The Jor­da­nian thug who gave us the Is­lamic State

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY JES­SICA STERN

Much of the world awak­ened to the threat of the Is­lamic State in Au­gust 2014, af­ter the or­ga­ni­za­tion be­gan be­head­ing for­eign hostages on video. But ISIS, as it is also known, was not a new group, nor was it the first to use hor­ror as a weapon. It was founded as al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 by an in­fa­mous Jor­da­nian thug known by his nom de guerre, Abu Musab al-Zar­qawi. Since its cre­ation, the group has changed names sev­eral times, but it has re­tained and ex­panded many of the in­no­va­tions put in place by its founder, who used his ex­pe­ri­ence as a gang­ster to cre­ate an un­usu­ally wealthy, vi­cious and crude or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Zar­qawi was a high school dropout, known around town as a boozer and a brawler, cer­tainly not as a pi­ous man, let alone a fun­da­men­tal­ist. He was fa­mil­iar to the lo­cal po­lice for his in­volve­ment in vi­o­lence and drug-deal­ing. His mother en­cour­aged him to study Is­lam, hop­ing to res­cue her son from a life of crime. But study­ing re­li­gion did not help Zar­qawi find peace. The Is­lam that he dis­cov­ered was an un­usu­ally vi­o­lent one. His ji­had had noth­ing to do with el­e­vat­ing him­self spir­i­tu­ally and ev­ery­thing to do with jus­ti­fy­ing his pre­ferred lifestyle — bur­glary and bru­tal­ity.

In “Black Flags,” Washington Post re­porter Joby Warrick ex­plains the im­por­tance of Zar­qawi and an­a­lyzes his con­tin­u­ing in­flu­ence on the Is­lamic State long af­ter his death in 2006. There have been a num­ber of pre­vi­ous bi­ogra­phies of Zar­qawi, but Warrick takes the story much fur­ther and deeper. Most im­por­tant, he shows, in painful but com­pul­sively read­able de­tail, how a se­ries of mishaps and mis­takes by the U.S. and Jor­da­nian gov­ern­ments gave this un­schooled hood­lum his start as a ter­ror­ist su­per­star and set the Mid­dle East on a path of sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence that has proved hard to con­tain.

Un­til 2003, Zar­qawi was largely un­known out­side Jor­dan. As Warrick re­counts, in his fa­mous speech to the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil in 2003, then-Sec­re­tary of State Colin Pow­ell pointed to the ob­scure Jor­da­nian as the link be­tween Sad­dam Hus­sein and Osama bin Laden, as part of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the in­va­sion of Iraq. That speech, Warrick ex­plains, which Pow­ell later de­scribed as a blot on his record, cat­a­pulted this small-time ji­hadist into the ter­ror­ist fir­ma­ment. Many of Warrick’s sources in the CIA de­scribe the pres­sure they were un­der to find a link be­tween Hus­sein and al-Qaeda, but they kept com­ing up empty. Just be­fore the 2003 in­va­sion, Zar­qawi was holed up in north­ern Iraq with An­sar al-Is­lam, a ter­ror­ist group that viewed Hus­sein as an apos­tate en­emy and was work­ing on de­vel­op­ing chem­i­cal weapons. CIA op­er­a­tives were poised to take out this group, which, un­like the Iraqi pres­i­dent, re­ally was linked to al-Qaeda. Most frus­trat­ing, in hind­sight for those op­er­a­tives, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion was de­ter­mined to fo­cus on re­mov­ing Hus­sein in­stead. Iron­i­cally, it was the U.S. -led in­va­sion of Iraq that gave pur­pose to Zar­qawi’s cho­sen vo­ca­tion. The in­va­sion pushed him into an al­liance with bin Laden and led to al-Qaeda’s pres­ence in Iraq, and ul­ti­mately to the emer­gence of the Is­lamic State.

The group ac­quired ex­per­tise, knowl­edge and in­spi­ra­tion from Zar­qawi, lead­ing it to form a hy­brid of crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tion, pro­to­state and apoc­a­lyp­tic cult that flaunts its bru­tal­ity on so­cial media. As the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Zar­qawi ex­ploited smug­gling routes still used by the Is­lamic State to trade in stolen goods and per­son­nel. He spe­cial­ized in the­atri­cal acts of lethal vi­o­lence: He was not the first ter­ror­ist to be­head his cap­tives, but he made be­head­ings, as well as snuff films, a sig­na­ture of his or­ga­ni­za­tion, prac­tices that the Is­lamic State has per­fected. He was rabidly anti-Shi­ite and ar­dently Tak­firi — prone to ac­cus­ing oth­ers of apos­tasy — and these views led him to kill any­one who did not ac­cept his in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam. For this, he drew con­dem­na­tion from a num­ber of prom­i­nent ji­hadi fight­ers and ide­o­logues, in­clud­ing his men­tor, the fa­mous pro-ji­hadi preacher Abu Muham­mad al-Maq­disi. Zar­qawi be­lieved that his fate was fore­told in prophetic pas­sages of the Ha­dith, a col­lec­tion of say­ings and prac­tices of the prophet Muham­mad. “The black flags will come from the East, led by mighty men, with long hair and beards, their sur­names taken from their home towns,” the an­cient scholars had writ­ten. The Is­lamic State uses a black flag and quotes Zar­qawi’s pre­dic­tions about the com­ing “fi­nal bat­tle” with the West in ev­ery is­sue of its online mag­a­zine, Dabiq, named af­ter the Syr­ian town where that bat­tle is an­tic­i­pated to take place.

