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WINNER OF THE 2016 PULITZER PRIZE FOR GENERAL
NONFICTION
“A Best Book of 2015”—The New
York Times
, The Washington PostPeople
Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Kansas City Star,
and Kirkus Reviews

In a thrilling dramatic narrative,
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Joby Warrick traces how the strain of
militant Islam behind ISIS first arose in a remote Jordanian prison and
spread with the unwitting aid of two American presidents. Drawing on
unique high-level access to CIA and Jordanian sources, Warrick weaves
gripping, moment-by-moment operational details with the perspectives of
diplomats and spies, generals and heads of state, many of whom foresaw a
menace worse than al Qaeda and tried desperately to stop it. Black
Flags
is a brilliant and definitive history that reveals the long
arc of today’s most dangerous extremist threat.

Average Ratings and Reviews
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Reviews for Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS:

4

Dec 20, 2015

I read this book on ISIS, so I'm kind of an expert now. If you need me at your dinner parties for pedantic insight into the Middle East, hit me up.
3

Sep 30, 2015

Editing my number of stars in light of Patrick Cockburn's The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, only discovered after the comment thread on this review. I cannot recall Warrick even mentioning Saudi or Pakistani involvement either in the ISIS movement beginning after the U.S. invasion of Iraq (on which he spent an enormous amount of our time), or after Zarqawi was killed in 2006. He said nothing significantly different from newspaper reporting in the U.S. the past 15 years, though Editing my number of stars in light of Patrick Cockburn's The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, only discovered after the comment thread on this review. I cannot recall Warrick even mentioning Saudi or Pakistani involvement either in the ISIS movement beginning after the U.S. invasion of Iraq (on which he spent an enormous amount of our time), or after Zarqawi was killed in 2006. He said nothing significantly different from newspaper reporting in the U.S. the past 15 years, though he gave enormous credit to the CIA, whose analysis by the way, he did not share with us except in an impressionistic way.

I was already familiar with what the newspapers had reported, and found his account rehashed old ground. Cockburn's analysis, on the other hand, rips open ME politics and exposes U.S. blunders and resultant difficulties. The information I was getting in newspapers about ISIS in Syria confused me, which is why I needed something more in depth. This book probably is not going to answer your questions. I am furious that we don't have the kind of journalism about the Middle East that they apparently have in Europe. Perhaps our journalists are trying too hard to protect their government sources and American business interests. Can it be?

I leave this at three stars simply because I would never have gotten to, nor understood as well, Cockburn's far better material without slogging through Warrick's introductory material and discussing it with others. Warrick undoubtedly knows Cockburn. Why the heck couldn't he have included (and credited) some of Cockburn's information in his analysis?

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Warrick bookends his narrative nonfiction describing the origins of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) with the story of the failed suicide-bomber, Sajida al-Rishawi, who was executed in Jordan just this year, shortly after ISIS put to death-by-burning the downed Jordanian air pilot, First Lieutenant Muadh al-Kasasbeh in Syria in January. This bookending is entirely appropriate for it links the Jordanian thug-turned-radical Abu Musad al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) with the later leader of ISIS, Iraqi Islamic scholar Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Just this week (Oct 2015) we learned that al-Baghdadi was targeted in an air strike as he convoyed to a meeting of senior ISIS leaders in western Iraq. It is not known if he has been wounded or killed.

I would be happy never to hear or read the name Zarqawi again, but here he is in the pages of this book. Abu Musad al-Zarqawi was the Jordanian national who created and led AQI during the Iraq War. He gained credibility and became a household name the world over when American forces labelled him a threat in 2003, just before the American invasion of Iraq. Warrick carefully traces the path of Zarqawi’s radicalism, beginning while he was in a Jordanian jail from 1993-99, through his contact with and split from Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization, through to his death in by American airstrike in 2006. After his death his organization, which had attracted many followers amongst the Sunni minority in Iraq, lost its thrust and seemed on the point of disintegration.

The American withdrawal from Iraq gave the remnants of Zarqawi’s group more freedom to operate. They continued to consolidate, now with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gradually rising to third in the leadership in charge of Sharia law by 2010. In 2010 an airstrike took out the other two top leaders, leaving Baghdadi to step into the vacuum and impose his own vision on the men under his command. He announced ISIS involvement in Syria in 2011 with a carefully shot and edited quarter-hour video heralded on Islamic websites for days before its release.

Warrick shows us how the radical insurgent movement could have begun, given impetus through a combination of American bombs and Arab prisons. Western ideology and invasion is an undeniable spur to Islamists of any sort, who resist any foreign influence and incursion into their lands, whether or not bombing was meant to help. Warrick adds Arab jails because this is where Zarqawi got his instruction and indoctrination. Inmates were segregated by creed, and the Islamists lived by Sharia law. Jails became, in effect, jihadi universities which helped extremists inculcate moderates, and fueled the insurgency inside the wire. Like Arab jails, the American military system of corralling all insurgents together as “bad guys” was “dysfunctional and counterproductive”, in Warrick’s opinion.

Baghdadi survived and thrived in prison. He was picked up in a sweep in early 2004 and sent to the American-administered jail called Camp Bucca. His academic expertise as a conservative, educated religious scholar gave him stature. He both taught and spoke classical Arabic and led religious prayers. When he was released in 2004 after ten months in prison, he finished earning his doctorate in Islamic studies and gravitated to the militants operating outside the major cities. By 2010 he was third in the leadership of radicals in charge of Sharia law and when an American airstrike took out two of the top leaders in late 2010, al Baghdadi stepped up.

Now ISIS has Sunni, Shia, as well as Western governments and Russia, all seeking their demise. One reason is that the predominantly Sunni ISIS organization burned the Jordanian Sunni air pilot flying over Syria rather than behead him. Death by burning is something forbidden in the Koran—a retribution something only Allah can presume. There must be a reason an Islamic scholar would order such a death, but the effect was galvanizing. In the film posted online of the burning death, Warrick tells us the voice of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi intones a voiceover: “Lo and behold, the spark has been ignited in Iraq and its fires shall only get bigger…” drawing a clear connection between the former AQI under Zarqawi and the renamed ISIS under Baghdadi. We can only hope that fire will consume them in the end.

