For most of my adult life, the United States has been at war against radical jihadist groups. On September 11, 2001, I remember watching as smoke rose from the Pentagon. Initially, our response seemed clear: wipe out Al-Qaeda. However, 14 years later, not only does Al-Qaeda remain at large (although Osama bin Laden is thankfully dead), but jihadism has engulfed entire states in the Middle East.
When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) captured the Iraqi city of Mosul last June, it took many by surprise. This was Islamic radicalism, but not quite the same as Al-Qaeda. Whereas bin Laden had already become infamous before the 9/11 attacks, most Americans knew nothing about ISIS.
In Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Joby Warrick provides crucial historical context about ISIS. The first part of the book focuses on a man who has been dead for almost a decade: Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Zarqawi proved to be the most effective and brutal of the insurgent leaders, often killing large numbers of Shiite Muslims in order to stoke sectarian violence. Although the U.S. finally killed Zarqawi in 2006, his harsh ideology and network of jihadists formed the core for what would later become ISIS.
It’s admittedly hard to understand – much less empathize with – a terrorist like Zarqawi, but Warrick at least tries to show his appeal to other jihadists. We know the brutal side of Zarqawi all too well, but he also had a tender side when it came to caring for his comrades. After being released from a Jordanian prison in 1999, he returned in order to make sure his former prison mates were well cared for, ensuring their lifelong loyalty. Many jihadists were also impressed by his effectiveness as a man of action who could get things done.
Warrick also focuses on key players in the region fought Zarqawi and his spawn. At times, Black Flags feels like a spy thriller as each section has its own point of view character, from Jordanian King Abdullah to CIA analyst Nada Bakos. I particularly appreciated the Jordanian point of view, as it’s not a perspective we often hear in the U.S. That said, I did at times wonder if Warrick was sometimes too sympathetic to his sources (or how much he heard opposing points of view). I would especially have appreciated more insight into U.S. government’s policies as too often I felt like the book presented the outsider perspective critical of the U.S. approach without a counterbalance.
Although Black Flags was published this week (September 29, 2015), the book only covers events up to around March 2015. There’s inevitably some lag time between the time an author submits a manuscript and when the book reaches publication. That is unavoidable, but it’s particularly problematic here because the book leads directly into current events. Much has happened in the war against ISIS in the ensuing months, from the crippling of ISIS leader Baghdadi to the increased Russian involvement in the conflict. In short, the book works as background, but readers must supplement their knowledge with more recent sources.
I’d recommend Black Flags over the next few weeks or months if you want to understand the current crisis in the Middle East, but suspect its shelf life is limited.
[I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review]