Book Review | Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick

Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS makes a complicated mess easier to understand. Readable and accessible to anyone with an interest in how we ended up with ISIS, his Pulitzer prize-winning narrative of the rise of the terrorist cum state of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq is a must-read.

If there’s anything I know about the politics of the Middle East, it’s that it’s bloody, and it almost always has been (go check out Simon Sebag Montefiore‘s Jerusalem: A Biography for a fascinating, if relatively brief, history of that piece of the Middle East). After centuries–nay, millennia–of war between various international interlopers, small-time despots, and religious zealots, recent years have seen the rise of ISIS, something more than just another political movement in the vein of the Palestinian Liberation Organization or a terrorist organization like Al Qaeda.

No, ISIS is something else, something more dangerous, a boogeyman that is every bit as malignant for the chaos it breeds as for the violence it intentionally perpetuates.

That ISIS holds itself out as a state, controls territory, and was born of the mistakes during the early days of the invasion of Iraq only complicates the world’s response. More clearly, it complicates the United States’ response. On the heels of an invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, American response is handicapped. But perhaps that is another story.

This story, though, is not about the impact those invasions have had on America’s influence on the world. Rather, this is a narrative about the individuals that turned the quagmire of Iraq into the quagmire of ISIS. Primarily, it’s the story of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who rose from street thug to a terrorist mastermind who turned the Iraq insurgency against the US into a Shia-Sunni civil war. Although he ostensibly gave his due respects to bin Laden as the senior leader, al-Zarqawi eventually competed with Osama bin Laden for the top place on the US Most Wanted list and became known for his brutality and ability to turn terrorism into propaganda. Even after his kill by US Special Forces in 2006, al-Zarqawi continued to influence others. The chaos in the Syrian civil war gave space to his followers, and as the country digressed into deeper instability gave breathing room to extremists seeking their own Islamic-based state. Al Qaeda in Iraq soon becomes the Islamic State in Iraq, controlling massive assets of oil and the innocent people caught up in the crossfire.

Joby Warrick’s narrative in Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS is fascinating, carefully told to build a story accessible to the lay reader and more informed alike. Warrick never lets the story lag or falter with the minutia of Middle East politics. He builds his characters with portraits that are descriptive and clear and brings life to a story that is for most Americans no more than fear inducing headlines. It makes for good reading, and it left me feeling like I understood what had happened and where ISIS had come from. I don’t know that it makes solutions any more obvious than before, but it does help to explain why solutions for stopping ISIS, or for bringing peace to the Middle East, are not easy. Warrick’s writing, however, makes the story seem effortless, and an easy choice for winning a Pulitzer.

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS Book Cover Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS
Joby Warrick
September 29, 2015

When the government of Jordan granted amnesty to a group of political prisoners in 1999, it little realized that among them was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist mastermind and soon the architect of an Islamist movement bent on dominating the Middle East. In Black Flags, an unprecedented character-driven account of the rise of ISIS, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Joby Warrick shows how the zeal of this one man and the strategic mistakes of Presidents Bush and Obama led to the banner of ISIS being raised over huge swaths of Syria and Iraq.
Zarqawi began by directing terror attacks from a base in northern Iraq, but it was the American invasion in 2003 that catapulted him to the head of a vast insurgency. By falsely identifying him as the link between Saddam and bin Laden, U.S. officials inadvertently spurred like-minded radicals to rally to his cause. Their wave of brutal beheadings and suicide bombings persisted until American and Jordanian intelligence discovered clues that led to a lethal airstrike on Zarqawi’s hideout in 2006.
His movement, however, endured. First calling themselves al-Qaeda in Iraq, then Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, his followers sought refuge in unstable, ungoverned pockets on the Iraq-Syria border. When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, and as the U.S. largely stood by, ISIS seized its chance to pursue Zarqawi’s dream of an ultra-conservative Islamic caliphate.
Drawing on unique high-level access to CIA and Jordanian sources, Warrick weaves gripping, moment-by-moment operational details with the perspectives of diplomats and spies, generals and heads of state, many of whom foresaw a menace worse than al Qaeda and tried desperately to stop it. Black Flags is a brilliant and definitive history that reveals the long arc of today’s most dangerous extremist threat.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.