Documentary Screening and Discussion of 'Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS'

Erik de Castro/Reuters
Janine di Giovanni

Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Middle East Editor, Newsweek; Author, The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria

Sebastian Junger

Narrator, Director, and Producer, Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS; Author, Tribe, WAR, and The Perfect Storm; Academy Award Nominated Filmmaker for Restrepo

Nick Quested

Director and Producer, Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS; Executive Director and Owner, Goldcrest Films

Kim Barker

Reporter, New York Times; Author, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Former Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Panelists will discuss National Geographic Documentary Films’ Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS, as well as the Syrian war and its political and social consequences. The documentary pulls footage from a family living under ISIS control, Kurdish fighters in Singar, Shia militias in Iraq, and al-Qaida-affiliated fighters in and around Aleppo and Raqqa. 

BARKER: So, as the presider, I get to start. Let’s start by talking about this film.

I found it really remarkable in that it dealt with so much history, so much of the reason why we are where we are right now, and it also did it in such a sympathetic way with these characters, these families in Syria, where you really felt like you were there with them. And you weren’t, right? You weren’t actually on the ground. Can you—can you talk about how you did this movie, and why you felt it was so important to do it in this particular way?

JUNGER: Yeah, maybe I’ll pass that to Nick, who was sort of on the ground more than I was.

QUESTED: Well, in terms of being on the ground, we—I basically skirted Syria. I was in Jordan, in Iraq in northern Iraq, in Turkey. And it was too difficult for us to enter northern Turkey at that time, because we started at the beginning of 2015. So—

JUNGER: Northern Syria, you mean.

QUESTED: Northern Syria, sorry. We did—so we built a network of activists and journalists that we worked with, and we trained them to shoot in the way that we wanted and commissioned the stories that we wanted them to cover. So they covered the White Helmets, they covered the orphanage in Aleppo, they covered the Al Quds Hospital. They covered everything that we could really cover.

And then I found the family through one of our fixers which was—which we were using for the antiquities story. They were his brother. And he said to me, my family’s planning on—is living in Manbij and is trying to leave this ISIS-controlled territory to make it to Turkey; would you be interested in filming them? And I was like, well, I think it would be tricky for us to film them, but we managed to get them a camera. And we gave them a two-page document, and it said hold the camera like this, concentrate on covering your—just your daily life, your children, and tell us how you feel, and tell us what happened that day. And they just did a brilliant job under very difficult circumstances, because they left Manbij and traveled west, and they crossed three front lines. They crossed the Free Syrian Army front line, they crossed the Islamic State front line, they crossed the Kurdish front line, and they crossed the Turkish border, basically all in the space of 18 hours. So that would have been—you know, it would have been a cataclysmic disaster for them to have been pulled over by the Islamic State early in that journey. Less cataclysmic later, but not great. But they took an enormous risk to leave Syria.

BARKER: Were they sending you footage as it was going along? I mean, were you—like, as it was happening?

QUESTED: No, the family—I didn’t meet the family. I met them in Osmaniye, which is in southern Turkey. And I picked them up there, and then I followed them to Izmir, and then continued to shoot them as they tried to cross the sea. We tried to stay as close to them as possible, but the smugglers that moved them would—we’d always keep a certain distance. We got out of the car once and literally just got back in the car, and then a pack of dogs just like came out of nowhere, and I mean a pack of dogs. This was like bull terrier, pit bull size, 150-pound dogs just banging off the car like this. So if we would have been outside the car, it would have been, you know—would have been—it would have been bad news. And it’s quite smart from the smugglers, because if they were to shoot you, then they’ve got some explaining to do. If you get bitten by a dog, you’re bitten by a bunch of wild dogs in, you know—in rural Turkey. That happens—that could happen all the time.

BARKER: So let’s talk about why you thought this was an important movie to do. You know, there have been a lot of documentaries on Syria. Why did you feel like it was important to weigh in?

