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I was in Baghouz as French and American artillery units launched strikes against the Islamic State’s final redoubt in Syria. From a rooftop overlooking the frontline, I watched as the Syrian Democratic Forces pushed the line forward as ISIS used women and children as human shields. Through no small effort, the campaign would come to an end and the caliphate would be declared dismantled. Standing on that frontline, in February 2019, I knew the end of ISIS and many of its fighters was near.
So did a man named Russell Dennison.
During those long days, as the U.S. and coalition strikes withered the remains of the Islamic State, in 2018 and 2019, on the other side of that frontline stood Dennison, an American convict and Muslim convert. He was secretly recording and sending dozens of hours of audio to a reporter back home, in America.
That reporter was Trevor Aaronson, a contributing writer for The Intercept and a 2020 ASU Future Security Fellow at New America. He made a deal with Dennison, promising to share only the tapes in the event of his capture or death.
Throughout the engrossing eight-episode podcast, Aaronson unspools the story of how an American came to join ISIS, radicalize others, and die fighting for a cause with which he sometimes had trouble reconciling. Aaronson also takes listeners and the U.S. Government to task. “In the U.S., with our wars and conflicts, we’ve trained ourselves to sanitize and even ignore the violence and misery we cause,” Aaronson says. “We pretend we don’t kill civilians, but we do.”
In addition to telling the story of Dennison’s journey into ISIS, the podcast reveals a number of previously unreported details about the extremist group, including how ISIS operated a secret intelligence unit in eastern Syria that intercepted communications between U.S. and coalition forces in the region.
Aaronson and I exchanged notes last week.
You note that Dennison eventually came to realize he wanted to have his story, his journey, shared in part because he knew he would soon die. Do you feel that, over the hundreds of voice messages, he was able to do that? Or are there still outstanding questions you'd want to ask him?
For the most part, I was able to elicit Dennison’s story and get him to answer the most pressing questions. We covered a lot in his 30 hours of recordings. However, because he was concerned about his safety from both ISIS’s internal security service and the U.S. government, I did not interview people who knew him until after his death. As you might imagine, I had some questions for Dennison following those interviews, primarily related to details I found interesting, but I never got to ask him.
As I note in American ISIS, Dennison was remarkably candid in his recordings. They had a confessional quality. But one topic he was hesitant to talk about was his first marriage in Syria, which he described as a short-lived one with a British woman who left Syria not long after arriving. Dennison didn’t want to talk about this relationship. After his death, I learned that his first wife in Syria was Tareena Shakil, the first British woman prosecuted for joining ISIS. I would have liked to have asked Dennison more about Tareena and whether he had helped her get out of Syria.
We've had glimpses into the caliphate in years past, but nothing so immersive and genuine. Was there any concern about telling his story and how it might bolster support stateside for the Islamic State?
From the start, I was wary of being a vehicle for an ISIS supporter to glamorize the group or make excuses for their atrocities. But because Dennison said he wasn’t a true believer, and because he was at times quite critical of ISIS, I felt his story and firsthand account of ISIS in Syria were too important not to be made public. I also believed that my work in interrogating and authenticating his story would ensure that Dennison wouldn’t have a platform to glamorize or apologize for ISIS. I was here to tell the full, unvarnished story—not the version of the story Dennison would choose to tell. To Dennison’s credit, he realized this. He understood my role as a journalist.
I think it would be hard for someone to listen to American ISIS all the way through and come away with any sort of support for ISIS. In the end, without giving away too much, Dennison is left disillusioned—believing that the West had inflated the threat ISIS posed and feeling that he’d never found the great Islamic paradise for which he’d been searching.
Through this podcast, Dennison offers something unique: an insider’s view of the ISIS caliphate from an American’s perspective. I don’t think it’s a controversial thing to say that the Western media’s coverage of ISIS wasn’t the best. In some ways I think Western news media portrayed ISIS as monolithic, and I think journalists covering ISIS were influenced by the barbarism of the group’s propaganda—which, in turn, resulted in stories that inflated the perceived threat of ISIS to the West. Dennison’s story really shows how the group wasn’t monolithic, that others in the group disagreed with some of the horrific things ISIS members did, and how even someone like Dennison was concerned about saying the wrong thing and being taken by ISIS’s internal security service.
