Looking ISIS in the Eye: New TV Series Probes Roots of Global Terror

Award-winning Israeli journalist Henrique Cymerman feels at home in TV studios around the world and in the presence of Arab and Palestinian leaders. He has now created a four-part series called 'Jihad Now.'

Henrique Cymerman.
Moti Milrod

Islamic State embodies a great deal of evil. But if we want to deal with the phenomenon and prevent it from having children and grandchildren, we must really understand it. Thus declares journalist Henrique Cymerman, creator of the new weekly, four-part documentary series “Jihad Now,” which premiered last week on Israel’s Channel 1. The second episode airs on Tuesday.

“That is why we also need to give it a face and look it in the eyes. I believe this demonization does not help at all. To the contrary: It makes it more extreme," Portuguese-born Cymerman tells Haaretz in an interview. "Reality is much more complex than what we are shown and we tend to err with stereotypes.”

"Jihad Now" constitutes a rather unusual event for Israeli television. As opposed to the regular fear-mongering that characterizes TV news, Cymerman lays out a global and historical record of his subject and goes back 30 years, to the moment the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In response to that invasion, and as part of the Cold War, the United States armed Afghani groups with powerful weapons – which just a few years later were trained on U.S. troops after the Soviets were forced out and the Taliban took control.

That moment marks the opening of the story, which later leads to the rise of Osama bin Laden, who is described in the series as arriving on the Afghan battlefields inexperienced and embarrassed, and then gradually amassing power.

A scene from the 2016 documentary movie "Jihad Now," made by Henrique Cymerman.
Vice Versa Films

The filming and research for "Jihad Now" took four years. Cymerman worked with Aviv Oreg, who served in Military Intelligence during his army service as the head of the Al-Qaida and global Jihad desk. Together they wandered, stopping in Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan, the United States, Germany, Britain and other countries. Among those interviewed for the series were former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, former Mossad head Efraim Halevy, senior CIA officials, representatives of MI5 and MI6, Saudi and American diplomats, and many others.

Cymerman, 56, immigrated to Israel at the age of 8. He is a seasoned journalist and works with nine international broadcasting networks. Over the years he has interviewed senior Arab and Palestinian leaders including Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, Abdel Aziz Rantisi and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

One of the highlights of his career was an interview with Bin Laden’s son, Omar. Not only was it a coup for Cymerman to speak to him, but his interviewee revealed that his wife had grown up in a traditional Jewish home in Manchester, England.

From watching the series, I have the feeling intelligence organizations are not really capable of protecting us. Do you believe that Israelis, who have viewed countless images of intelligence and spy organizations in a heroic light, tend to overestimate them?

“Shimon Peres makes fun of this question in the series and says intelligence is the expert on the past. But we need to limit this: We tend to glorify intelligence bodies. I have met people from intelligence services, including some in Arab countries, and you understand that these are people who can make mistakes like everyone else. We journalists, too, often sin, commit the sin of arrogance. It can happen in every profession.”

But you bring quite a number of cases of serious intelligence failures that could have prevented terrorist incidents, such as those of 9/11.

“We interview in the series a CIA analyst who knew for years what was happening in every nook and cranny where Bin Laden was. She knew when he ate and when he drank and when his stomach hurt. When I interviewed her, she told me at a certain point that my interview with Omar bin Laden was very interesting. She knew everything and it rang all the bells. She was right all the way down the line, and when she warned [her superiors] about the 9/11 attacks, they told her: ‘Ma’am, there are threats from every direction, all the time.’ You see her profound frustration. She says herself that there was [at the time] no coordination between the FBI and CIA, and certainly not with foreign intelligence agencies.”

“On the other hand, when I met the Saudi prince, Turki al-Faisal, the former head of the Saudi intelligence service, I asked him who has the best intelligence services in the world. He told me that in terms of the volume of electronic information gathered, the Americans have the greatest command. They accumulate an amount of knowledge that is impossible even to describe.

