Book review: “Black Flags, The Rise of ISIS,” by Joby Warrick
Only a decade ago if someone mentioned the word, “Isis,” the association was of a mythical and spiritual bent, a reference to the Egyptian goddess, whose influence spread far beyond Africa and the age of Pharaohs to be absorbed into the myths of the Romans and Greeks, as well as taken up by pagan worshipers because of her association with magic and the natural world. Now, ISIS stands for something else entirely, and the contrast could not be more striking or tragic.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the radical jihadist movement known as ISIS (also ISIL, the Islamic State, and Daesh) has hurled itself violently onto center stage. Thanks to the in-depth journalistic talents of Joby Warrick, and the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Black Flags, The Rise of ISIS,” the world has been provided with a chance for a deeper understanding of the origins of the terrorist organization.
Hindsight, of course, allows for a clarity that eluded many world leaders and analysts at the time, though as Warrick details there were plenty who did try to raise the alarm, most profoundly, Jordan’s King Abdullah and his counter-terrorism team. Jordan was the country of origin for ISIS founder, Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayleh, who became known to the world as al-Zarqawi, but who began his law-breaking career as a juvenile delinquent, with an aimlessness that turned to religious fundamentalism for an anchor.
The book is divided into thirds, with the first section devoted entirely to the backstory and unlikely rise to prominence of Zarqawi, whose earliest years as a hoodlum might have led to nothing more than obscurity, had it not been for the United States, whose leaders put the spotlight on Zarqawi, among others, as possible terrorists linked to 9/11. “The claim was wrong, yet, weeks later, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, the newly famous and well-funded terrorist gained a battleground and a cause and soon thousands of followers.”
The picture the author paints of Zarqawi is gripping and terrifying, and he describes the terrorist’s early days in a Jordanian prison, where he was housed with other radical believers, who turned to him as a leader, though there was another more senior inmate who had claimed that spot. But, as Warrick says, “these men preferred someone with tough-guy credentials, like Zarqawi, a brawler who talked plainly and refused to compromise.”
The tide of festering hatred was held back as long as Zarqawi was forced to languish with his followers in jail, but as events unfolded, it became clear that all that it would take would be a spark and a vacuum to unleash their twisted beliefs onto the world. That moment came when the United States chose to invade Iraq, the details of which comprise the second third of Warrick’s book. There were so many ingredients in the cauldron that simmered up and created ISIS — some rooted in ancient times, others influenced by modern world affairs — and the author gives due diligence to all aspects, for history, of course, is deeply entwined with the happenings of the present.
As the Iraq war dissolved beyond America’s premature victory boasts, it became clear that the situation was spinning rapidly out of control, and Zarqawi was at the heart of it. “A minor worry before, when he was confined to a remote corner of Iraq’s northern mountains, now he had been set loose in the Iraqi heartland and was becoming more menacing by the day.” Warrick points to repeated CIA reports that concluded that there was a full-blown insurgency underway, but the Bush White House continued with the “mission accomplished” mantra for several additional months. “If Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi could have dictated a U.S. strategy for Iraq that suited his own designs for building a terrorist network, he could hardly have come up with one that surpassed what the Americans themselves put in place over the spring and summer of 2003.”
Warrick follows Zarqawi’s rise and eventual demise, but not before he fostered a movement that promised to live and prosper long after he was gone. The third half of the book details the remarkable emergence of the fully formed army of radicals that the world now knows as ISIS. Too familiar are the scenes of brutality that have become synonymous with the jihadist group, and the entire population of Syria faces extinction because of them, yet the debate still rages as to the best path forward to rid the world of the beast that has been unleashed and which seems freakishly adaptable. The only thing missing from his remarkable book is a solution. Hopefully, someday, we can all be reading another award-winning book by Joby Warrick that details how ISIS was defeated and eradicated from the world.
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