Many of us can relate to the upbringing of suburban Pennsylvania native, Russell Dennison. He was raised by two small business owners, watched cartoons like G.I. Joe and regularly attended church. What many of us can’t relate to is moving to Syria in the midst of a brutal civil war and joining ISIS in the aspiration of establishing an Islamic Caliphate.
The story in between is usually cast aside and summarily dismissed as irrelevant, especially where anti-Muslim sentiments are strong like in the United States of America. A terrorist is a terrorist, and nothing can justify that, right? While this is true, try to imagine the historical limitations we’d be placing on ourselves if we only investigated the most virtuous characters of the past, or the most noble movements that ever metastasized. American ISIS adds a chapter to a history that is easy to overlook, yet benefits us all to painfully swallow.
Dennison was an Islamic fundamentalist who made choices that harmed people and eventually led to his own demise, but that didn’t stop Trevor Aaronson of The Intercept from reaching out to examine the reasons why things happened the way they did. After all, this was a unique story; not every white suburbanite abandons their comfortable status in society to embrace the most extreme interpretations of Islam and Jihadism. And a significantly less number of those individuals act upon those beliefs and mobilize into the throes of war.
Aaronson originally honed in on Dennison and his background after reporting on an FBI sting regarding one of Dennison’s connects in Florida, who was persuaded by an undercover agent to plot a violent attack in a public space that landed him in prison for conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism. Intrigued by his relationship to the man, Aaronson pursued a conversation with our protagonist Dennison in 2014 but to no avail. Only several years later, while living in a war ravaged area of Syria that was being closed in on every day by American forces and airstrikes, would Dennison contact our reporter to reveal his entire story.
The podcast itself, and I for that matter, are very clear that we do not endorse or excuse Dennison’s choices. They often have reasoning behind them, but many of his motivations are inherently pious and driven by an interpretation of Islam that many of us would consider bigoted, reactionary and rigidly patriarchal. Even still, American ISIS explores much more complex and interesting themes than simply good versus evil, especially since “good versus evil” doesn’t necessarily reflect reality either.
The U.S. government, in coordination with the governments of Egypt, Lebanon and others, went to extreme and ruthless lengths to deracinate this sect of Islam from the face of the earth, going as far as physical torture and the execution of prisoners without trial. Many times, these policies and organizations such as the FBI ripped families apart and ruined lives, using deception and often very tenuous connections with radicalized individuals to implicate people who ostensibly never had intentions of committing acts of terrorism. A major takeaway of this story is that powerful and hegemonic governments will do what they deem integral to accomplishing their objectives, even if it steps on some innocent people along the way.
The podcast also points out that many were further radicalized into violence and retributive action due to the conditions that these governments subjected them to while they were detained. Because of all this, reducing the makeup of ISIS and those who defected from their countries to fight for the group as evil fleeing from good would be purely ahistorical and a distortion of reality.
All in all, this podcast should be celebrated as an awesome feat of journalism. I didn’t breach even a fraction of the detail that was uncovered in the over five hours of runtime, in part because I want to encourage readers to step into the journey themselves with an open mind, but also because there’s just too much to summarize here. American ISIS is a gripping listen with shockingly real themes that will leave you conflicted, disturbed and educated. Trevor Aaronson has a new fan of his work going forward in me.