JUNGER: Yeah, I mean, after my friend Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya, I decided not to do any more frontline reporting just for personal reasons. And so the idea of working on a film in Syria, at first I thought, you know, I’m not going to do it. And then I realized there might be a way to do it the way we did. By the time we got going on this, many journalists and aid workers were getting kidnapped and killed, and it really just didn’t seem the risk of even attempting going in.

And I really thought about it, and I thought, maybe there’s another role I can play as more in a sort of director role. Maybe the best—maybe I’m not at my best, necessarily, on the ground with a camera. Maybe I have something else to offer. And this seemed like a really important project to try that out on because, of all the Arab Spring countries, Syria was the one that turned into the—just the biggest bloodbath, the biggest tragedy. It’s still going on. It well could be the first stage of a regional war that lasts the next generation. I mean, who knows? But it really—the stakes, it’s different—you know, the stakes just weren’t as high, the tragedy wasn’t as large with Libya, with Tunisia. Some of those stories—Tunisia actually ended quite well.

So we just felt like we had to document this and explain not just the Syrian civil war, but why ISIS came out of it, and how civil wars work in general. Sometimes in this country people say—I’ve been covering civil wars since Bosnia in the early ’90s. And sometimes people will say to me in this country, you know, why—like, if those people want to kill each other, let them. It’s not our problem. And we—I really wanted to make a film that explained how good, decent, honest people, indistinguishable from all the people in this room, can get caught in a civil war no fault of their own, and they do the best they can. And we wanted to explain the dynamics of that so there wasn’t a kind of moral judgment on people that get stuck in these horror shows.

BARKER: And I loved how in the very beginning of the movie you’ve got, like, teenage girls who are not in a hijab, who seem like they could be a next-door neighbor here. You know, not that that’s—there’s anything wrong with hijabs, but the whole idea that like these could be your neighbors, especially for an American audience—saying this could be something that happened in your community—it was really well done, very powerful.

JUNGER: Thank you. Thank you.

BARKER: Janine, you obviously have spent a lot of time on the ground in Syria and you’ve covered a lot of wars. Can you talk about how the war in Syria, how it was for you to cover, how you covered it, and how it was different from the other conflicts that you’ve covered in the past?

DI GIOVANNI: Well, I’m kind of that strange creature. I mean, I don’t work with teams. I work alone. I could look anything. I could look Syrian. I could look Jewish. I could look Palestinian. So I tend to go under cover alone, by myself, and do field work.

And I started working in Syria in 2011. I had covered—I’ve been working in the Middle East for 25 years. But I started covering the Arab Spring one by one by one, and it brought me to Syria, where I had worked for many years.

And I began working inside—initially, I was given visas by the Assad government to go into the Damascus side. I was then Middle East editor of Newsweek, and they were letting me go in and out, until I covered the massacre in Deraa. And then they basically kicked me out and PNG’ed me—persona non grata. Then I began going through the other side, to Aleppo, working alone.

And it was—I’ve worked in war zones since the early ’90s, since—like Sebastian. We met in Bosnia many years—Sierra Leone?

JUNGER: Sierra Leone.

DI GIOVANNI: Sierra Leone, many, many years ago, in the ’90s. I’ve covered, I think, 17 or 18 wars. And Syria has been THE most difficult war to cover, for two reasons.

One, it’s a closed country on the Damascus side, so the only reporters that are let in are those who are liked by the regime, who will write favorable things. On the other side, once Steve Sotloff and Jim Foley were kidnapped and executed, most of us, even the hardcores like me, were terrified. I don’t want to end up—I have a child, a 13-year-old boy. I don’t want to end up kidnapped, chained to a radiator for a year, and then maybe my government will bargain me out. So it became a very difficult war to cover, immensely frustrating to those of us who cover the Middle East and who cover war. How do we report this war?

