Joby Warrick. Black Flags: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the Islamic State. New York, NY: Doubleday, September 29th, 2015. 416 pp.
The author Joby Warrick is a journalist whose career includes covering the Middle East. Previously I read the author’s first book titled The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA. I enjoyed this present volume a lot more both in terms of the subject and writing style. In Black Flags the author focuses on what was formerly known as Al Qaeda in Iraq and its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and how the organization later evolved into the Islamic State. The book was filled with a lot of facts that I didn’t know before but learned from here. The work was so fascinating that I had a hard time putting down the book. Given how I am reading this book on the eve of the Iraqi and Kurdish army’s invasion into the last stronghold of the Islamic State in Iraq in the city of Mosul, I found this very timely and eye opening.
From the author’s two book readers will notice that he rely on his connection with sources within Jordanian intelligence agencies which makes the book unique. Warrick is not approaching the issue merely from the American perspective and Western readers can appreciate the Jordanian concern for America’s foreign policy from the time of America’s invasion of Iraq onwards including the Obama’s administration support for Arab Spring. Jordan’s king and intelligence operatives were largely concern with how American policies would destabilize the region and the threat posed that pose to their own country’s survival. One can’t help but to sympathize with the Jordanians from reading the book. They seem to realize earlier than the Americans the unintended consequences of American strategies. The book’s source from Jordanian intelligence agency also provided a unique angle on Zarqawi who himself was Jordanian and was first identified for his radical Islamic activities by Jordanian intelligence officers. I thought it was fascinating that the author interviewed the men who dealt directly with Zarqawi. The book focuses a lot on Zarqawi and I appreciated that since one understands Al Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS a lot better by understanding its founder. The author portray a less than flattering image of the man’s origin with his thuggish background before his conversion to Islam. Even after his conversion to Islam Zarqawi suffered from an inferiority complex given his weakness with his intellectual capacity that affected his ability to study the Quran. I thought it was interesting to see the author’s discussion of Zarqawi’s relationship with Al Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden. The book went over how Bin Laden didn’t think too highly of the Jordanian and in the early years even snubbed him by not meeting directly with him and having him establish his own training base hundreds of miles away from the main hub of Al Qaeda camps. But suddenly after 9/11 everything changed for Zarqawi’s terrorist direction when he fled Afghanistan by means of Iran and set up his new terrorist haven in Northern Iraq. One thing I learned from reading this book is that Zarqawi was really his own man even as he used the brand of Al Qaeda and he stood out from Bin Laden in terms of his vision and his strategy. Of course Zarqawi needed the brand of Al Qaeda and the popularity of Bin Laden among Islamists and he was riding the coattails of Al Qaeda to support his own insurgency. One of the ways Zarqawi was different than Bin Laden was that he worked towards establishing the Caliphate more intentionally than Bin Laden did. Zarqawi’s strategy and tactics was even more bold and bloody than Bin Laden who at times show moderation since he’s needed to protect the status quo and dynamic of Al Qaeda. Zarqawi’s idea of mass suicide bombing seems to outsiders to be senseless violence but really it was a strategic ploy to recruit the most extreme and ideological faithful Islamists worldwide to go to Iraq and hopefully Zarqawi reason would be recruits for bringing about an Islamic State. The Caliphate would be realized, he reason. As crazy as his strategy was there was certainly an evil ingenuity to this that later his followers would benefit from. I also appreciated the book in describing how America’s joint special operations command (JSOC) was able to finally find Zarqawi and killed him. I learned from the book how after the US bombed the building he was in Zarqawi was actually still alive and in his final moments he actually saw the American soldiers he so dreaded and hated.
The other part of this book that I appreciated is the author’s description of the rise of ISIS. I think for many people this is a question they would like to know about but little is understood (in a sense this is understandable given that the history of ISIS is still ongoing). Warrick explains how Al Qaeda in Iraq almost died out and failed with the Anbar Awakening when the Sons of Iraq turning against Al Qaeda. This was the time of the US’ “surge.” I enjoyed the author’s interview with Sunni sheiks and other leaders. The author also narrates how the Shiite majority government failed by marginalizing the Sunnis population which fueled the Sunnis support for the Islamic State. This was rather painful for me as an Iraqi veteran to read to see the Iraqi government put to waste the progress that was started by the US military. The book was also fascinating in giving the account of how ISIS found itself under the unlikely leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who announced himself the Caliph.
I imagine in the near future more books on ISIS will be published. This is for me my first book-length treatment on the subject and hopefully it won’t be my last. I recommend this book and I think this is vital in understanding what’s going on. The problem of ISIS is no longer just isolated to a small sector the Middle East; nor is this merely a regional issue of the Middle East for its impacting areas like Europe and influencing North Africa. Read it to be informed.