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The Evolution of ISIS; The Long, Strange Road to the U.S. Presidency; Imagine a World. Aired 2-2:30p ET
Aired July 22, 2015 - 14:00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FRED PLEITGEN, CNN HOST (voice-over): Tonight: the evolution of ISIS; is the terror group slowly turning into a real state? My interview
with the U.S.' former counterterrorism coordinator.
Plus real candidates or just clowns? Are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump legitimate contenders for U.S. president? I'll debate with experts.
PLEITGEN: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Fred Pleitgen in for Christiane tonight.
Turkish investigators say they think a 20-year-old Turkish national is the suicide bomber behind Monday's devastating attack in the town of Suruc.
Turkey is blaming the bombing on ISIS and according to media reports, the suspect traveled to Syria last year.
Terror, beheadings and the destruction of ancient culture, that's what ISIS represents to most people around the world. But in the areas it
rules, in Iraq and Syria, some associate the group with law and order, even if the law is medieval and the order draconian.
A "The New York Times" article argues ISIS is transforming into a functioning state, putting into place things like ID cards for residents,
fishing guidelines to preserve stocks and requiring cars to carry toolkits for emergencies -- in short, bringing stability to areas devastated by
chaos for years.
Daniel Benjamin is a former coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department. He's also the director of the John Sloan Dickey
Center for International Understanding and he joins me now live from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
Mr. Benjamin, thank you very much for joining the program.
DANIEL BENJAMIN, FORMER COORDINATOR FOR COUNTERTERRORISM, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT: Thanks for having me.
PLEITGEN: I always ask this question because we need to try and see this from the perspective of the people who are affected.
What do you think, if we asked someone in Anbar province right now, whether the Iraqi state or the Islamic State is more of a state, what do
you think that person would say?
BENJAMIN: I think that they would say it's not much of a choice for them. The Iraqi state has not delivered very much except anti-Sunni places
and exclusion and marginalization. And the Islamic State has provided brutalization, extortion, any number of different atrocities.
I think that they would probably say I'd rather do without a state right now, thank you very much.
PLEITGEN: Well, what do you think about this notion that the Islamic State is starting to build state institutions, that at least it gives
stability to people and that it's gaining some sort of credence there on the ground for people?
I know that you're quite skeptical of the notion, but certainly it seems as though at this point it's going to be very hard to unseat them.
BENJAMIN: To begin with the Islamic State very much seeks the appearance and the status of a state and that's, I think, a condition of
its appeal. That's a requirement of its appeal to others. This is one of the reasons why it's been so popular among the extremists and even among
people who had never really thought about this issue before.
It is, after all, creating a caliphate; it seeks to unite Muslims together in one unbroken unity. And so that is what it wants to do. But I
think that as a long-term proposition, it's quite dubious, that ISIS, that the Islamic State will evolve into a state.
First of all, at the very heart of its ideology is expansion. And that means, in this case, war or terrorism. And I don't believe that
either its neighbors or the wider world are going to tolerate that.
The other thing is that the economics don't work out over the long term. The state is strapped; Islamic State is strapped for funds and needs
to conduct these military operations. And that's requiring them to extort more and more resources from the people who live there.
And ultimately that will drive those people either into exile or into rebellion.
PLEITGEN: But that's, what you're saying, is predicated on the Islamic State staying the way it is, staying as repressive as it is right
now, continuing to resort to extortion as it is right now, not evolving in any way, shape or form.
But I want to ask you, because you were obviously in the State Department, do you think it was a mistake to pull out of Iraq when the U.S.
did? Because many people believe that it was at that point, when the Sunni in Anbar province, for instance, really started feeling abandoned by the
U.S., by the international community.
BENJAMIN: I believe that the United States tried as hard as it could to get a good deal to stay longer in Iraq but that Nouri al-Maliki, the
Iraqi prime minister, could not --
BENJAMIN: -- deliver that and the Iraqi parliament did not want the United States there on the kinds of terms that we require for our military.
I also think it's important to recognize that the successes that we had in diminishing violence during the surge there were temporary, that
they dealt with the symptoms of the sectarian strife, but that they didn't really address the root causes.
And as long as Iraq has been in the grip of this competition between Sunni and Shia, I don't believe that our presence would have made a lasting
difference and I don't believe that we could stay there forever.
PLEITGEN: But don't you think that political pressure then on the Maliki administration or perhaps a different sort of administration --
because, of course, we know that Ayad Alawi was also an alternative at some point, would have possibly made a difference then.