I just got back—and we can talk about it later—last week, actually. I was in northern Iraq, reporting on the villages where people—where ISIS has been cleansed, where people are going home. But, you know, the way I work is very rare and very individual. I mean, not—journalism has changed immensely. I came of age as a journalist in the 1990s, when you could still go by yourself somewhere, spend months and months and months on the floor talking to people, sitting cross-legged, drinking tea, hearing what they had to say. We now live in a time of VICE News and Vox News and whatever, Fox News, I don’t know. It’s different. I’m still—I’m like a real holdout.

And thank God the Council on Foreign Relations has given me a fellowship this year, because I’m here for a year, and what I basically do is I spend a long time talking to people to find out what they’re thinking, and what the conflict is, and how we can, if any way, intervene—how we can help, how we can end wars, or how we can prevent wars. And that, to me, is what journalism should be. But we’re coming a long way from that now.

Anyway, I don’t want to take too much time. (Laughs.)

BARKER: Nick, if we could start by talking about policy as opposed to just the movie, and the whole idea of, like, what do you think would be different now if we had gone in there in the—gone into Syria in the beginning, we had, you know, really empowered the moderate Sunnis, we had maybe armed the Free Syrian Army. Do you think things would be different now? Do you think there could be a different place to be than where we are right now in Syria?

QUESTED: I think that—from my research, I thought there was extensive help for the Free Syrian Army. Liwa al-Tawhid was—and Jamal Maarouf received extensive support from—both covertly and overtly. So I don’t know. For me, I—

BARKER: Do you think there’s anything different that could have been done?

QUESTED: I think there could have been things that could have been done differently, but I think at that point potentially you’re too late to have changed the course of the war. I think that, if you look at Libya, you look at an interventionist, foreign policy, you look at no-fly zones, you look at, you know, large support for the rebels from both Europe and America, and you see a failed state, and you see the same thing in Syria. So I think the moment for intervention wasn’t at the red line; it would have been earlier, with the strategic withdrawal from Iraq, which was—left an enormous hole that was quickly filled by the—which was quickly filled by the—by the Sunni militias to protect themselves from the overbearing Shia government in Iraq.

BARKER: So do you—so is there anything that could have been done different than—or is this—

QUESTED: I mean, there were options. There were options to provide safe zones. There were options to provide no-fly zone. I just don’t know if it would have changed the war.

JUNGER: Yeah, I mean, if I could just add quickly—


JUNGER: —I mean, I think we could have done a lot of things that might have spared civilian suffering and loss of life. We basically didn’t do anything, so. But civil wars have a dynamic of their own, and I’m not sure that you—that the West can entirely play God and say, no, we do not want that to happen, and we’re going to keep it from happening. And I’m saying that despite the fact that virtually all the wars that I’ve covered were eventually stopped by Western military intervention—I mean, Bosnia, Sierra Leone by the Brits, Liberia.

BARKER: Kosovo.

JUNGER: Kosovo, of course.

And even, honestly, I mean, I covered—I was in Afghanistan in the ’90s during the civil war. I mean, just ghastly levels of civilian casualties that dropped immediately when NATO and the U.S. showed up after 9/11, and then started climbing right back up again when we started to pull out. So Western military intervention actually can really have an impact like that.

But I think there was something a little special about Syria. I’m not sure we could have just stopped it.

DI GIOVANNI: Actually, I’m really angry and frustrated, because as a lowly reporter working in Syria on the ground in 2011, we saw the checkpoints changing from FSA—Free Syrian Army—guys to strange foreign guys who were speaking another language. Where did they come from? And they were clearly ISIS. So if we as reporters saw that, why the hell didn’t the CIA, British intelligence, French intelligence, everyone else? Why weren’t they onto it? It took—and I—you know, as a huge fan of President Obama and, you know, I’m not a fan of President Trump, I—you know, to see what we saw in those early days of the Syrian war—2011, 2012, 2013—and nothing happened. And as a reporter on the ground, as a harbinger, I’ve been, you know, as I said earlier, in every war for the past 20 years. To see things and to have to write about it, to tell people about it, and to have no one pay attention is the most frustrating thing in the world.