A scene from the 2016 documentary "Jihad Now," by Henrique Cymerman.
Vice Versa Films

"As for agents themselves, James Bond is it and the British have the best. As for the quality of intelligence operations, the Israelis are the best. So it turns out this Saudi official actually admires the Israelis. I asked him: How come there are so many mistakes [in the realm of intelligence]? He told me I only hear about the mistakes, but there are a lot of successes that we simply are not aware of.”

'We're a bit arrogant'

Cymerman, the winner of a number of prestigious international journalism awards, is close to Pope Francis, speaks six languages and feels right at home on leading news programs around the globe. Despite this, he still evinces great modesty.

“There are a number of topics I have delved into deeply, and I know a bit more than what is reported, or a lot more than what is reported. But then I discover how little I really know and lose my confidence a bit. We are a bit arrogant, we journalists. We think we know it all," he says. "So now, when I know much more, I try to be a bit more cautious than in the past.”

Despite the self-criticism and caution, it is clear that Cymerman is endowed with a well-developed sense of stubbornness, which helped him obtain the interview with Omar bin Laden, among other things.

You have interviewed quite a number of heads of terrorist organizations who see Israelis and Jews as their greatest enemy. How do you deal with such a situation?

“Among the Hamas leadership are people who are anti-Semites in every way. They really remind you of 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.' The most anti-Semitic was Rantisi. When he would talk about the Jews you really felt as if you were facing a Nazi.”

And how did you feel in such situations?

“Very bad. As a journalist, it was very difficult for me. One of the times Yassin invited me for a talk was after [15-year-old] Hadar Hershkowitz, who was in my son’s grade, died in an attack by a suicide bomber [in 2002]. My daughter too was on the way to the Dolphinarium a minute before the attack [in 2001]. These are things that do something to you. And I, two days later, sat facing the man who gave the order to the terrorists. The feelings are very mixed, but I come as a journalist and as such I try to shine light on all the dark corners; I try to understand what can be understood, despite all the cultural differences. It wasn’t easy.”

In the numerous interviews you held with senior officials in Hamas and in the West Bank, did you see that there might be a possibility of dialogue?

“I had a talk with Yassin, not long before he was assassinated, in which he spoke about the possibility of a hudna [lull in hostilities] for 20-30 years. You need to understand: This man was a sort of god for Hamas. If someone could have forced such an agreement, it was him. There were also talks in 2006 with Sheikh Hassan Yousef, who lives only a few minutes from Jerusalem, and told me he could not deny that outside his window Israel exists.

"From that I understood that even within Hamas there are ideological disagreements. I would expect the entire [Israeli] leadership and intelligence services to have sensitive antennas. Because just as no one once spoke with the PLO and today they talk to them, it could be in the future we will see a certain split in Islamist groups and know how to exploit it for an opportunity for dialogue.”

The Middle East has changed completely in recent years. You have been all over and spoken with senior leaders in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and other countries. If you could send a message to Israeli politicians, what would it be?

“Israel needs to continue to fight the bad guys, but also remember that part of the Arab world wants to maintain contact with us because they see us as a fait accompli. When I was in Saudi Arabia I asked the head of their strategic institute how can it be that only a few years ago they were interested in exterminating us, and now they want to cooperate with us. He told me they have made peace with the fact that Israel will remain here and have understood our [thinking], and with their money we could do amazing things together.

"This is a direction that must be taken into account. This desire is also related to our mutual enemies in the form of ISIS and Iraq, but we need to try and create a coalition with people and countries that share mutual interests with us.

“It starts with Morocco and continues with the Gulf states. We need to stop relating to them as the 'mistress' and come out into the light. In order for this to happen we need to show seriousness with the Palestinians. After all, we have not taken any initiative since the disengagement, which occurred 11 years ago. And until we take some sort of step, they cannot come out into the light with their recognition of us.”