This journalist witnessed the rise of ISIS up close—and now he’s telling the story
In 2007 I was a fresh-out-to-pasture journalist, trying not to lose my sanity as an Army wife and stay at home mom. I had worked most recently as a reporter for The Fayetteville Observer, but my husband, a Special Forces soldier, kept getting deployed. We couldn't afford a nanny, and no daycare in town stayed open late enough to watch our son until I could get off work.
The Observer offered me an opportunity to write a blog and two weekly columns from home, and that's how I came to meet Mike Giglio, a fresh-out-of-college writer for Charlotte Magazine, working on a story about military families at Ft. Bragg.
Giglio has written a book now, "Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate" – an open wound of a book, as raw and bleeding as the conflict itself.
But back in 2007, he came to my house, sat in my living room, made the requisite comments about the adorableness of my toddler, and interviewed me. He has since told me that I was the first person he had interviewed about war. He has interviewed many, many more people since. He wrote then:
Rebekah Sanderlin looks like an Army wife from a movie: the hero pulls out her picture in the opening scene, she has dark hair, engaging eyes, and a warm smile, she's holding his kid, and you're already hoping he makes it out of this thing alive.
12 years and as many deployments later, my husband and I are still married and, indeed, he appears to have made it out of this thing alive.
I followed Giglio's career from a distance after that, watching as his byline hopped up to the big leagues and then across the ocean, first to London and then to Istanbul, and then right into the heart of war.Now a journalist for The Atlantic, he spent four years living in Turkey and Syria, interviewing members of the Islamic State, their enablers, and legions of others who were pushing back against ISIS' terror quest for power, embedding with U.S. military units as well as low-level groups of resistance fighters.
His book is part memoir, part chronicle. We see the early movements of ISIS in the form of sources and scoops that grow into defeats and victories. He is unflinching in the descriptions but avoids the war-porn tendencies lesser writers find irresistible. There are no heroes and no villains, only humans showing up, day after day. Characters come and go, lost to war and the swirling chaos of life. There are no neat and tidy endings. This is news – news never ends.
His sparse, direct, writing style is appropriately like chewing on broken glass. A book about ISIS shouldn't be overwrought. There's too much gore, too much horror, too much human misery, for a writer in love with adjectives. No one needs those adjectives.
Of an Iraqi Special Forces soldier, he writes:
"So when militiamen kidnapped Ahmed from a checkpoint in Baghdad one day, they didn't just torture him. They put a circular saw to his forehead and tried to peel off his face. Then they put a hood over his head, shot him five times, and tossed his body in a garbage dump, thinking he was dead. Ahmed survived, though, and was found by an elderly man, who carried him to a hospital. When he recovered, he had gained his nickname – The Bullet, for what couldn't kill him – and he returned to his turret.
These are not pages to read before bed.
Giglio is captured and nearly executed, and he survives being hit by a suicide bomber. He sets these encounters on the table, like an indifferent dinner party host, as if to say, "Here it is. Make of it what you will." And, of course, there is only one thing to make of it: ISIS is even worse than you thought.
I read Mike's book during the vacant, pedestrian, moments of my mom-life. Sitting in my daughter's gymnastics class, reading about the young Syrian mother who watched helplessly as a wall collapsed on all four of her children during a bombing. In the front seat of my minivan, parked at the high school, waiting for that once-toddler-now-teenager, reading about a man whose seven siblings were all killed by ISIS. Sitting in a doctor's office waiting room while a friend's wrist was being x-rayed, reading about ISIS fighters gathering body parts from numerous people into one duffel bag, only to leave the bag in the middle of a street.
I read about Mike, being zip-tied and beaten by a jeering mob in Egypt, before being thrown into a prison bus and carted to a sports arena, where sham trials and public executions were being held for political prisoners. And then the zip ties are cut from his wrists and he is inexplicably released. I think about the cub reporter I first met in my North Carolina living room, as eager for adventure as any young soldier.
He is in Iraq, embedded with a battalion from the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force (ICTF) in Mosul when the results of the 2016 election are announced, and Americans of all political persuasions are melting down. He writes:
"I wondered if, when a country was at war for so long but only a select few ever waged it, the rest of society began to go a certain kind of crazy. Some played at civil war while others vowed to flee to Canada as political refugees, and too many Americans seemed to want to pull a bit of conflict into their lives just when so many people around the world were risking everything to escape from it."
And then he finally escapes it himself, perhaps for good, writing this about then-new President Trump's premature declaration of victory over ISIS: "As in the past, America was looking to move on from the region before the war was really over – leaving much of Iraq and Syria in ruins and ISIS still a threat. This was an impulse I embodied, too. As Colonel Arkan had once explained, the thing about going to war far from home is that you can always walk away from it."
If you're lucky, Mike. Only the lucky get to walk away.