In terms of ISIS, we saw this coming. Why didn’t you guys? You’re the ones with the power. We’re just reporters. We’re just lowly reporters. We saw it on the ground. Why didn’t you? Why did it take so long to find any kind of evidence that there was ISIS rising, that there was this coming, that Syria was not going to be just a war in Syria but ultimately a proxy war that would involve the entire region—Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia—and would go on and on? How did we let it get to this stage? I am in awe. And, again, I am a lowly, humble, low-paid reporter. You guys are the ones in power. Why weren’t you paying attention?

BARKER: Well, with that, I will open it up to questions from our members. Please raise your hand and then wait for the microphone to come to you, and state your name and your affiliation before asking your one question.

Please. Raise your hand. Questions? Anyone? Wonderful.

Q: Thank you. Hi. Deborah Norville, anchor of “Inside Edition.”

First of all, I commend you. It is a beautiful piece of storytelling. It’s an important story, and I thank you for bringing it to us, and I hope it receives a much wider audience.

I have to argue with you: There is no such thing as a lowly reporter.

DI GIOVANNI: (Laughs.)

Q: Reporters bear witness to the events that go on.

DI GIOVANNI: You’re TV. I’m print. We get paid vastly different salaries. (Laughter.)

Q: You’re telling the good stories, sweetheart.

One of the challenges of being a reporter is we report events as we see them, and they are then consumed as an after-the-fact—after-the-fact event. As reporters, we often see what ought to be done, but it often isn’t. So I ask the three of you, as producers and reporters, what do you believe are the important steps that should be taken going forward? We can’t undo history. What can we do to make the future better?

JUNGER: I’ll just take a whack at that first, and I’ll try to be brief.

So you all probably remember Sarah Chayes in the film. She’s an old friend of mine. I met her when I was four years—when we were four years old. We grew up together and had strangely intertwined lives, just independently of each other. So her thesis—she wrote a great book called “Thieves of State,” and her thesis is that the one thing in common with all of these really radical, destructive jihadist movements—Boko Haram, al-Shabaab in Somalia, ISIS, the Taliban—the one thing they have in common is that they come in and they say to the population—that may not really agree with their vision of Islam—but they say to the population, you were crushed by the corruption of your government. It’s a criminal cartel, it exists for its own benefit, and it is destroying you. And we will clean up corruption. You may not like us, you may not like our extreme ways, our extreme interpretation of Islam, but we will bring you out from under the shadow of corruption. And they sign onto it.

Now I remember I was in Kabul in 1996, and I got shot at by a Taliban—from a Taliban machine gun on the outskirts of Kabul, and the Pashtun that I was with, a young guy, a guide, said—you know, we took cover—and he said, you know, we hate those people. And he was Pashtun. He said they’re Pashtun, I don’t care, we hate those people, but they promised to come in and clean up the corruption of this country, so we’re going to let them in, we’re not going to fight them. And so, for me, if you want to fight—if you want to stop civil wars, if you want to fight ISIS, if you want to save lives, fight corruption. If you want to protect this country from terrorism, fight corruption. We are allied with deeply corrupt governments, and we don’t say anything. We aid and abet them, including the government of Afghanistan for years. So don’t do that. It’s a short-term fix. In the long run, it causes a huge amount of suffering. You should read Sarah’s book.

BARKER: Yeah, we love strongmen. We don’t actually like dealing with democracies.

JUNGER: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.

DI GIOVANNI: My—I just got back from Lebanon and northern Iraq last week, where I was working—basically going—tracing refugees going back to villages that ISIS had been cleansed out of. So my big theory now is that we cannot ignore the refugee crisis even though we are sitting in Manhattan and they’re in Syria and Lebanon, because these guys will come get us. It will attack—they will come to Paris, to London, to New York—they will—if they are not treated with dignity and in a humanitarian way.