It was not this book alone, but my concurrent reading of a book of essays by Mohsin Hamid called Discontent and Its Civilizations that started the beginnings of a breakthrough in the development of my own opinion about American power in the world. Hamid’s essays discuss the American war in Afghanistan from the point of view of Pakistan. America cooperated with Pakistan, in a manner of speaking, for a time. My thinking runs something like this: if a situation in one’s own country gets so bad one thinks one wants to call upon the strength of the American army to save one, think again. Calling upon their superior forces may just wipe out what you were hoping to save.

American military power is a blunt instrument, no matter what they say about precision strikes. Add to that American reluctance to involve their own blood or treasure in a fight they do not perceive as their own. The tool one wishes would save one’s country or one’s faction may come so late (after the bitter wrangling in U.S. Congress) that one no longer really cares about war’s outcome and only wishes the fighting to stop before everyone is dead. Better not to wish for American military might, for that way lies destruction. Why must we learn this lesson again and again? Because the wise are dead, I suspect. It is painful to contemplate the future when one has no faith in discourse, arms, or aid.

I listened to the Penguin Random House audio production of this book, read by Sunil Malhotra. Malhotra reads slowly enough for us to grasp the complicated connections he relates, and reads the Arabic names with comprehension and precision. Great job on narration.



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4

Jun 04, 2016

OH! ISIS! I thought they were saying Icees, as in...



Well, now that I'm up to speed on radical Islamic terrorism, who wants to invite me over to their bbq, so I can be the life of the party? Cuz nothing says FUN like bringing up politics and religion at a social gathering! Just look how enjoyable Facebook is these days.

All silliness aside, Black Flags is a solid way to understand how ISIS came to be. A good number of pages are also spent on Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, but the real focus is Abu Musab OH! ISIS! I thought they were saying Icees, as in...



Well, now that I'm up to speed on radical Islamic terrorism, who wants to invite me over to their bbq, so I can be the life of the party? Cuz nothing says FUN like bringing up politics and religion at a social gathering! Just look how enjoyable Facebook is these days.

All silliness aside, Black Flags is a solid way to understand how ISIS came to be. A good number of pages are also spent on Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, but the real focus is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the thug turned religious zealot and leader of a violent fundamentalist movement.

Joby Warrick gives the reader plenty of details on Zarqawi's past and what made him who he eventually became. It's not an in-depth character study that a psychologist could publish a paper on, but I certainly know the man much better now than I ever have.

But do I know the real story? I mean, what's Warrick's bias? He's certainly not kind to the Bush administration's handling of terrorism for most of this book and seems to side more with the CIA. And what does Warrick know? He worked for the Washington Post and as far as journalists go he seems to be the one most well-connected to what happened after 9/11. However, even the most well-connected journalist generally isn't going to have intel on the government's secrets and what went on behind the scenes.

As an average-joe-know-nothing, us readers will just have to be satisfied with what we can glean from folks like Warrick. That's not a terrible problem, because this was an enjoyable read and I'm looking forward to moving on to Warrick's next book The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA. ...more
5

Jan 10, 2016

If you are a general reader and want to read one book on the origin of ISIS, look no further.

In telling the story through individuals the book contrasts to others like ISIS: The State of Terror or Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect that are more thorough and focus more on politics and policies. Joby Warrick’s approach, focusing on the key personnel, holds your attention throughout. This book is heavy on the founder, Abu Musab Zarqawi and its beginnings If you are a general reader and want to read one book on the origin of ISIS, look no further.

In telling the story through individuals the book contrasts to others like ISIS: The State of Terror or Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect that are more thorough and focus more on politics and policies. Joby Warrick’s approach, focusing on the key personnel, holds your attention throughout. This book is heavy on the founder, Abu Musab Zarqawi and its beginnings as part of Al Qaeda, where the others focus more on the group as “ISIS” filling the power vacuum in Syria.

Zarqawi is shown through the lens of Jordan’s security agency, Mukhabarat, and Nada Bakos his “targeter” for the US. You see him imprisoned for crimes and terrorist activities. He is interrogated, often, by Mukhabarat. The chaos in Iraq was a perfect opportunity for him but his first operations were directed at Jordan (the Embassy in Iraq, the foiled bombing of Mukhabarat, the wedding in Amman) and the UN. While there were leadership changes, you come to understand the significance of the 2015 capture of Jordan’s pilot.

Jordan’s King Abdullah is shown to have great courage and foresight. He has kept his country free of training camps and “Arab Springs”. He and Mukhabarat not only helped to foil the Millennium Plot, you read of how they stopped a large bombing plan for Amman and how they interrogate effectively. You also appreciate the work of Gen. Stanley McCrystal.

There is a lot on ISIS as a Sunni organization showing how its hatred of the Shia equals that of its hatred of the infidel. The relationship of this group and al Qaeda is clearly shown through excerpts of letters from its highest leadership.

Besides Zarqawi and King Abdullah, there are good portraits of Abu Mohammad Maqdisi (Islamic scholar who tutored Zarqawi in prison), Robert Ford (State Dept. employee who served for at time as Ambassador to Syria), and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (current ISIS leader) and others such as Zaydan a tribal leader. Warrick doesn’t drop them, he follows them through each phase up to the present.

The Epilogue offers some hope. It covers the reaction to the torture, specifically, the burning of the body of the Jordanian pilot, Murah al-Kasasbeh. It outraged even the Wahabi: “Burning is an abominable crime rejected by Islamic law”; “Only god punishes by fire.” At al-Azhar in Cairo the grand imam expelled clerics who advocated violence. Egyptian’s president General, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was applauded by al-Azhar’s clerics when he called for a rethinking of “ideas… sanctified over the course of centuries to the point that challenging them becomes very difficult” and called on the grand imam to “revolutionize our religion” (pp. 311-312).