As a reporter this was a gift of a story, with incredible access. You said in the first episode you corresponded daily: how did you maintain your thread and conversation over the many months? How did you organize all the recordings and his narrative timeline?
Our communications and our relationship evolved over time. In the beginning, I had no way to know that we’d communicate for six months and I’d do this documentary podcast. For his part, Dennison had no way to know how long I’d stay interested in hearing his story. But we slowly established a rapport, and I agreed to keep Dennison’s identity and story confidential until he was killed or captured.
As I came to know Dennison, I realized there were two tracks to his story -- the story of who he was and how he came to join ISIS in Syria, and his day-to-day story of living through the caliphate's slow collapse in eastern Syria. So I asked Dennison to tell me his life story in chronological order and then, in separate recordings, describe to me what was happening day-to-day. I’d listen to each batch of recordings and then send follow-up questions. This created a natural conversation thread: Dennison was just telling me his larger story in chronological order and then also telling me what was happening to him on that day or for the couple of days since we last communicated. As I describe in the podcast, the bombing campaign in Deir Ezzor intensified as Dennison was still finishing his larger chronological story and so he began to quicken his pace, out of concern that he’d be killed before he finished.
Dennison would make his recordings at night, after his wife and children had gone to bed, and he’d then connect to the internet the next day and WhatsApp would upload the recordings he’d made for me the night before. A technical problem was that when Dennison sent me these batches of recordings, I would not receive them in the order in which they were created. So my solution was that Dennison say aloud the recording session number at the beginning of each voice memo—i.e., “This is number four.” That allowed me to order the recordings upon receipt.
After his death, I transcribed all the recordings, made notes throughout the transcripts, and created a timeline that allowed me to keep track of what was happening and when in his story.
I don't think it's giving anything away to say Dennison dies in Baghouz. I found it difficult to reconcile how, despite being against the violence and sometimes strict interpretation of Sharia law, Dennison still felt that dying for the cause, the establishment of a caliphate, was his calling. How do you think he reckoned with those conflicting emotions?
What reconciled this for him, in my view, were two beliefs that Dennison held: that he needed to live in an Islamic state, and for all its faults, the one ISIS created was the purest he could find; and that he believed in the Islamic concept of divine destiny and that he was on the path God had chosen for him.
I describe in detail in the podcast how Dennison claimed he could disagree with ISIS’s brutality but still stay with the group. You could argue that his stated beliefs about needing to find a pure Islamic society and the predetermination of his death are examples of Dennison’s religious zealotry. I pressed him on these beliefs several times, and he was consistent in his answers.
From the outside, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wonder how much of Dennison’s circumstances pushed him toward religious zealotry. He was trapped. If he were to leave ISIS and try to return to the United States, he would be prosecuted and likely imprisoned for decades. If the Syrian government captured him, his fate would likely be worse. So as bombs were raining down on him in eastern Syria, what could he do? It seemed like he could either admit that he’s trapped or what he did: embrace religious zealotry, believing that he didn’t get there because of a series of very bad choices in life, but instead that he got to where he was because God had chosen for him to be there.
Dennison had two children. What can you tell subscribers about what became of his family?
Dennison’s wife and two children were alive the last I heard from them. They’d returned to Raqqa, after spending months in the al-Hol displaced persons camp. My interactions with Dennison’s widow and the mess that Dennison left behind drive the second half of the final episode.
And for anyone who hasn't downloaded the series on Audible yet, what might be a surprising takeaway you can share with them here?
I suspect a lot of people will think that for someone like Dennison, the path from the United States to ISIS would be a direct one. But Dennison’s path wasn’t direct at all. He went to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon before finally deciding to cross into Syria. There were so many points during which Dennison’s trajectory to ISIS could have been altered. There were also factors that I think pushed him toward ISIS, such as what he viewed as the FBI’s harassment of him in the United States and his brief detention in a secret prison in Egypt.