And at the moment, in Lebanon, which I’m writing about right now, they are not. And there’s—it’s a very complicated situation because a country like Lebanon, 4 million people, 2 million of them are refugees. The Lebanese government is stretched. But if we continue to push aside the whole refugee issue—which we are, which is the largest movement—demographic movement of people since World War II—we are going to pay for it in the long run.

So I think we need to think much more strategically long-term solutions. We cannot afford to have these guys radicalized. And it is so easy to radicalize people. I am French by nationality. I live in Paris most of the time when I’m not here. And to radicalize a population that is disenfranchised, so easy. You get a strong imam in there, talking to guys who were humiliated and aren’t treated right—which they aren’t being in any of these host countries—they go right to the Salafist movement, and then they will come here.

So for anyone in this room who thinks right now refugees—it’s not my issue, I don’t like in Europe, I live in New York, it’s far from me—it will come to haunt you. We need to think about this. It’s hugely important, which is why all these years I’ve been working in Syria, I’ve been banging my head against a wall in so much frustration saying, you know, in the U.S. we don’t think about this, right? But we should be, because it is not about the Middle East. It’s not just about Europe. It is about us. It’s a huge issue. It’s become a proxy war. It involves every country in the Middle East, and it will come to us. So, please, I beg you, everyone in this room, don’t push it on the backburner like my hero President Obama did. Don’t push it away. This is important. We need to think about this now.

QUESTED: Maybe I can talk maybe tactically about what the local goals of the countries are. I mean, you look at now the battle is at—for Deir ez-Zor. Deir ez-Zor is the south. It’s on the edge of the desert. You’re seeing a three-way fight between the Free Syrian Army, the Russians and the Syrian Arab Republic, and the SDF, the Kurdish militia. If that is to fall, there is an efficient land bridge from Tehran to Damascus, which means it goes all the way to the Mediterranean. That’s something the Iranians have wanted for many years.

The only thing stopping the Turks from pushing further south past Raqqa is the 24th MEU, the Marine Expeditionary Unit. If they were to withdraw, I think that would be a disaster. So I see America being involved in the Syrian conflict for the foreseeable future.

I don’t know what happens now in Kurdistan. You have Hashd al-Shaabi, the Shia militias, pushing north past Kirkuk up to the Hamarah (ph) Hills. You have—you had had an enormous firefight at Makhmur, which is just outside of Erbil. It’s the—that was the limit of the Islamic State. That’s where they go to, which provoked the American intervention. I mean, you can see Erbil from that point. You can—they—you can mortar the airport. So the fact that the Kurds and the Peshmerga are fighting, they’ve become almost an existential struggle for the Kurds. So I’m just laying out. I don’t know what you do at this point apart from commit to try and, you know, leave troops there to keep the peace, to a certain extent.

BARKER: Next question.


Q: Hi, I’m Nancy Collins, Columbia University.

I was hoping to bring the conversation back to the work itself, to the film. And I think all of us had the experience with the production and reception of works that there are things that we wish had come through more clearly, or ways in which projects fall short that, somehow, it’s difficult to translate all that you see and observe and know into what shows up on the screen. So what did we miss as an audience, and what would you underscore to us as that thing that we must know? Thank you.

JUNGER: So my job—and I just have to say, in case it’s not clear to people, Nick did just a heroic job tramping around that part of the world, getting an incredible variety and quantity of footage—I mean, really amazing. And I was home writing a book. It was a good collaboration, because then I—(laughter)—I was able to look at the material he brought back. I had no personal attachment to it. I didn’t know that it had taken two months or two weeks or whatever to get something. I mean, I had no particular feelings about it, one way or another. So I could judge it quite neutrally about what’s going to work in the film and what isn’t. So my job was to sort of tell Nick, I know you had to crawl through mud for three weeks to get this, but it just doesn’t help the film, so it’s not going to go in. So what I would like to do is ask Nick to tell us what he’s really heartbroken about that’s not in the film. (Laughter.)