The book begins with a who’s who list, but the text is so clear, you don’t need it. There are photos of most key players. The index worked for me, but again, text is so clear, I hardly needed it.

This book is a real find for a lay person. Stripped of the details of treaties, conferences and position papers and loaded with human interest you see this organization and how it grew. ...more
5

Oct 09, 2015

If one were to read one book to gain an understanding of how the Islamic State (ISIS) was able to conquer a land mass that is as big as Israel and Lebanon, it should be Joby Warrick’s new monograph, BLACK FLAGS: THE RISE OF ISIS. Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Washington Post writes in a clear style that allows the reader to gain insight and understanding of the many important points he makes. What separates Warrick’s effort from the myriad of works on ISIS that have appeared If one were to read one book to gain an understanding of how the Islamic State (ISIS) was able to conquer a land mass that is as big as Israel and Lebanon, it should be Joby Warrick’s new monograph, BLACK FLAGS: THE RISE OF ISIS. Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Washington Post writes in a clear style that allows the reader to gain insight and understanding of the many important points he makes. What separates Warrick’s effort from the myriad of works on ISIS that have appeared in the last year is the perspective he brings. A major part of the book presents the rise of ISIS from the Jordanian point of view. Concentrating on King Abdullah II of Jordan, the reader is exposed to the inner workings of the Hashemite Kingdom as they try to cope with what is occurring on two sides of their border. The book opens with attempts to negotiate the release of the downed Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasabeh with ISIS, and the plight of Sajida Rishawi, a convicted ISIS terrorist who is facing execution for trying to unleash a horrendous attack in Amman. In the end al-Kasabeh is burned alive, creating revulsion throughout the Muslim world, and Rishawi is executed.

In addition to being led inside the Jordanian national security bureaucracy through the work of Abu Haytham, a senior officer in the Jordanian counterterrorism division; the author concentrates on the role of American Ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford; and Mouazi Moustafa, a Syrian immigrant who became a veteran Capitol Hill staffer who lobbied hard to assist the Syrian people and arm moderate elements who were opposed to Syrian president, Bashir el-Assad in explaining events and policies that evolved before and after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Apart from discussing policy decisions as ISIS develops, Warrick spends the first two-thirds of the book presenting a biography of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi who is credited with creating the foundation of the Islamic State. We meet an uneducated street thug who fought in Afghanistan and was eventually imprisoned in Jordan. Warrick and others point to Zarqawi’s imprisonment as attending “Jihadi University” as many like-minded individuals came together and became radicalized. Further, after the United States invaded Iraq it set up Camp Bucca which will become another branch of the “Jihadi University” as over 26,000 prisoners lived in communal tents according to their own sectarian identification. The result is that the camp created the nucleus of the ISIS leadership as men like the future self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was also in residence.

The author explores the developing story that culminated in Vice President Dick Cheney’s charge that Zarqawi met with Saddam Hussein to discuss access to chemical weapons which was false, but was used as one of the excuses to invade Iraq. Further, Warrick does an excellent job synthesizing the information that reflects the “head in the sand” approach taken by the Bush administration in dealing with post-invasion Iraq. After declaring victory on the USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush faced a developing insurgency by the end of August, 2003 that his administration refused to face up to. This lack of accepting the reality of events in Iraq left a vacuum that allowed Zarqawi to take advantage of and fill. Warrick describes Zarqawi’s approach to the insurgency and his disagreements with Osama Bin-Ladin nicely, and what emerges is a ruthless individual who justifies his murderous action with the cover of his own Koranic interpretation.

Another important perspective that Warrick presents is the analysis offered by Nada Bakos, a CIA operative who became the agencies “targeter” whose function was to concentrate on Zarqawi until the United States killed him. Bakos takes us inside the CIA as they try to develop a coherent strategy to deal with the “Sheik of Slaughterers” as he referred to himself. Warrick also exposes one of the most disturbing aspects of American actions in Iraq. Warrick describes the arrogance and incompetence of Paul Bremer III, the Bush appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004. King Abdullah II had warned the U.S. repeatedly against the invasion of Iraq as well as deBathification of the army, intelligence, and government agencies which were in charge of the country’s infrastructure once the invasion took place. After detailing Zarqawi’s massive plot to set off what would have been a “dirty bomb” in Amman in March, 2004, Abdullah II met with Bremer as Warrick reports, to appeal once again not to deBathize Iraq. Bremer’s reply was brusque, “I know what I am doing. There’s going to be some sort of compensation.” I’ve got it all in hand, thank you very much.” (148)

The last third of the book is devoted to the disintegration of Syria and the opportunity those events presented for ISIS. Warrick dissects Assad’s reaction to the Arab Spring of 2011 and how he hoped to manipulate the rebellion against him by releasing jihadis from Syrian prisons to enhance the revolution against him. This was done to show the west that he was fighting an Islamic insurgency, rather than a civil war. Warrick examines the approach taken by the Obama administration in dealing with Syria and the rise of ISIS. His analysis is not very complementary as he discusses the schisms within the administration as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and CIA head David Petraeus tried to convince the president to provide more than humanitarian aid to moderate elements opposing Assad. Finally, when Assad employs chemical weapons against the rebels, Obama launches an air campaign that is ongoing. The effectiveness of this campaign has been hotly debated and with the Russian entrance into the war to prop up its ally with cruise missiles and bombing runs the situation is growing more precarious each day. Warrick does explain Obama’s thinking throughout the period as he is sorely limited in terms of options with Iran and Russia providing money and weapons to Assad, and the United Nations not an option because of Moscow’s opposition.

Warrick has written an important work as he synthesizes much of the material dealing with Zarqawi and how the Islamic State declared itself a Caliphate in July, 2014. It is clearly written for the lay person and should enhance any reader’s understanding of what is probably the most dangerous situation American foreign policy has faced in decades. After reading this book the reader will wonder what the United States could have done differently based on events, not the partisan harangues that emanate from Congress. It is important for all to pay attention to what is occurring as people in the region wait for the next shoe to drop. One can only feel trepidation for King Abdullah of Jordan as he tries to maneuver his way in a region that is a tinderbox.
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5

Feb 21, 2016

This book describes the rise of ISIS. It is in three sequential parts. The first is the background of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was born in Jordan. At first he was just a common thug and not religious. He was arrested and in prison fell under the spell of Islam and became radicalized. He was released as part of a prisoner exchange, something that happens with regularity in the Middle East.

