to live. ISIS may not be here tomorrow, but the people who live through this, who see these dead bodies and this destruction, they will remember, and they will know who did this. Right? 

And to me what that meant was just this idea that, yeah, ISIS probably isn’t going to last forever. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have blowback from the type of violence that we drop on a place like Deir ez-Zor, that there are these young men who will see their sisters, and their brothers, and their fathers die, and they may likely blame the United States, and what comes of that, right? 

All of this is cyclical. I mean, if you look at the rise of ISIS, and you can point to the U.S. brutality in Iraq and the unjustified war there, what will be the next iteration of ISIS? Because I think there will be other groups like it and they will be responding to the actions that the U.S. took. And I think that’s, in the longer term, what the U.S. needs to worry about? 

And the irony is that people have been saying this for decades, right? This is kind of the story of the United States where we get involved where we probably shouldn’t, and we’ve divorced ourselves, to a certain extent, from the brutalities of war and the violence that the U.S. is able to perpetrate on others. You know, this idea that, you know, these wars happen through drones and smart bombs, and they’re so far away from us. And, you know, we don’t have to see how awful it is. And, if anything, I think what Russell’s recordings during that time did was provide this window into what the United States was doing. 

And granted, the United States in trying to dislodge ISIS was a good thing. I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t have been doing that. But I think where the concern is, is that the tactics we use, the violence and the destruction that we cause, are we going to inspire the next generation of people that will want to harm the United States? And you know, what Russell would argue, standing there, having lived through a night of bombing is that, yeah, that’s exactly what happened. He may no longer be on this Earth and ISIS may no longer be here, but there are people who have lived through this bombing campaign who will remember and they’re going to do something about it.

MH: Trevor, thanks for coming on Intercepted and sharing this incredible story.

TA: Of course. Thanks for having me.

MH: Trevor Aaronson is an investigative reporter for the intercept. You can hear the entire American ISIS series on Audible, at 

[Credits music.]

MH: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is the editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. As always, our theme music was composed by DJ Spooky.

Until next time, I’m Murtaza Hussain.


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