Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS


Joby Warrick


Though some would cast his movement as an al-Qaeda offshoot, Zarqawi was no one’s acolyte. His brand of jihadism was utterly, brutally original. Osama bin Laden had sought to liberate Muslim nations gradually from corrupting Western influences so they could someday unify as a single Islamic theocracy, or caliphate. Zarqawi, by contrast, insisted that he would create his caliphate immediately—right now. He would seek to usher in God’s kingdom on Earth through acts of unthinkable savagery, believing, correctly, that theatrical displays of extreme violence would attract the most hardened jihadists to his cause and frighten everyone else into submission.

                                          from  Black Flags


Gazing into Pandora's Box

In 2003, King Abdullah II of Jordan, while despising Saddam Hussein, nonetheless beseeched President George W. Bush not to invade Iraq, warning that he would be “opening a Pandora’s box.” Joby Warrick’s Pulitzer Prize winning Black Flags looks into the box of horrors that Bush chose to open.

It must be especially challenging to write history as it is still happening, but Warrick, a reporter for The Washington Post, has produced a riveting account of the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS.) It provides an excellent introduction to the confusing array of sects and groups (Shiites? Sunnis? Wahabis?) and how their ancient ethnic and sectarian animosities continue to play out in a centuries-old loop of payback and retribution.

There are two distinct phases in the story of ISIS. The first centers around Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his branch of al-Qaeda that flourished in the power vacuum caused by the US invasion. A barely literate thug, Zarqawi found a purpose for his life as a devout jihadist (holy warrior) and “embraced the emerging power of the Internet to craft a reputation as a fierce warrior who killed Allah’s enemies without mercy.” In time, even al-Qaeda would renounce his brutal methods and random killing of fellow Muslims as “un-Islamic.” How the CIA worked with Jordan’s intelligence service to hunt down and eventually kill Zarqawi in 2006 makes for some of the most gripping reading in the book.

The second phase in the story centers on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who re-invented Zarqawi’s brand of jihadism in the chaos of the Syrian civil war. Baghdadi was a scholar with a doctoral degree, a shy, quiet man, yet who “possessed a prophet’s fierce conviction in destiny—the world’s, as well as his own.” Had it not been for the US invasion, Warrick notes, “the Islamic State’s greatest butcher would likely have lived out his years as a college professor…teaching Islamic jurisprudence to twenty-year-olds, rather than strapping bombs to their chests.”

Zarqawi and Baghdadi cherry-picked the Muslim holy texts to justify their murder and brutality, not unlike the way the Bush-Cheney Administration cherry-picked CIA intelligence reports to glean any information they could use to support their arguments to invade Iraq.

Warrick’s account ends in January 2015, with the filmed burning alive of a Jordanian pilot. By then the world’s Islamic scholars and imams were no longer calling ISIS un-Islamic. To many, it had become “satanic.”

Stay tuned. The box is still open.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (July 15-August 14, 2016.) Reprinted with permission.