QUESTED: Well, I mean, there was some stuff—particularly we filmed the process of making of a Syrian passport and then we put Sebastian’s picture in it because we were working on the concept of how fluid identity is in—how fluid identity is for people leaving Syria. We interviewed one ISIS defector in Belgium, and he left—he was a—he was ISIS secret police. He left Syria on one identity, entered Turkey on another, and left Turkey on another and got asylum. So we were trying to show that the Western countries have no idea who really is in their country.

I mean, they have some idea. The French think that there’s 96 trained jihadists in their country— or in Europe that have—were French nationals that left, were trained in Syria and have come back, and they can only account for 86 of them. They—some may have been killed in the fight there, but they know 96 went.

JUNGER: Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead, yeah.

QUESTED: What are we—you know, I mean, there was lots of little things. I mean, we had—there was one interview we did with Ambassador Ford which we were particularly upset to not put in the film, and we thank you for your time.

JUNGER: You can blame me. Don’t blame Nick. (Laughter.)

QUESTED: And there was some other stuff. There was a—there was a beautiful nasheed by Ahrar Al-Sham that they were preparing for battle against the Islamic State in the western countryside of Aleppo, which was a particularly poignant moment that these kids were, you know, between the ages of 16 and 20 and were, you know, loading their weapons and putting their—making coffee and preparing to go, and they were singing a song, you know, about the glory of their death before they left. That was one I particularly thought that—in fact, I thought it was in and then I saw it and it wasn’t. (Laughter.) So, you know, you’ve got to keep—

DI GIOVANNI: (Inaudible.)

JUNGER: Let me just quickly add that the miracle of the internet is that some of these things that didn’t make it into the film can live online. And indeed, we made some sort of short films about some of these topics that you can find on our Facebook page.

But let me just say one further point is that we were finishing this film up, we had finished it up, and then the United States engaged in what I found to be an incredibly troubling and upsetting conversation about immigration. This was in last January. I think you probably all remember it. And so we decided to make a 15-minute film called “Hell on Earth: Refugees,” and it takes some of the material that’s in this film, just a few minutes of it, and then goes into the other material that we had that never got used. And we crafted a piece—we expanded on the experiences of that family, that incredible family, and just took the story a little further. And that we’re really proud of. We put it out very quickly, in the middle of this awful debate. And I feel like—I like to think—and you can find it on our Facebook page—I like to think that we affected the national conversation a little bit.

BARKER: I’m just going to get another question and then—

DI GIOVANNI: OK, I just—yeah.

BARKER: Because I promised a question.

Q: Yes, thank you. My name is Kai Sauer. I’m the ambassador of Finland to the United Nations. Thank you, Janine, for inviting us to attend this session on such a short notice.

My question is very simple. Both Sebastian and Janine, you refer to Bosnia, your experiences during your career. Now, you know—you were familiar with Bosnia before the war, during the war and with the Dayton arrangement. So against that backdrop, how do you see Syria evolving from here? Do you have a—yeah, do you see a functioning unified state?

DI GIOVANNI: Yeah, well, Kai, what a question, and really complicated. Those of us who came of age during the war in Bosnia in 1992 to 1995 will forever use Bosnia as a template for what went wrong and what went right. Very little went right, actually.

Kai, you know—you know, what I feel about the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the war. It ended the killing, it stopped the bloodshed, but it froze frontlines and rewarded the perpetrators of violence forever. Twenty years on, Bosnia, to me, is a place that’s boiling over with rage, with issues that have not been resolved.

I feel like when I look at how are we going to resolve Syria, I always think about conflict resolution. What are we going to do with Syria when the war ends? How is it going to end? How are we going to divide up the country? The cantonization of Bosnia was a huge mistake because it basically radicalized more and more of the nationalism. We have Republika Srpska. We have Serbia. We have Bosnia. Before, my friends in the former Yugoslavia called them Yugoslavians. Now they call themselves Muslims, or Croats, or Serbs. Are we going to have that with Syria? I mean, how are we going to divide up Syria?

And I wanted—Kim, I wanted to point out something—during these very lonely seven years I’ve been reporting Syria, people like Ambassador Robert Ford had been like a shining light to me because they’re people that were not only voices of great reason and wisdom but people that gave a damn. I cannot tell you how painful it is to cover a war that no one cares about. Recently, we do care about Syria because of ISIS. But before that, it was people like Ambassador Ford that really put their lives, their guts, their heart, their soul into it. And I thank you. I am so grateful to what you have done, for the wisdom you’ve given me, for the help you’ve given me individually and to the world. I only wish you could keep going. And we need more diplomats like you. (Applauds.)

BARKER: I feel like I should ask Ambassador Ford if he has anything to say or if he has a question.

FORD: I think it’s a wonderful—just it’s a wonderful film. It’s very powerful to see the images of families shattered amid a bombing strike. That really happened. And it’s—Syria’s just a huge tragedy. It’s a huge tragedy and you’ve put it on film. I can’t say I’m happy to see it, but I applaud you for what you did, making people aware of what’s happening.

DI GIOVANNI: But, Kai, your question about lessons learned, like, what can we do that happened—what went wrong in Bosnia and Kosovo. You know Kai worked very closely in the—ending the war in Kosovo. What can—what can we learn? You tell us. You’re a diplomat. You’re an ambassador. What can we do?

BARKER: I’m going to take back control of it just a second. (Laughter.)

DI GIOVANNI: I’m sorry.

BARKER: Because you’re not the moderator.

DI GIOVANNI: I’m sorry. (Laughter.)

BARKER: And we’re going to get one more question. We can talk about this afterwards, and I’d love to have this conversation afterwards, but I want to ask one of our members.

Let me get your question. It’s going to be the last question. And we’ll be around afterwards if you want to ask any of these folks.


Q: Thank you. I’m Allen Hyman from Columbia Presbyterian.

Last week, Americans learned—maybe for the first time, certainly for me—that four American soldiers, special forces were killed and ambushed in Niger. Many Americans couldn’t tell you where Niger is.

BARKER: Still can’t, probably.

Q: I later learned that there are American forces in many countries in Africa. What are we doing there? Who is the enemy? Is it ISIS? Al-Qaida? Does it make any difference? It’s very confusing. Maybe you can enlighten us.

QUESTED: I can do a little bit. I mean, I don’t think it’s the enemy that the troops are there for. They’re there for energy security. So there’s something there that they want to protect. I mean, the French—

BARKER: Which is considered national security.

DI GIOVANNI: Yeah, national security will be—sometimes I walk up to countries—and it’s so strange—I’ll find Mali or something, and I’ll find American special forces there.

QUESTED: Because they’re difficult to spot.

DI GIOVANNI: I’ll be like, what are you guys doing there? (Laughter.) But you will them—

BARKER: They grow beards and, like, they wear—

DI GIOVANNI: Yeah, and they go undercover and they—you know, there’s—

BARKER: You could never tell. (Laughter.)

DI GIOVANNI: Let’s just face it. There’s things we will never know about our government, of what is going on and what we’re paying for in our taxes and what’s actually happening.

But, I mean, the things that I as an undercover journalist have come up with, going to these places and finding American troops in places we never would dream of, it does—they’re there.

I mean, even as much as I complain about the lack of intelligence about ISIS early on in 2011 when I was on the ground, 2012, there were a few rogue guys wandering around and with beards and—but we wouldn’t know about them. I mean, it’s so remote and it’s so far away and it’s so random that we, as the public, do not know.

BARKER: So in other words, national security. I think that’s pretty much the answer to everything where we are—where we are in the world.

With that, that concludes this meeting at CFR. Thanks so much for coming and for spending time afterwards. (Applause.)

JUNGER: Thank you very much, everybody.

BARKER: And for watching this very important film.


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