From there he journeyed to Iraq – this becomes the second part of the book. During the U.S. led invasion of This book describes the rise of ISIS. It is in three sequential parts. The first is the background of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was born in Jordan. At first he was just a common thug and not religious. He was arrested and in prison fell under the spell of Islam and became radicalized. He was released as part of a prisoner exchange, something that happens with regularity in the Middle East.

From there he journeyed to Iraq – this becomes the second part of the book. During the U.S. led invasion of Iraq he became the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi became a very adept organizer – and carried out violent terrorist activities in both Iraq and Jordan (you have only to read of the tragic fate of Nick Berg to see how personally sadistic Zarqawi could be). We also learn much in this book of the intelligence networks of both Jordan and U.S. (CIA) – and how they tracked down terrorist groups. It also appears that the more people (terrorists) they kill in the Middle East the more terrorists they create.

The focus on intelligence groups and there methodology of information gathering was a fault I found in the book in that we are getting a view from the outside. We are not provided with much insight into the recruitment methods of ISIS – except that they are very good at internet advertising. It is still a big question mark as to how their very violent methods (very visible on YouTube, but I would never look at this) are an allure to young men (and some young women) the world over.

The third part is about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who eventually attained the helm of ISIS in Iraq-Syria after the U.S. succeeded in killing Zarqawi. He is attempting to establish a caliphate (a pure Islamic society) not only there but across the world. He is different from bin Laden who was looking to the future; Baghdadi is putting into place an Islamic caliphate now in his occupied areas. Baghdadi is also of a different stripe than Zarqawi, he is a student of the Koran and uses it to justify the violence acts and extreme misogyny that is occurring across ISIS held territory.

This is a depressing book particularly when one reads of the vast private donations of money (page 268-69) that have poured into Bagdadi’s caliphate from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates... It is evident too that this would never have developed without the U.S. invasion of Iraq which took power away from a dictator, leaving nothing but a vacuum in which tribal and religious hatreds (Sunni, Shiite, Kurds...) are now bent on destroying each other with the victors expanding into adjacent territory. For the caliphate death and destruction are justified by citing ancient religious texts interpreted by men who want to return to a life of hundreds of years past.
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4

Aug 27, 2018

Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, explores the origins of ISIS. Beginning in the 1990’s he chronicles the rise of Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq and ends with the Syrian war and the rise of Baghdadi and ISIS. Warrick is a skilled writer making his account very readable and easy to digest. Most of us will remember the major events described. Warrick adds value by connecting them, filling in the gaps, giving us a continuous narrative. We see the stunning appearance of ISIS running Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, explores the origins of ISIS. Beginning in the 1990’s he chronicles the rise of Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq and ends with the Syrian war and the rise of Baghdadi and ISIS. Warrick is a skilled writer making his account very readable and easy to digest. Most of us will remember the major events described. Warrick adds value by connecting them, filling in the gaps, giving us a continuous narrative. We see the stunning appearance of ISIS running rampant over Iraq not as a mysterious force arising from nowhere, but a logical and predictable continuation of the prior decade of terrorist activity. ISIS’s rise was fueled by sectarian division. It was aided by miscalculations and political expediency by American and Arab administrations alike. Below are my notes.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi grew up in Jordan as a local tough, a common criminal. Hoping to change his direction his mother encouraged him to attend an Islamist mosque. He adopted extremist beliefs with fervor. He went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the spring of 1989 arriving just as the Soviet troops left. Instead he fought the Russian backed Afghan government. Gaining four years of combat experience, he became a mujahid or holy warrior. He returned to Jordan in 1993 where he was imprisoned after joining in an aborted terror attack in 1994. After release in 1999 he went back to Afghanistan where he ran a training camp for Al Qaeda and was seriously injured by an American bomb. In 2001 he set up a new training camp separate from Al Qaeda in Iraq. Warrick notes “Zarqawi’s rough character had been thrice remolded: By war, by prison, and by responsibilities of command at the helm of his own Afghan training camp. He had come to regard himself as a leader and a man with a destiny. “

Zarqawi soon found his presence in Iraq elevated by the Bush administration. In their politically driven insistence to link Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein they pointed to Zarqawi as the connection. Colin Powell and administration spokespeople singled him out making him famous and a magnet for terrorists from every corner of the Muslim world. In fact, he had been simply lying low in a remote part of Iraq following his injury in Afghanistan. The Iraqi intelligence service had monitored Zarqawi just like the Americans did but the Iraqis would never cooperate with him. The secular Iraqi government considered Muslim extremists including Zarqawi enemies to be eliminated. But the Bush administration only developed facts that fit their political narrative. Once Saddam was defeated, the Bush administration’s complete lack of planning for governing and security afterwards made Iraq fertile ground for an emboldened Zarqawi and his many new recruits.

Zarqawi captured Nicholas Evan Berg, an innocent American, and personally cut off his head on a video released in May 2004. He made himself a terrorist leader second in fame only to Osama bin Laden. Again notoriety brought him many new recruits. Now Zarqawi became a prime target of the intelligence agencies. In September 2004 after widespread attacks, killings and violence led by Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden endorsed him in a video broadcast over Arabian TV stations proclaiming Zarqawi the “emir of the al-Qaeda for Jihad Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers.” But there was a serious disagreement. Bin-Laden thought it a mistake to go after Shiites, believing Sunni Muslims would not approve of killing and brutalizing fellow Muslims. Zarqawi was not deterred, a narcissist, he was building his own organization, an al-Qaeda 2.0.