BENJAMIN: I think that it's possible that we could have prolonged this. I think that we were not successful at pressing the Iraqis to adopt
the politics of inclusion and to really create a state that welcomed all of its members, perhaps there were mistakes made at the very beginning in
terms of the model of politics that we helped the Iraqis to adopt, which was based on sect and an ethnic identity. And that may have been a
But that would have required doing things all over. And I don't think we could have just thrown all the cards up in the air and said let's just
start from the beginning. But once the lid was off in Iraq through the invasion of 2003, I'm very skeptical that we could have gotten this right.
We tend to believe that if we think everything through we will do a good job. But there are some problems that can't easily be fixed.
PLEITGEN: It's interesting that you say that because of course we always have to keep in mind that this by no means is only the U.S.'
failure. This also very much is Iran's (sic) failure because one thing seems clear: the Shiite militias in Iran -- in Iraq are not going to win
over the Sunnis in Anbar province and certainly Bashar al-Assad on the other side is not going to win them over, either.
So what do you think can be done now to get rid of ISIS? Because that is still the long-term goal of the United States, not just of this
BENJAMIN: I think that the near-term goal should be containment of ISIS and the reduction of the area that it controls. And I think there
should be some inroads against its control over that. And I think that we are seeing more effective means of doing that, through both U.S.
airstrikes, particularly the increasing number of drone strikes, and also through the attacks of groups like the Kurds, who are, I think, easily
capable of taking on ISIS.
Over the longer term, it's the neighborhood that's going to have to deal with this and at the moment, most of the countries in the region are
much more focused on containing and curbing Iranian influence than they are worried about extremism. And that's going to have to change if ISIS is
ultimately going to be destroyed because it's going to be quite a while before the Iraqi military is capable of doing it.
And as long as everyone else is essentially putting more and more chips on the competition in Syria to control that country, and on Iraq,
then they're just not going to come together and make peace.
So ISIS can be diminished; it can be perhaps decapitated, its leadership; it's not going to be easily removed. But I also don't think
it's going to be come a state. There may be a Sunni state there sometime. I'm not sure Iraq is going to hold together.
But for the time being, I think that's the best we can hope for.
PLEITGEN: One of the things you said is that this is not a long-term prospect for the people there, living in something called a caliphate, in
Islamic State, whatever you want to call it. However, if we look, for instance, at the Taliban and the state there in Afghanistan, that was
something that was obviously a pariah state as well; it lasted for a very long time. North Korea, the government there, the regime there has been
lasting for a very long time. Moammar Gadhafi was in power for 41 years.
What do you mean when you say this isn't a long-term thing?
BENJAMIN: Well, first of all, I would disagree with your statement about the Taliban. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years, that in
international affairs --
PLEITGEN: But it took a foreign intervention to take them down. It took -- it wasn't something that came from within the Afghan population.
It was a foreign intervention that had to take them down.
BENJAMIN: That is true and what I said at the outset was that I expected that there would also be pressure from outside as long as the
Islamic State pursues an expansionist policy and is inspiring terror attacks or even directing terror attacks abroad.
So I think that it is an extremely unwelcome presence and ultimately others will find a way to destroy it, if it doesn't collapse of its own
BENJAMIN: -- if it doesn't destroy any support it has within its region.
Remember, with North Korea, North Korea had a lot of support from enormous powers, from China, from Russia, to keep going for a long time.
So I think it's a very different kind of situation. We don't see anyone stepping up and suggesting that they will sponsor ISIS for years and years
on end. In fact, every country in the region views ISIS as ultimately a threat. It's a question of when they want to deal with that threat.
But they do view it as a threat.
PLEITGEN: Are you surprised, though, notwithstanding what we've been saying now, the endurance of the Islamic State also in light of the fact
that they've obviously had setback on the battlefield as well?
And do you think that the international community really understands the makeup of the Islamic State? Because these aren't just a bunch of
religious crazies. These are people who seem to have some sort of experience at least in running administrations. There's obviously a lot of
former Ba'athists who are within the military ranks, but also who are within the sort of state, the structure of their administration ranks as
Are you surprised at how resilient they've been and also their capability, at least of building some sort of system or keeping some sort
of system running?
BENJAMIN: Well, there's no doubt that the Islamic State or ISIS surprised Western governments, Western intelligence agencies, when they
made the inroads they did, when they took Mosul and the like.
I think that the key issue here was the ability to operate in Syria, which had not been really clearly understood ahead of time and the group
has been acting, to some extent, in a power vacuum because the Iranian forces were not interested -- I should say the Iraqi forces were not
interested in pursuing them. The military was hollow. The Iranian militia were mostly focused on protecting Shia areas and the like.
So their success was a bit of a surprise. I'm not terribly surprised that they lasted as long as they have precisely because other countries in
the region have not been focused on destroying ISIS; they have been focused primarily on the sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia.
