Black Flags: The Rise of Isis by Joby War­rick, Dou­ble­day, 368 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Tantri Wija

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.

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