In November 2005 Zarqawi finally went too far in a massive bombing of three prominent Jordanian hotels killing scores of innocent Muslims including women and children. Jordanians and many other Sunnis were outraged. This senseless attack led immediately to increased cooperation between Jordan and the U.S. which would eventually result in Zarqawi’s death. But first in February 2006 Zarqawi would bomb an important Shiite monument in Samarra. The bombing led to intense Sunni-Shiite conflict killing over thirteen hundred in the next few days and rekindling widespread sectarian violence. Finally in June 2006 with Jordanian help, the U. S. Special Forces located his safe house, bombed it and killed him.

In the first year after Zarqawi’s death terrorist acts increased in Iraq but then steeply declined through 2010 as beefed up US Special Forces went all out relentlessly pursuing insurgents decimating their ranks, disrupting their plans and diminishing their stature. US forces left Iraq in December 2011 but regime threatening protests in Syria that year created a new crisis. Syrian president Assad decided to create a diversion intended to make Syrians see his administration as necessary to preserve order. He emptied his jails of common criminals excluding protesters but including terrorists. The hardcore insurgents in that release included former members of Zarqawi’s organization and other jihadist groups. They would coalesce around a nascent terrorist organization, ISIS, which already had a new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi had risen as a religious leader of the Islamic State of Iraq which had been formed by Zarqawi’s cohorts following his death.

As the Syrian protests devolved into violence and civil war, ISIS saw an opportunity. ISIS assigned a group named the al-Nusra Front to fight Assad alongside the rebels, except these were jihadists. Other jihadists joined in. Now car bombs, IED’s and suicide bombers were deployed with regularity. Assad’s enemies, many rich and powerful in other Arab countries, financed these Islamic extremists. Extremist groups attracted recruits from Europe and across the Muslim world posing a threat to their home countries when they returned. In April 2013 Baghdadi formally announced on video the formation of ISIS crediting the deceased Zarqawi as the original founder. Like Zarqawi he rebuked al-Qaeda. Baghdadi like Zarqawi demanded extreme violence from his organization which was seen as counterproductive by al-Qaeda. He split from al-Qaeda. Al-Nusra had become more independent and stayed with al-Qaeda splitting from ISIS.

Baghdadi had bold plans for Iraq and Syria. He began by attacking prisons freeing many terrorists who then joined ISIS. ISIS took over city after city making Raqqa in Syria its headquarters in the summer of 2013. ISIS quickly grew to 10,000 fighters. Its success attracted more and more recruits from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. President Obama believed American involvement would make matters worse. This decision left non Islamist groups fighting Assad with no hope of significant outside support. ISIS was further strengthened as the only viable alternative.

Baghdadi began his push into the Iraqi heartland in 2014 capturing Falluja, a city that had cost the US dearly to retake from Zarqawi a decade earlier. ISIS exploited the Sunni-Shiite division receiving significant support from Sunni tribes disgusted with the Shiite led Iraqi government. Iraqi Sunni tribes believed they could trust Baghdadi who also was an Iraqi Sunni. Zarqawi as a Jordanian never elicited that trust. These tribes soon found out their mistake suffering under the brutal excesses of ISIS rule. ISIS went on to take Mosul routing the Iraqi army and threatening Baghdad. ISIS captured vast stores of military equipment, banks filled with cash and revenue producing oil wells. ISIS adopted formal government structures. ISIS in essence now had the caliphate Baghdadi sought to establish.

Warrick’s book was published in 2015 so he leaves us with ISIS at its peak. What would prove to be a major turning point in ISIS’s fate was the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot in a cage. The professionally produced video was seen worldwide, but its impact was greatest in the Islamic world, where it was denounced by all. Now Islamic states turned their guns on ISIS with worldwide support. Just as Zarqawi had gone too far in the Amman, Jordan hotel bombings, so too had Baghdadi with this horrific display of cruelty.
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5

Dec 23, 2016

Excellent history on the rise of ISIS and the US involvement in Iraq. Terrific narrator for the audiobook.

5 out of 5 stars.
3

Sep 30, 2015

I expected more from this book, when I read it. It it bring anything new about Isis.
3

Dec 03, 2016

While I give it props for being written almost as political thriller, I, personally, look for information in my non fiction reads, while here those information could be easily packed on 150 pages. The rest is a dramatised vision of events in Middle East since 1999 till 2015.
I liked it, don't get me wrong but I would so much more prefer it was more analysis of political and social factors, rather than simply giving me the "rambo" narration of those events.
5

Oct 03, 2018

Pultizer Prize for Nonfiction 2016. Warrick has written an excellent account of the rise of radical Islamic movements headed by charismatic leaders—from Osama bin Laden to Abu Musad al-Zarquwi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Osama bin Ladin came from a wealthy family and created al-Qaeda to unify all Muslims (Sunni and Shiite) to fight against western modernism. Abu Musad al-Zarquwi’s movement was shunned by al-Qaeda for a long time. Al-Qaeda was concerned that Zarquwi’s hatred of the Shiite sect and Pultizer Prize for Nonfiction 2016. Warrick has written an excellent account of the rise of radical Islamic movements headed by charismatic leaders—from Osama bin Laden to Abu Musad al-Zarquwi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Osama bin Ladin came from a wealthy family and created al-Qaeda to unify all Muslims (Sunni and Shiite) to fight against western modernism. Abu Musad al-Zarquwi’s movement was shunned by al-Qaeda for a long time. Al-Qaeda was concerned that Zarquwi’s hatred of the Shiite sect and his penchant for sadistic violence would negatively impact Muslim support. (It did!) When Zarquwi was killed by the U.S. in a bombing attack, the intellectual Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed the leadership role for al-Qaeda in Iraq. He used his knowledge of the Quran to advocate for the adoption of an ultraconservative version of the Sunni faith, and continued to pursue sadistic violence in the Zarquwi tradition. He is the leader who envisioned the ISIS caliphate and was largely successful up through 2015.

