Black Flags: The Rise of Isis by Joby Warrick, Doubleday, 368 pages
Many of us have no idea what ISIS is. We fear it, we are achingly aware of it (more so last week than ever before, now that the group has attacked the city many of us hold in our fondest dreams), and we hashtag against it and change our social media statuses to decry it. But we do that against things like “hate” and “discrimination” too, shaking our fists against our cultural bogeymen one striped Facebook photo at a time.
ISIS, the amorphous Islamic extremist terrorist group that is spreading across the Middle East and parts of Africa like an oil spill, is more comprehensible than the vague thought-demons of “hate” or “terror.” The monsters of ISIS are just people, individuals who are choosing to maximize their innate human capacity for damage to achieve an agenda of which many of them are only vaguely cognizant. In Black Flags:
The Rise of ISIS, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joby Warrick makes the phenomenon of ISIS (aka the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, among other names) understandable in terms of those people and those choices. He takes the often-confusing alphabet soup of acronyms and similar-sounding names and does what a competent novelist would do: He puts a face or personality to words that otherwise blend together into a glottal soup most Americans can’t properly pronounce.
And the face it begins with is that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, ISIS’ founding father, the man whose dark heart is the engine that pumps life into a movement that appears to have manifested from him like a bad genie. Black Flags jumps from perspective to perspective. It follows the trail of people who knew — or knew of — al-Zarqawi from his youth as a tattooed, prodigal street thug in Jordan to his foray into Afghanistan to fight communists (like many terrorists, al-Zarqawi spent some time fighting on the same side as the U.S.). We hear about him from a prison doctor and various heads of Jordanian intelligence agencies as he makes his way from a desolate desert prison in Jordan across the desert to al-Qaeda — and from the panoply of Islamist extremist groups through which al-Zarqawi seems to have flitted like a Muslim Forrest Gump, always where the action was. We hear, as if from witnesses to a crime, various theories about his motivations — theories anchored with telling details like his propensity as a young man for raping other young men, his paradoxically devotional relationship to his mother and sisters, or the religious guilt that led him to later carve his tattoos from his own flesh and sew the wounds closed. We then read in horror how he harnessed the tools of a swiftly globalizing world to spread
fear through videotaped beheadings of hostages that make Americans intimately aware of ISIS’ violent tendencies.
Black Flags is as much a biography of al-Zarqawi as it is a book about ISIS, much as any book about the Nazis would have to also be a book about Adolph Hitler. Al-Zarqawi is the prototypical ISIS member: A natural bully, he received military training and became battle-hardened and radicalized in the cauldron of Afghanistan, then grew dissatisfied by the secularization he found when he returned to his home country. His dark charisma collided with the churning gears of the U.S. war machine and party politics when Colin Powell, in a 2003 speech about the burgeoning war in Iraq, incorrectly connected him with Saddam Hussein and turned him into what Warrick calls a “terrorist superstar,” giving his volatile personality the propellant it needed to explode. This is the incident that the narrative of Black Flags turns on. Warrick explains with a somewhat partisan (but not necessarily incorrect) bent that the Bush administration’s need to justify the invasion of Iraq by creating a link between Saddam Hussein, the 9/11 attacks, and al-Qaeda led the administration to accidentally glorify al-Zarqawi, though the CIA did not believe the connection to be true. Warrick suggests that this mistake, mired in party politics, has come back to bite us. We told his followers he was powerful, and they believed us.
Black Flags renders the often-confusing organization that is ISIS into a mostly cohesive narrative, though there are some gaps that are inevitable with a subject this murky — especially when much of the source material remains classified. But the book skips along with cinematic clarity, making the usually byzantine network of associations between the various Islamist groups and actors as human and engaging as a superior TV series. The U.S. managed to kill al-Zarqawi in 2006, but a movement that panders to its followers’ anger, insecurities, and addiction to brutality has only gained strength from his appropriately violent death. The book is as elucidating about the workings of the machine of U.S. intelligence as it is about ISIS, and it explains how we got here, one theoretically reasonable but unfortunate decision at a time.
Nonfiction narrative that retells incidents for impact draws inferences about people’s motivations as part of character development, and it can be unsettling. One wonders how the author knows these things, how much license he took in telling the story, and whether or not his retelling is reliable. Herodotus was known both as the father of history and the father of lies, after all, and when a good story has holes, a competent narrator has to fill them to keep the audience’s attention. But even the driest history book has an agenda in its eye-crossing recountings of dates and numbers and lists, and it may be less of a stretch for a
reasonable person to infer the motivations of another human than to try to create meaning from statistics that might be completely wrong in the first place.
As a reporter for the Washington Post for two decades, Warrick’s beat includes the U.S. intelligence community, the Middle East, and the back rooms where diplomats use curse words and first names. His sources were there on the ground, even if he was not, and they’ve seen these faces for themselves. The book is a reminder that these are not monstrous entities but rather individuals, and that depressing as it is, one man can make a difference in this world, even if it’s not a good one. Now ISIS is beating on our door. It may be time for us to look up, peer out the window, and get to know who it is we’re dealing with.