As conflicts from Iraq to Syria have forced a record 60 million people around the world to flee their homes and become refugees, we speak with Scott Anderson about his in-depth new report, “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart.” Occupying the entire print edition of this week’s New York Times Magazine, it examines what has happened in the region in the past 13 years since the the U.S. invaded Iraq through the eyes of six characters in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Anderson is also author of the book, “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.”

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  1. Excerpt:

    JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What did you—what did you learn from those interviews and from his story?

    SCOTT ANDERSON: There was an amazing pattern. As you say, I interviewed probably just around 20 ISIS fighters, all in prison either in Iraq or in Kurdistan now. The one pattern I found over and over again was that these were—they were all young men, kind of with very bleak futures, either unemployed or underemployed, from working-class families, and not religious at all. None of these—according to them, they were not from religious families. They did not know the Qur’an very well. In a couple of cases, I knew the Qur’an better than they did. They were not recruited in mosques. They joined because their buddies joined, I mean, you know, because they saw stuff on social media. They’ve all—you know, everybody has mobile phones in that part of the world. And they’ve all—they had all seen the ISIS videos. And I think it was this kind of decision that young men make, that better to live large for a couple of years, and, you know, the power and the so-called glamour of—but the power that comes of carrying a gun, and then, you know, worry about what happens in the future two or three years down the road. So, I felt it was—certainly, in my experience, of these kind of foot soldiers, the grunts—they were primarily the ISIS members I’ve talked with—they had more akin to why somebody might join like an inner-city gang or why in Mexico they might join a narco gang. It’s this kind of despair at seeing any sort of future. But it’s not political, it’s not religious. It’s just this impulse to—you know, to have some sort of—I mean, it’s awful to say, in terms of ISIS, but adventure.

    JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But that’s a quite different perspective from what we get here—


    JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that these are religious zealots who are willing to die for Islam.

    SCOTT ANDERSON: That’s right. No, it’s very different. And like a lot of cults, what ISIS—you mentioned like the character, the subject of the article, Wakaz Hassan. He joined up—he was brought in by his older brother. Wakaz at that time was 19, his brother was 26. Part of his basic training was to execute six different prisoners of ISIS on six different occasions. So, it was this kind of brutalizing process where they brought him out of the barracks and he was told he had to shoot somebody in the back of the head, on six different times. And he was—at this point, he’s in. It’s like being in a cult, and now you’re there. And at least in his view, there was no way to get out once he had signed up.

    AMY GOODMAN: You have an amazing part of the end of part one of your article. It’s in October 2002. This was right around the time the U.S. Congress voted to authorize war. Hillary Clinton voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. You interviewed Muammar Gaddafi, and you asked him who would benefit if the Iraq invasion actually occurred. You write, “The Libyan dictator had a habit of theatrically pondering before answering my questions, but his reply to that one was instantaneous. ‘Bin Laden,’ he said. ‘There is no doubt about that. And Iraq could end up becoming the staging ground for Al Qaeda, because if the Saddam government collapses, it will be anarchy in Iraq. If that happens, actions against Americans will be considered jihad.'”


    AMY GOODMAN: These are the words of the Libyan leader, who ruled for what? Like 42 years.

    SCOTT ANDERSON: Forty-two years, yeah.


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