King Abdullah II of Jordan and Jordan’s Mukhabarat were the most prescient in understanding the ramifications of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the region. The reticence of the Bush Administration to believe American intelligence regarding Iraq’s involvement in 9/11 (none) resulted in the Iraq War without any plan on how to govern the country afterwards. It created a power vacuum that jihadists would ultimately fill.

Indeed, the key learning that I took away from Warrick’s book is that: obtaining quality intelligence is extremely important; administrations need to respect and act on that intelligence regardless of whether it fits in with their preconceived ideas; and that cooperation with other countries and their intelligence services to pursue America’s goals is vital for their eventual success. As for the jihadists, their penchant for ultra bloody violence eventually backfires, causing most Muslims to reject their extremism. Highly recommend. ...more
4

Dec 27, 2015

A thoroughly depressing read for reasons that are all too obvious, but I wanted to improve my understanding of this loathsome organisation.

Despite the upsetting subject matter, this is an absolutely engrossing read, with extensive first hand testimony from former U.S. diplomats, CIA operatives, staff of the Jordanian intelligence service, and Sunni Iraqi tribal leaders who have alternately supported and fought the Islamists. It was depressing to read about how, prior to the Iraq invasion, the A thoroughly depressing read for reasons that are all too obvious, but I wanted to improve my understanding of this loathsome organisation.

Despite the upsetting subject matter, this is an absolutely engrossing read, with extensive first hand testimony from former U.S. diplomats, CIA operatives, staff of the Jordanian intelligence service, and Sunni Iraqi tribal leaders who have alternately supported and fought the Islamists. It was depressing to read about how, prior to the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration exerted constant pressure on the CIA to produce evidence of Saddam's links with Al-Qaeda, that simply didn't exist. Even worse was the almost unbelievable lack of planning for the post invasion governance of Iraq, that created the chaos from which ISIS/ISIL was born. We have of course heard this from other sources, but it is always enlightening to hear it quoted by those who were there, and who have no political axe to grind. (Incidentally this is not to paint Saddam as a good guy. He was a tyrant who in the late 80s was probably guilty of attempting genocide against the Iraqi Kurds, but he was not an Islamist). It was fascinating to read of the tactics of the various diplomatic and intelligence services as they struggled to control the bloodshed.

The last part of the book describes how the Syrian Civil War provided ISIS with a new opportunity. It is this section which underlines the near impossible choices for Western governments in the Middle East. Mr Warrick argues that the situation in Iraq was created by the Western intervention of 2003, and that the situation in Syria was made worse because the West did not intervene. Perhaps Hillary Clinton got nearest to the truth with her comment that in Syria "every option appears worse than the next."

If I have a criticism of the book, it is that it seems to place too much importance on the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, more or less claiming that he singlehandedly created ISIS. I tend to take the view that all political and social movements arise from underlying causes (albeit that their development can be accelerated by the "right" leadership). Indeed at the beginning of the book the author himself highlights a recent historical example of the extremist strain within Islam, of which ISIS is the inheritor. Mr Warrick also describes though, how the unrestrained violence of ISIS has set mainstream Muslims very much against them, even amongst many who originally sympathized with ISIS out of anti-Americanism. If anything offers hope for the future, it is this.

I noticed one error. In referring to the UK Parliament's 2013 rejection of air strikes against the Assad regime, the author described the decision as being taken by a "Tory government." In fact this government was a Tory/Lib Dem coalition and it was the latter party who were solidly against air strikes. Overall though, this is a superbly written and well researched book. ...more
5

Apr 30, 2016

Excellent -- Warrick does not make excuses for the leaders and countries that made mistakes that helped to bring ISIS about as a power in the Middle East. A good introduction to some of the people and issues that continue to keep the Middle East unsettled. He also introduced me to some of the heroes who have and continue to try to combat the violence in the area.
5

Jan 10, 2017

A terrifying account of the development of ISIS from the botched invasion of Iraq.
5

Apr 20, 2015

I, admittedly, did not know much about ISIS before I cracked open BLACK FLAGS. Though I was nervous that most of the book would go completely over my head, I was pleasantly surprised that I too could dive into the world of current Middle Eastern politics with zeal. It is apparent from the start of the book that Joby Warrick is not only an award-winning journalist, but also an engaging and vivacious storyteller. Warrick traces the trajectory of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a political prisoner set free I, admittedly, did not know much about ISIS before I cracked open BLACK FLAGS. Though I was nervous that most of the book would go completely over my head, I was pleasantly surprised that I too could dive into the world of current Middle Eastern politics with zeal. It is apparent from the start of the book that Joby Warrick is not only an award-winning journalist, but also an engaging and vivacious storyteller. Warrick traces the trajectory of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a political prisoner set free when King Abdullah of Jordan took the throne in 1999. From Zarqaqi’s troubled childhood, to his conversion to extremist Islam, to al-Qaeda and eventually the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Warrick highlights key events that have lead to ISIS as we know it today. At once humanizing and informative, BLACK FLAGS is not only accessible to those of us who know just the basics of ISIS, but enlightening to those who follow the news stories closely.
- Sarah E., Doubleday Marketing Department ...more
5

Apr 18, 2016

ISIS is the group that al-Qaeda denounces as extremist. It's not a fun or funny topic. However, I do appreciate this black flag:
ISIS dildo merch available at http://www.paulcoombs.co.uk/

Black Flags methodically lays out the background and rise of what we now know as ISIS, or the Islamic State. It's not because Islam is a flawed religion. It's not because Middle Eastern cultures are flawed. Much of the blame points back at American arrogance and thoughtlessness, in particular the decision to ISIS is the group that al-Qaeda denounces as extremist. It's not a fun or funny topic. However, I do appreciate this black flag:
ISIS dildo merch available at http://www.paulcoombs.co.uk/

Black Flags methodically lays out the background and rise of what we now know as ISIS, or the Islamic State. It's not because Islam is a flawed religion. It's not because Middle Eastern cultures are flawed. Much of the blame points back at American arrogance and thoughtlessness, in particular the decision to take on regime change and nation building in Iraq. The author makes the case that ISIS emerged from AQI lead by Jordanian al Zarqawi and a post invasion Iraq with all the American foibles created a fertile breeding ground for such a movement.

