The Islamic State: On the ground in Iraq

Scott Pelley reports from the front lines in the fight against ISIS in northern Iraq. He speaks with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and victims of ISIS atrocities

Editor's Note: In response to Scott Pelley's piece "The Islamic State," viewers have asked how they can donate money to help Nadaya, Sayid, Khalid, and other refugees who have driven from their homes - often with devastating injuries - by ISIS. Among the agencies currently working with those refugees is UNICEF.


The following script is from the first part "The Islamic State" which aired on Sept. 21, 2014. The correspondent is Scott Pelley. Henry Schuster and Rachael Kun Morehouse, producers.

Today, America's top military officer, General Martin Dempsey, said the U.S. and its allies will attack ISIS from many directions. "We want them to wake up every day realizing they're being squeezed," he said. American pilots have hit the Islamic extremist group in Iraq nearly 200 times now, and soon the U.S. will be bombing ISIS in Syria.

America was drawn back into war when ISIS began to overrun part of northern Iraq called Kurdistan. Kurdistan is semi-autonomous with its own military called the Peshmerga. With American air support, the Peshmerga are holding a tense front line against ISIS.

Earlier this month, we started our reporting on that front line to explain ISIS; what it is, where it came from and how it blitzed through two countries. In June, the leader of ISIS declared himself ruler of a new nation, which he calls The Islamic State.

600921isis1.jpg

Scott Pelley: Of course, no country on earth recognizes that state, but if it had a border, this would be it. These are Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Northern Iraq. And right here across the bridge is the black flag of ISIS flying over ISIS territory.

All Muslims know what's written there in Arabic: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger." But the true meaning of this banner is written in blood and it's up to another Muhammad, First Lieutenant Hazhar Muhammad, to make sure the flag never crosses this bridge.

Scott Pelley: Why is this bridge so important?

Hazhar Muhammad: This is the road to Kirkuk. The city of Kirkuk is 10 miles behind us. And it's the gateway to Iraq's northern oil fields.

Scott Pelley: Do you have orders to destroy this bridge, if it comes to that?

Hazhar Muhammad: No, the people need this bridge; no one's going to take my bridge

But he couldn't have said that last month. In August, the Peshmerga were falling back just 25 miles from their capital city, Erbil. The U.S. had stayed out of it for two and a half years, but panicked leaders of Kurdistan called the White House. And that's what triggered the airstrikes.

Scott Pelley: You were outgunned?

Masrour Barzani: We were outgunned, yes.

Masrour Barzani knows ISIS better than just about anyone. He's head of Kurdish intelligence and the Kurdistan Regional Security Council.

Masrour Barzani: I think everybody underestimated the strength of ISIS, especially with all the weapons they seized from the Syrian army and the Iraqi army. Five Iraqi divisions melted away and, you know, they just left their weapons which fell into the hands of ISIS.

Weapons, bought by American taxpayers, were captured by ISIS as it paraded into cities that had been won by American troops.

Scott Pelley: How many ISIS fighters are there?

Masrour Barzani: There are perhaps 40,000 ISIS fighters who are carrying guns, fighting both in Iraq and Syria, maybe equally divided in two countries.

Scott Pelley: And how many people collaborating with them?

Masrour Barzani: Well, collaborating whether they believe in helping them or not or out of fear, I would say over 100,000.

Scott Pelley: Where does ISIS get its money?

Masrour Barzani: They generate their own revenues. And based on the information that we have, they generate something equivalent to $6 million daily by the selling of oil, wheat, taking taxes from people, ransoms and still getting donations.

Scott Pelley: You talked about donations.

Masrour Barzani: Many people who believe in these extremist ideologies believe that it's their duty to donate money to this organization.

Scott Pelley: And that's been coming from where?

Masrour Barzani: Different countries, actually.

Scott Pelley: In the Gulf states?

Masrour Barzani: Some in the Gulf states.

Scott Pelley: Six million dollars a day? That'll keep them going forever.

Masrour Barzani: If they're not stopped.

"...He's going to start with Syria and Iraq and his strategic vision is to expand into the Gulf, Jordan, from the Mediterranean to Pakistan."

U.S. airstrikes have stopped the advance, but black flags fly from northern Syria to Mosul, one of Iraq's largest cities.

Now, more than four and a half million people are ruled by something new: a seventh century vision with 21st century reach.