But again, I think over the long term, they do not have a winning recipe for success here. I don't believe that because a country is brutal
and evil it won't succeed. But I believe in this case that they don't have the resources, that they don't have the international connections, that
they're not going to be able to have the domestic support. And they're certainly not going to get a pass from the international community.
So I think over the long term, their success is not going to be enduring. But we may have to deal with them for another five years, as we
did with the Taliban.
PLEITGEN: Daniel Benjamin, thank you very much for joining us today.
BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me.
PLEITGEN: And after a break, a turn from ISIS to the man who says he can stop them with a plan that's foolproof -- if he does say so himself --
in the ever more crowded field of Republican candidates is the most controversial candidate coming up trumps? We find out -- that's next.
PLEITGEN: Welcome back to the program. I'm Fred Pleitgen, in for Christiane today.
Four hundred 14 days. There are exactly 414 days left until Americans will elect their next president. So far out, it's salad days. So far 16
Republicans have officially declared they want the job as have five Democrats. But the biggest focus is on candidates who, at face value,
probably should be outliers.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump's antics have propelled him to the top of the polls, much to the dismay of the Grand Old Party; and on the
Democratic side, the biggest threat to Hillary Clinton seems to comes from Bernie Sanders, a self-declared Socialist, if you can believe that in
Trump and Sanders, are they for real or are they a fluke?
Joining me now from New York are people who've been following the campaigns very closely.
On the one hand, we have Amy Davidson from "The New Yorker" magazine and Mike Pesca of "Slate."
Welcome to both of you and thank you for joining the show.
AMY DAVIDSON, "THE NEW YORKER": Thanks for having us.
PLEITGEN: Amy, I want to get to you first and we have an international audience and for some people it might be difficult to believe
that someone like Donald Trump could be leading the polls as far as the Republicans are concerned.
How real is this?
How much can we take out of this?
I know it's still very early in the game.
DAVIDSON: It's still very early. There are people who will say that Donald Trump is just a clown and you can't really pay attention to him at
all. But the truth is that he is having a real effect on the Republican field at a time when the question of who's going to be the Republican
nominee is really open.
He is ahead in the latest polls. He's at about 24 percent. That's partly important because the polls are what the organizers of the
presidential debates are using to figure out who's going to be on the stage, who's going to have a voice there.
The -- I think there is an expectation among some in the Republican Party that Jeb Bush would just sweep away all of the other contenders. He
has name recognition; his family, for better or worse, but that hasn't really happened. None of them has really grabbed this. And so Trump, who
a lot of people consider a sideshow, because there's no main show, he's still a voice. And he also, his particular rhetoric, his anti-immigrant,
his bellicose tough guy act is also having an effect on the rhetoric of the party as a whole. It's keeping it from really -- the Republicans from
really thinking about the immigration question in a way that might move them into a better place with Hispanic Americans.
It's really shaping the tone of the Republican race in a way that might also hurt the Republicans in the general election.
PLEITGEN: All right. Well, let's hear Mike on this.
It is interesting, because there don't seem to be many issues that Donald Trump has, but he certainly does have the spotlight and whether it's
outrage or anything else, it doesn't seem like anybody can get to him at this point.
MIKE PESCA, "SLATE": Right, because his real aim here is not to be president, I don't think. It's to increase the Trump brand. He has done
that for years with all his real estate or golf or everything else, TV ventures, and that's what works for him.
Now Amy said -- and I agree, oh, it seems like he's a clown; on the other hand, he's having a real impact. I don't think those two are
And if I were a Republican or if I were either a Republican candidate or a Republican voter, I wouldn't necessarily think, oh, he's taking the
attention from more deserving candidates. I'd think he's holding up a touchstone.
And depending on how the candidates react to Trump, I think it's very telling and I think it actually gives more information to voters which
candidates associate themselves with him, which say he is disgusting, that actually tells you a little bit more than pat speeches, where --
PESCA: -- it's just platitudes and you can't get to anything at the visceral level.
PLEITGEN: And, Amy, I want to ask you this and I want to get to Mike in a second as well.
If you look at Bernie Sanders and you look at Donald Trump, is this also American voters saying that they're fed up with the political
establishment, with big politics, with the grands of the party?
DAVIDSON: There's definitely -- that's definitely part of it. They play very different roles. And it is the Republican side, as you said,
there's 16 candidates and it's almost like a bubble situation, where everybody's jumping in.
On the Democratic side, there's almost sort of a monopoly-induced stagnation, where there's one main candidate. And Bernie Sanders' role is
really been so far to kind of send a signal that somebody can challenge Hillary Clinton. That somebody hasn't really come forward, as you said,
Bernie Sanders has talked about being a Socialist and maybe doesn't have a chance in the general election.
But historically, in American history, the parallel might be Eugene McCarthy, whose success against Lyndon Johnson sort of brought other people
into the race --
PLEITGEN: It's interesting that you say that, because looking back at previous races, I remember in 2000, a lot was looking like John McCain was
going to take the nomination for the Republicans until George W. Bush all of a sudden overtook him.
In 2008, everybody thought that Hillary Clinton was going to make the race and then all of a sudden this guy called Barack Obama started showing
Mike, what do you think?
Is there a challenger for Hillary Clinton?
And could that be Bernie Sanders?
PLEITGEN: -- I think that Howard Dean -- I would think that Howard Dean is someone else to look like and he had more bona fides and he was the
surprise candidate, the voice of his from Vermont. The voice of populism will always resonate first and earliest.
But I think if you look at recent American political history in terms of actually getting the nomination, let alone the White House, it's a hard
path. So I think that Bernie Sanders is saying some things -- and he actually could do pretty well in New Hampshire, the neighboring state to
his state, Vermont.
But if you look at the actual things about politics other than having a stance, that resonates with a certain part of a certain party, Bernie
Sanders doesn't bring a lot to the table.
PLEITGEN: And Amy, I want to ask you as well, because for some people internationally, it seems a little awkward that the presidential race
starts this early.
Do you think that the length of campaign, the length of the race is good? Or is it bad?
DAVIDSON: It's linked to something that's not good, which is the need to raise a huge amount of money to run for president in the United States.
That has a lot to do with the timeframe. This is expected to be a multibillion-dollar race. It's because of different Supreme Court
decisions and the campaign finance laws.
It's possible now for a candidate to stay in for a very long time with the support of just one very wealthy donor through indirect means. In
Trump's case, he is his own donor or he can be. He is a wealthy man, if not as wealthy as he sometimes -- you know, there's debate about how
wealthy he is, but he's wealthy. He can do this.
So in terms of whether it -- we really -- if we really had 414 days of serious debate on important issues, great. But what we have is over a year
where all of these financial mechanisms have to be activated --
PLEITGEN: That's what I was going to ask. That was -- that was going to be my next question, Mike.
Some of us are missing the issues here. I mean, America is engulfed in a battle against ISIS. There's economic issues. There's the race issue
in the United States and we're talking about phone numbers giving out. We're talking about people calling each other "jackass," really quick, when
do you -- when do the issues come in?
And do you think that this is also a bad sign?
PESCA: We're half a year to the primaries. This goes back to your last question and I agree with Amy. It does make the primacy of money all
much more prime. But there's going to be so much time and there are so many candidates and if you're the kind of candidate who likes their issues,
that'll be there for you. And if you're the kind of voter who likes a candidate with bad hair yelling, "You're fired," that's going to be there
for you, too.
It's a little like America. There's something for everyone, freedom of choice.
PLEITGEN: All right. Thank you very much, Mike Pesca of "Slate," Amy Davidson of "The New Yorker," thank you for joining the show today.
And after a break, we imagine a world floating above the clouds of the chaotic world beneath. The Austrian town that's become a must-see for the
Middle East high society. I'll explain next.
PLEITGEN: And finally tonight, imagine a world where something close to the Islamic ideal of utopia can be found in a tiny town in Austria. The
Quran describes what paradise might look like, as a lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains, which also sounds a lot like Zell am See in the
And the tiny resort is capitalizing on the similarity. The local tourism board began advertising itself in the Middle East 10 years ago as,
quote, "the paradise." And now some 70,000 vacationers from Gulf states make the heavenly ascent to Zell am See every year.
These photos taken by photojournalist Marieke van der Velden show the interesting union between the two worlds, where veils and Austrian attire
are often seen side-by-side. Menus in local restaurants often with Arabic translation and Austrian favorites like pork schnitzel quickly become
Muslim-fairly turkey schnitzel.
And of course the refreshing coolness of the Alps provides a major lure in itself, many visitors of course coming from countries where
temperatures can soar to 50 degrees Celsius in the summer.
Paradise on Earth? For some, it's just one chairlift away.
And before we go, a look ahead to Friday's show, which is going to be a very special one. Christiane interviews King Simeon of Bulgaria as part
of our series, "Amazing Lives." And he certainly has had one. He was crowned during World War II at just 6 years of age, toppled at 10 and then
he returned to Bulgaria after the fall of Communism and was elected prime minister.
He tells us the story of how his father helped save tens of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, truly an amazing life, 7:00 pm London time,
right here on Friday at CNN.
That's it for tonight. And remember you can always see the whole show online at amanpour.com, and follow me on Twitter @FPleitgenCNN. Thank you
for watching. Goodbye from London.