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.
- The Near Warriors Vs the Far: (brothersjuddblog.com)
- How Moderate Rebels are Supported by Islamic State in Syria? (blacklistednews.com)
- Ernst: Obama’s ISIS ‘victory lap is very premature’ (thegazette.com)