In digital depravity, ISIS uploads its atrocities to strike fear far beyond the range of its guns.

The beheadings of two Americans and a Britain were calculated to give ISIS global stature and it worked. Massacres on YouTube, the slaughter of thousands, are designed to defeat resistance ahead of the advance.

[ISIS fighter: We are coming for you, Barack Obama.]

Its sophisticated media department uploads recruiting videos in a host of languages.

[ISIS fighter: There is a role for everybody. Every person can contribute something to The Islamic State.]

Gunmen with cameras magnify the menace to make ISIS appear larger than life. But what ISIS has shown only once, is its leader. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in July when he called on all of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims to bow to him.

Derek Harvey: We should be very careful about underestimating him. This guy is the real deal.

Derek Harvey was in Iraq for the beginnings of al-Baghdadi. A colonel in U.S. Army intelligence, he briefed President Bush and top commanders. Back then, al-Baghdadi was a member of al Qaeda in Iraq and was imprisoned for a time by U.S. forces. When Iraq's al Qaeda leader was killed, Baghdadi took over.

Derek Harvey: When he became a key figure within the organization, he was targeted and then in 2010 he had a $10 million bounty put on his head and he became a top tier target.

But the target slipped away into Syria, where he used the chaos of the civil war to build his army. He began to refuse orders from al Qaeda and in February, al Qaeda's leaders kicked him out.

Scott Pelley: What does al-Baghdadi want?

Derek Harvey: He wants power, influence and authority and a return to the prestige of the Islamic community. And he's going to start with Syria and Iraq and his strategic vision is to expand into the Gulf, Jordan. From the Mediterranean to Pakistan.

Baghdadi preaches Salafism. It is a tiny sect in Islam that calls for a return to the origins of the faith, 1,400 years ago. But Baghdadi's interpretation injects lethal prejudice. Under ISIS, those who reject Salafism are non-believers, subject to execution. That applies to fellow Muslims and their mosques. And it applies especially to non-Muslims

"Then after we laid flat about 10 ISIS fighters stood behind us and started firing all types of guns."

Scott Pelley: What happened in your village when ISIS came in?

Nadaya: They told us, "Wave the white flag. We won't harm you. You'll be free to go."

Nadaya lived with her large family, including brothers Sayid and Khalid in a village of Yazidis, a non-Muslim ethnic group in Iraq. She asked us not to show you her face and when you hear her story you'll understand why.

Nadaya: They had told us, "You have until Sunday to convert." But before Sunday, they came back and said, "We have been told you will not convert, so you are not forgiven." So we all were taken to the school. There, the women and kids were put upstairs and the men downstairs.

In August, in a scene similar to this, the men were loaded onto trucks and told they were headed to a refugee camp. But like these men, it turned out to be a short ride to a mass grave. Nadaya's brothers Sayid and Khalid were on the trucks.

Khalid: After taking us about 300 yards away from the school, they stopped by an open field and told us to get out and lay flat on your stomach, and we did. Then after we laid flat about 10 ISIS fighters stood behind us and started firing all types of guns.

Sayid: One by one, they said no survivors. If there were any survivors, they would come around and shoot them in the head. They shot us with all types of guns. I was shot five times.

Twice in the knee, once in the thigh, once in the back and a graze to the neck. From a window in the school, where the women were being held, a boy could see it all.

Scott Pelley: What did the little boy say?

Nadaya: He said, "I saw through the window. They're killing the men. I saw from a distance." But we didn't want to believe him. We said, "He's just a little boy. He might just be seeing things." We didn't believe him.

Scott Pelley: Do you have any idea how many men were killed in that massacre?

Sayid: I think about 380.

Scott Pelley: And how many survivors?

Sayid: Ten to 12.

He told us, as the ISIS fighters were finishing off the victims, a plane flew overhead and scared them away. He and his brother, who'd been shot three times, crawled out of the mass grave.

Scott Pelley: After the shooting stopped, what happened to the women? What happened to you?

Nadaya: They told us to come downstairs. They took our IDs, phones, our gold. They even ripped the gold earrings out of some of the kids' ears. ISIS used the local villagers trucks, started loaded up 16 to 20 women at a time and taking us away. The final destination was a little town.

"People thought something good was going to happen ... That they would help people and rid them of oppression."