To tell Zar­qawi’s story, Warrick turns to in­tel­li­gence and mil­i­tary of­fi­cers who spent years track­ing the ter­ror­ist. One of his sources is Nada Bakos, a bril­liant young CIA op­er­a­tive who de­scribes her strug­gles to jus­tify the in­va­sion of Iraq as well as to hunt down Zar­qawi. Per­haps the most sur­pris­ing ob­ser­va­tions come from the doc­tor who treated Zar­qawi in the 1990s while he was in a Jor­da­nian prison, where, to­gether with his men­tor, he ran a sort of ji­hadi univer­sity for fel­low Jor­da­nian mil­i­tants. The doc­tor, whom Warrick in­ter­viewed, de­scribes a moody per­son, ca­pa­ble of hor­rific acts of vi­o­lence but also sur­pris­ing acts of kind­ness, es­pe­cially to­ward those who were weak.

Jor­dan’s role, un­til now, has been largely un­sung. (Jor­da­nian of­fi­cials ad­mit­ted to Warrick that Zar­qawi was ac­ci­den­tally left on a list of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers to be re­leased in 1999, as part of a gen­eral amnesty when King Ab­dul­lah as­cended to the throne. Be­cause Zar­qawi was known to be try­ing to over­throw the Jor­da­nian regime, he should not have been on the list.) The king comes across in Warrick’s nar­ra­tive as coura­geous, wise and pre­scient. As Warrick shows, Ab­dul­lah re­peat--

edly warned Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush that re­mov­ing Hus­sein from power could do far more harm than good. He tried to talk Paul Bre­mer, the top civil­ian ad­min­is­tra­tor of the Coali­tion Pro­vi­sional Au­thor­ity, out of dis­band­ing the Iraqi army, cor­rectly an­tic­i­pat­ing the trou­ble those un­em­ployed mil­i­tary per­son­nel could cause, but his warn­ings went un­heeded. Jor­da­nian in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers were able to pin­point Zar­qawi’s lo­ca­tion in 2006, lead­ing to the U.S. airstrike that killed him. But his de­scen­dants joined forces with for­mer mil­i­tary of­fi­cers to es­tab­lish a pro­to­state.

Both the civil war in Syria and the dis­en­fran­chise­ment of Sunni-Mus­lims were crit­i­cal to the Is­lamic State’s rise. One of Warrick’s sources, a Sunni tribesman who had par­tic­i­pated in the 2006 An­bar Awak­en­ing, dur­ing which Iraqi tribes formed an al­liance with U.S. troops against al-Qaeda in Iraq, ex­plains that, be­gin­ning around 2010, he be­gan to see the Iraqi gov­ern­ment as a greater en­emy than the ji­hadists. Over time, some of the Sunni tribes­men turned against Bagh­dad and joined the Is­lamic State, partly as pro­tec­tion from Iran-backed Shi­ite mili­tias and partly be­cause the group of­fered them good salaries.

By now, much has been writ­ten about the rise of the Is­lamic State. What makes Warrick’s book unique is its fo­cus on the group’s roots, es­pe­cially the evo­lu­tion of its founder. Warrick pro­vides a great deal of rea­son for Amer­i­cans to feel re­morse: shame that we lashed out at the wrong en­emy af­ter 9/11; re­gret that we chose to re­move Iraq’s mil­i­tary lead­ers from their jobs, leav­ing them vul­ner­a­ble to re­cruit­ment by Zar­qawi and his suc­ces­sors; sor­row that so many Amer­i­can and Iraqi lives were lost in fight­ing the ji­hadists, who nonethe­less rose again in a more lethal form. No one heeded the warn­ings that the sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence un­leashed in Iraq would spread through­out the re­gion or that ma­jori­tar­ian rule would lead to re­newed civil war. But Warrick’s is not a par­ti­san ac­count­ing. His nar­ra­tive puts equal blame on the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for do­ing so lit­tle to stop the resur­gence of a group we spent many bil­lions to stamp out dur­ing the troop surge in the Iraq war.

What is miss­ing from all these ac­counts thus far, in­clud­ing not only Warrick’s, but also, I am sorry to con­fess, my own, is a clear strat­egy for go­ing for­ward. It is far eas­ier to point out the flaws in our cur­rent strat­egy than to sug­gest a bet­ter one. Amer­i­cans tend to imag­ine that all prob­lems can be fixed and that we ought to do what­ever we can to fix them. In this case, there is good rea­son to feel re­spon­si­ble, but it’s not clear what ac­tions we can take that won’t make the prob­lem even worse. It is go­ing to take a great deal of in­ge­nu­ity even to con­tain the Is­lamic State that Zar­qawi un­leashed, let alone de­feat it.

BLACK FLAGS The Rise of ISIS By Joby Warrick Dou­ble­day. 344 pp. $28.95

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AbuMusab al-Zar­qawi in a pub­lic­ity video in 2006, the year of his death. In his youth, he was known to Jor­da­nian po­lice for vi­o­lence and drug-deal­ing.

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