The first two thirds of the book covered al Zarqawi's background, the US invasion of Iraq, the subsequent insurgency and Zarqawi's death in 2006. The last third covers the "Arab Spring", Syria and the emergence of the ISIS brand. Unfortunately the ending is somewhat arbitrary as the story of ISIS is an ongoing one. Such is the case with books that feature current events. It does however give an excellent historical perspective of the past 15-20 years, and hopefully someday soon we will be able to read a true post-game analysis by this author. In the mean time, I will seek out his work at the Washington Post and other news outlets.

If you really want to understand how such a thing as ISIS can even exist, this is the book to read.

2016 reading challenge checks the box for 13. A non-fiction book you learn something new from (include self-help). I learned a fuckton from this book.

Thanks to Vivian and Emma for the cute-therapy they provided to counter program this difficult subject matter.
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3

Aug 20, 2019

Black Flags is a series of personality sketches rather than an explanation for the emergence of Daesh. It is crafted on interviews rather than analysis. As most of the reviewers here have established, there isn't much of revelation in these pages just personal detail. An arc is established from Al-Zarquai through the 2003 Iraq invasion and the failure of the CPA. The exploitation of sectarian divide leads to civil war which is then exploited by Gulf State petrol-cash and Shiite vengeance. Black Flags is a series of personality sketches rather than an explanation for the emergence of Daesh. It is crafted on interviews rather than analysis. As most of the reviewers here have established, there isn't much of revelation in these pages just personal detail. An arc is established from Al-Zarquai through the 2003 Iraq invasion and the failure of the CPA. The exploitation of sectarian divide leads to civil war which is then exploited by Gulf State petrol-cash and Shiite vengeance. Matters escalate and soon we have a Syrian conflict and a US president who won't contribute to another regional war. Thousands flock to the caliphate and then return home with sinister skill sets. I was disappointed and was expecting something with more rigor. As to journalists, one would be better served reading Robert Fisk or Thomas Ricks. I'd say an accurate rating would be closer to 2.2 ...more
5

Jun 08, 2018

Let’s be real here, I was pretty woefully ignorant about a lot of the information in this book. I understood the basic concept of the organizations and major players here, but that was about it. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State— how do they relate to each other? Do they even all relate?

For the rest of the review, I’ll refer to the group as ISIS for reasons discussed here and here.

This book is epically readable— like a Let’s be real here, I was pretty woefully ignorant about a lot of the information in this book. I understood the basic concept of the organizations and major players here, but that was about it. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State— how do they relate to each other? Do they even all relate?

For the rest of the review, I’ll refer to the group as ISIS for reasons discussed here and here.

This book is epically readable— like a novel, with a plot and well-crafted characters. Magically easy to follow who’s who and what’s what.

--------------THE BEGINNING: ZARQAWI--------------

In the country of Jordan brewed the stirrings of what would become ISIS (or ISIL).

[Jordan, by the way, is super awesome— unusually peaceful, accepting of all religions, a deeply beloved but moderate monarchy, and some of the highest literacy rates in the world. Plus they accept more refugees than they realistically can handle and they’re basically just a little pocket of happy tucked in the Middle East. Here's a video of the Jordanian king digging a car out of the snow ].

According to Sabha, the prison doctor, it all began when a man named Maqdisi was locked up in a desert prison, along with a man referred to as al-Gharib (The Stranger), who later became known as al-Zarqawi (“the one who comes from Zarqa,” the Jordanian town where he grew up). Maqdisi was an intellectual, a well-known writer and extremist Islamic philosopher/theologian.

Maqdisi became a leader in the prison, and appointed Zarqawi his enforcer. Zarqawi, once a generic, nonreligious street thug (and a super duper mama’s boy), became a devoted extremist upon his return from fighting to defend the Afghans from Soviet invasion. That extremism blossomed in prison. He gradually gained popularity until he himself was the leader, over Maqdisi.

Previously, the king of Jordan was Hussein, but in 1999, Hussein passed away and his son, Abdullah, became king. As part of a Jordanian tradition where new kings pardon non-violent political prisoners (the idea is for the country to begin with a clean slate), King Abdullah was given a list of prisoners by Parliament who were appropriate prisoners to pardon. One of them was Zarqawi. With his record of extremist beliefs, he never should have been included, but that information slipped through the cracks. So, along with the thousands of other names on the list, Abdullah pardoned Zarqawi.

Zarqawi quickly got involved in terrorist activities, eventually linking up with an old war buddy, Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan. Although Zarqawi was too opinionated for al-Qaeda to ask to him to join just yet, they funded a training camp for him to train Levantine (from the Levant, e.g. Syria, Jordan, etc.) radical Islamists and see how he did.

Well, he did pretty well, but then 9/11 happened and Afghanistan, then in control of the al-Qaeda supporting Taliban government, was invaded by the US. Zarqawi took his training campers and split to a remote corner of Iraq, of which Saddam Hussein was then president.

That raised some questions in Washington. If Zarqawi is a friend of al-Qaeda, and was hiding in Iraq, maybe Saddam Hussein was a supporter of al-Qaeda. (Only, Hussein wasn’t really religious at all. For the most part, he was only religious so far as he needed to be for optics purposes). Maybe that would mean the US could justifiably invade Iraq.

Colin Powell’s speech articulating this (spinning the facts horribly; i.e. “Zarqawi was hiding in a remote corner of Iraq that the Iraqi military had no control over” became “Iraq is harboring Zarqawi.” While technically true, it implies consent and protection that just weren’t the reality) did the worst possible thing: it made Zarqawi a celebrity for the first time. Jordan had been working hard to keep Zarqawi on a tight leash— only to see America let him out.

Battikhi, the chief of the Mukhabarat (the Jordan intelligence agency), shouted “This is bullshit!” at the screen as the speech played.

After the invasion, the US government fired all of the Baath party, who were the party of Saddam Hussein. However, this meant there was no government, which means lots of crime and a lot of poverty. And a lot of unemployed angry powerful people, who in the absence of jobs, turned to Zarqawi for work.

Some context: Now, Jordan is mostly Sunni Muslims, like Zarqawi (he hated Shiites). Iraq was mostly Shiite Muslims. Saudi Arabia (home of Osama bin Laden) is also predominantly Sunni. But unlike Zarqawi, bin Laden was opposed to killing Shiites and believing in unifying all Muslims.

Back to the timeline.

In 2002, journalist Daniel Pearl is murdered by al-Qaeda, decapitated on a video.

In 2004, the young Nick Berg, who was traveling around Iraq working on a startup project of his, was similarly decapitated on video, this time by a group that called themselves Unity and Jihad, led by Zarqawi. Kind of an imitation of the Daniel Pearl video.

In 2006, Zarqawi is killed by US forces. Paving the way for chapter two of the organization.

--------------------PART TWO: BAGHDADI--------------------

The man known as al-Baghdadi was a quiet intellectual, whose early life didn't give any signs that he would later take up Zarqawi's mantle as jihadist leader extraordinaire. In 2003, he joined a small resistance movement and was arrested and placed at Camp Bucca- later, this would be referred to as "jihadi university." It housed the moderates and extremists together indiscriminately, and in doing so fueled the ranks.

As one of the few in the prison camp to know classical Arabic and Koranic interpretation, al-Baghdadi was popular and gained friends, but was released a year later after a determination that the professorial prisoner posed little threat. (That worked out well).

After Zarqawi's death, Baghdadi worked his way up through the ranks quickly because of his solid pedigree and learning, eventually being appointed the top sharia official for the Islamic State, as they called themselves now- basically making him the 3rd ranked official for the entire organization.

When the #1 and #2 guys died, he was promoted to the head of the Islamic State.

And that pretty much brings us up to present day. Al-Baghdadi is still the leader of ISIS.

Whew. Never thought such a convoluted history could be so damn interesting to read.
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5

Dec 13, 2016

My extended essay students are writing papers on terrorism and I know little on the subject. This book gives excellent background knowledge on the rise of modern terrorism in the Middle East. When Saddam Hussein's reign ended in Iraq, it created unique opportunities for terrorists. Through various misfortunes and missteps by the Western governments, the beginning of modern terrorism took root in Iraq with the brilliant strategist and thug, leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who took advantage of My extended essay students are writing papers on terrorism and I know little on the subject. This book gives excellent background knowledge on the rise of modern terrorism in the Middle East. When Saddam Hussein's reign ended in Iraq, it created unique opportunities for terrorists. Through various misfortunes and missteps by the Western governments, the beginning of modern terrorism took root in Iraq with the brilliant strategist and thug, leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who took advantage of opportunities that began in Jordan. This book dramatically unfolds the complexities of tribal cultures, interpretations of Islam, and differences among clans that gave rise to terrorism in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq, later ISIS, and its relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and the al-Nusra Front.

The engrossing narrative is depressing and fascinating as it reveals the desire for ISIS to establish an Islamic state led by a caliph. The first caliphs, viewed as descendants of the Prophet Mohammad, ruled from Damascus and Bagdad. The Ottoman caliphate replaced them in Istanbul expanding the Islamic Empire. The Turkish conquerors allowed the Sharif of Mecca or a Hashemite Emir (descendant of the Prophet Mohammad) to control Holy sites in Mecca for hundreds of years. Jordan's King Hussein's great-grandfather, Emir, teamed with Britain and Western Allies to successfully drive out the collapsing Turkish empire in 1916, and create an independent Arab-Islamic nation called, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Enemies of the new state were the nomadic Ikhwan tribesmen who invaded Jordan in the 1920's and Palestinian militants that attacked in the 1960's. The latter militants were driven out into Syria and Libya. Eighteen times King Hussein's enemies tried to assassinate him. The Jordan intelligence community worked to contain militant threats and the government worked with moderate Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood to maintain stability in the country and keep extremists at bay.

When King Hussein died of natural causes, his son came to power in 1999 and allowed the tradition of granting amnesty to political and nonviolent criminals in prison. The practice ensured loyalty from those in Parliment such as moderate Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. It was under these circumstances that Jordan released Zarqawi and other extremists taking advantage of Abdullah, the inexperienced new king. Zarqawi interpreted jihad in a whole new way and introduced Internet violence, brilliantly exploiting tribal differences between Sunnis, Shiites, and other tribes. While he had initial support, his brutality against innocent people eventually isolated him.

The book reveals Jordan's secret service and how it worked differently than US intelligence being more effective because of its cultural understandings and connections. As an expat, I've made so many cultural mistakes by filtering the world through my culture's perspective. The US showed an arrogance due to not listening to those that new tribal cultures better than them. The few voices that tried to be heard and had wise advice were ignored by those in power. This book is a good reminder of qualities that make a wise leader and how difficult it is to make decisions in complex situations. Another part of the book shows how the US and Arab prisons that held extremists actually helped unite different terrorist groups in the quest for a caliphate by bringing them all together in one location.

When ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in Mosul, Iraq, it conquered the second largest city. ISIS raided Mosul's government treasuries giving the rebels millions of dollars to fund their operations of expanding to other territories. The rebels had superior technology with more machine guns and explosives as compared to Iraq's army allowing for a quick downfall of Mosul. Their leader, Baghdadi, is a religious scholar who declared himself caliph. The Muslim world questions this claim as his violence is even more extreme than Zarqawi's. The partnerships formed by Arab and Western governments to fight ISIS shows that most Muslim's do not recognize ISIS. While I'm just a newbie on this topic, this is a great start to gaining some knowledge and understanding on the issue.
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5

Feb 02, 2016

A difficult read, but very engaging despite the amount of information being given. Five stars because I feel like I learned a lot and I'm not sure how it could have been done better. I liked the way the author uses characters to drive the "story" forward and give different perspectives. It kept things human and easier to grasp.

My main take away was how frustrating the rise of ISIS is, though. