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‘American ISIS’ Russell Dennison Details Radicalization, Path to Caliphate in New Podcast

A new eight-part documentary podcast, American ISIS from The Intercept and Topic Studios, details the account of an American man who lived and died inside the Islamic State. The podcast, which is narrated by Trevor Aaronson, explores how ISIS functioned in Syria through the firsthand account of Russell Dennison.

The first episode, Death and Life, starts by detailing the Islamic State while the following episodes dive deeper into Dennison’s childhood, radicalization, journey and 2019 death as an ISIS fighter.

Dennison was raised Catholic in Pennsylvania and converted to Islam just before going to prison for selling marijuana. After prison, Dennison posted videos to YouTube criticizing Americans. These videos gained him a large following as well as attention from the FBI. In 2014, Dennison left America and went to join ISIS.

Over a period of six months starting in August 2018, Dennison sent more than 30 hours of audio recordings to Aaronson, a journalist and executive director of the nonprofit Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. The recordings, which are featured heavily in every episode, were mostly taken at night; explosions can be heard in the background.

“It was kinda like Rambo,” Dennison told Aaronson. “I was doing my own thing.”

Dennison attributed the United States’ involvement in the Syrian war to the filmed execution of Americans, especially American journalists, by the Islamic State. While Dennison disagreed with some of the Islamic State’s tactics, he boasted about being a foot soldier, inspiring the first American suicide bomber, and serving as a member of a secret intelligence unit that intercepted foreign armies’ communications during his six years as a member of ISIS. He married the first British woman to be prosecuted for joining ISIS, Tareena Shakil, and had two children with her.

Before his departure from America, Dennison met Sami Osmakac at a local mosque. Osmakac is currently serving a 40-year sentence in North Carolina for possessing an unregistered AK-47 and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction; his family claims Dennison radicalized Osmakac.

“When I left Florida… I knew that I would never see [my family] again,” Dennison told Aaronson.

Caliphate, a 12-part podcast on the Islamic State produced by The New York Times, was highly criticized due to inaccuracies. The podcast detailed the account of Shehroze Chaudhry, who went by the name Abu Huzayfah, a Canadian man of Pakistani origin. The Times released a statement last year saying they “discovered significant falsehoods and other discrepancies in Huzayfah’s story.” The statement came after the Canadian government arrested Chaudhry under terrorism hoax laws.

To authenticate his identity, Dennison sent pictures of himself as a child, pictures on the ground in Syria, his ISIS identification card and his U.S. passport. The podcast also includes interviews with Dennison’s religious mentor in Florida, a friend of Dennison’s in Michigan and a relative.

All the episodes have been released on Audible. The second episode focuses on Dennison’s upbringing and features a brief recording of Dennison’s mother. The third episode details Dennison’s time in prison and his path toward extremism. The fourth episode is about his run-in with the FBI in Egypt. The fifth episode mainly discusses Dennison’s trip back to the Middle East, especially in Lebanon and Syria. The sixth episode goes deeper into Dennison’s path to joining ISIS. The final two episodes detail the end of Dennison’s life, from his marriage and children to the former caliphate.

To read more about the podcast, go to The Intercept.

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Lindsey Wilkinson is a News Media Major and Political Science & French Minor at the University of Alabama. She is Food & Health editor for Alice - where she also serves as editor-in-chief for the 2021-2022 school year, a contributing writer for The Crimson White, quarterly article chair for Moxie Alabama, resident advisor in Presidential Village 1, and a mentor for the Media Writing Center. Lindsey started her internship at Homeland Security Today in 2021.

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