Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS

  • By Joby Warrick
  • Doubleday
  • 334 pp.

A journalistic, sometimes gruesome look at a nascent movement's reign of terror.

It takes a strong stomach to read Joby Warrick’s history of ISIS. It’s grisly. It has to be. The movement itself relies on shock and horror to achieve its goals.

The ISIS cast of characters includes someone from every country in the Middle East and many from the West. The three-page “List of Principal Characters” at the beginning of the book helps, but so many personalities have played a part that the reader will be hard put to remember who is who.

And the name of ISIS changed as it grew. It has, among other things, called itself the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS; the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL; and, finally, the Islamic State, or IS. I’m inclined to agree with the Boston Globe, which in 2014 recommended it be referred to as Daesh, the acronym of the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. Daesh, also understood as an Arabic word, means “to trample down and crush” or “a bigot who imposes his view on others.”

ISIS threatens to cut out the tongue of anyone who uses the term.

Black Flags, named for the iconic banners brandished by ISIS forces, is anything but relaxed holiday reading. That its history could not be written chronologically makes the narrative more complex. Warrick, of necessity, tells sections of the story from the point of view of one of his sources — he had more than 200 — then goes back and relates the same history from another source, adding new data. But the reader’s struggle to understand ISIS pays off. Black Flags is the best and most complete telling of ISIS’ gruesome story I have come across.

It is also one of the most thorough exposés of the George W. Bush Administration’s catastrophic 2003 decision to invade Iraq and the debacle that followed.

It begins with Dick Cheney and other members of the administration’s browbeating of the CIA and other intelligence agencies to provide proof of two nonexistent facts: that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that it had ties with Al-Qaeda. To invent that intelligence, the administration created the Office of Special Plans (OSP) in the Pentagon, an entity that existed only from September 2002 to June of 2003, just long enough to fabricate intelligence justifying the invasion.

After the conquest of Iraq came the Bush Administration’s amateurish missteps, “from refusal to halt massive looting after the invasion to the wholesale dismantling of the Iraqi military and security structure.” Following their initial warm welcome of the Americans, Iraqis were disgusted, then alienated.

Soon enough, insurgency flamed throughout the country as members of the Sunni denomination, Saddam Hussein’s group, were persecuted by the now-elevated Shiites. By autumn, spectacular insurgent attacks in Iraq were routine — bombings of the UN headquarters, the Baghdad Hotel, and coordinated suicide bombings throughout Baghdad. Insurgency was in full swing, even if the administration refused to admit it.

Two men led ISIS from its formation in 1999 to its current control of much of Iraq and Syria. One was Ahmed Fadil al-Khalayleh who assumed several different names before finally using the one known today, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A Jordanian known in his youth as Ahmad the Hoodlum, Zarqawi transformed himself into a religious zealot determined to destroy Israel, the Jordanian government, and the U.S. by establishing brutality as the defining characteristic of ISIS early in its history.

Zarqawi gained international attention when the OSP falsely identified him as Saddam’s link to Al-Qaeda, although he was seeking to destroy Saddam’s regime. The notoriety helped him gain countless recruits. He was killed in a U.S. raid on June 7, 2006.

His replacement, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, known as “the invisible sheik,” was reportedly born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarrai. Most of what is known about him is more rumor than fact. He may be highly educated and perhaps a cleric, but his brutality has surpassed even that of Zarqawi. Reports of his wounding or possible death in early 2015 remain speculation.

Author Joby Warrick comes well credentialed to chronicle ISIS’ history. Currently a reporter for the Washington Post, he has worked for a variety of newspapers and won awards for his excellence in journalism, including the 1996 Pulitzer Prize. Warrick’s earlier book, The Triple Agent, details the December 30, 2009, suicide-bomber attack in Afghanistan, which resulted in the death of seven CIA employees.

Black Flags is well-written, marked by a journalist’s preference for fact and neutrality over drama. The ISIS story needs no embroidery. It’s innately bloodcurdling. With one exception, Warrick simply tells us what happened according to his sources.

That exception comes at the end of the book, when Warrick writes of the video documenting the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot captured by ISIS. After describing the video in detail, Warrick reports the horrified reaction of the public and especially national leaders. He left me with the feeling that, at last, ISIS had so sickened the world with its bestiality that an international reaction would finally coalesce to end the horror.

The lesson from Black Flags that looms large for me is that if intelligence is compromised by politicians, disaster is sure to follow. Had the Bush Administration — and Dick Cheney in particular — acted in accordance with the intelligence that it had, the invasion of Iraq never would have taken place. Instead, they manipulated the intelligence community to justify the invasion of Iraq. That led to the rise of ISIS and the current calamity. Today’s rampant disorder in the Middle East would not exist today but for that action.

Tom Glenn spent the better part of 13 years under cover in Vietnam collecting intelligence to assist U.S. combat forces and escaped under fire from Saigon when the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. He is the author of 16 published short stories. His novel Friendly Casualties was published in 2012. Apprentice House brought out his No-Accounts last year and will publish his The Trion Syndrome this year.

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