Scott Pelley: And when you got there, what happened?

Nadaya: There was someone at the front door. He would take off our head scarfs and rip open the front of our dresses. And he would touch us, sexually abuse us.

Later, Nadaya was imprisoned in a house where, she says, women were given away as prizes.

Nadaya: The very next morning a sheik from Tel-Afar came and picked up three girls for himself. Two were my friends. He had the right to take three, and an ISIS militant had to right to take one. A friend of mine, who was taken by an ISIS commander and returned, had told us, they're doing everything they please with us, raping us, sexually abusing us, and that the ISIS men would tell them if you do not convert, we will rape you all, and sell you all to ISIS militants in Syria where a young girl could be sold for about $800.

When she heard that, Nadaya took advantage of a blackout and escaped from the building. Now, all the family has of life before ISIS is this video of the wedding of a friend. Hard to watch. They told us, nearly everyone in the video is dead.

Scott Pelley: What about the other members of your family?

Nadaya: My sisters, two of them whom I speak with at times, who somehow snuck a phone through, have no idea where our mother is. I don't know anything regarding my mother. Tell them, "I want my mother." My friends are captive, I have no idea where my other brothers are, I want them all to return, but most of all I just want my mother. Tell them, "I just want my mother."

How was the black banner carried so far? A third of Iraq, gone, in a matter of weeks, ground hard won by the United States in what was known as "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

Scott Pelley: The American people sacrificed 4,475 lives, ten years and a trillion dollars building a government and an army for Iraq. How did all of that crumble so fast?

Leon Panetta: It's a tragic story.

Leon Panetta was Defense Secretary when the U.S. walked off the Iraqi stage in 2011.

Scott Pelley: Back when you watched the stars and stripes being lowered for the last time in Baghdad, were you confident in that moment that pulling out was the right thing to do?

Leon Panetta: No, I wasn't. I really thought that it was important for us to maintain a presence in Iraq. The decision was that we ought to at least try to maintain 8,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops there, plus keeping some of our intelligence personnel in place, to be able to continue the momentum in the right direction. And frankly, having those troops there, I think would've given us greater leverage on Maliki to try to force him to do the right thing as well.

Nouri al-Maliki was the elected prime minister. He didn't want the U.S. troops. A paranoid man of the Shiite sect of Islam, he nursed a grudge against the Sunni branch of the faith. He'd been a thorn in America's side for eight years. President Bush, in an off-camera conversation with us in 2007 said, "That Maliki is a son of a bitch, but we have to deal with him."

Leon Panetta: Prime Minister Maliki, who had the opportunity to kind of hold all of this together, just turned on the Sunnis, fed into the historical sectarian divisions that have marred that country for centuries. And basically undercut and undermined the security force in Iraq and created, I think, the very ingredients that led to what we see today in Iraq.

Scott Pelley: Maliki, in your estimation, dismantled what we built? Took the Sunni military officers out and replaced them with Shiites?

Leon Panetta: We gave them a chance. I mean, you know, nobody can guarantee that Iraq would be able to go in the right direction. But we gave them a chance. We gave them the tools. But instead, he turned to vengeance. And vengeance never pays off.

But it paid off for ISIS. ISIS conquered with a relatively small force because it was welcomed by the oppressed Sunnis in Iraq. In an austere intelligence agency lock up, we met the kind of man who joined ISIS. We didn't know what to expect. But turned out he wasn't a young fanatic, he was a middle aged real estate agent from Mosul. One of the fed up Sunnis.

Scott Pelley: When ISIS first came in, did people support them? Were they welcome?

Saleh: The army was hurting people, even the governor and the local government were hurting people. People thought something good was going to happen. They thought there was going to be an Islamic state, a caliphate, that they would help people and rid them of oppression.

Then they learned what the black flag really meant.

Saleh: You either join them, or they would consider you an infidel.

Scott Pelley: And what did that mean to you?

Saleh: If they declared you an infidel, that means they kill you.

President Obama refused to engage in a new campaign until Iraq dumped Nouri al-Maliki. Two weeks ago, a new prime minister took office promising to unite his people. But first, he'll have to get his country back. In a moment, the advice Mr. Obama got two years ago that might have headed off ISIS.

Continue with Scott Pelley's reports, "The Islamic State: Repercussions."

  • Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"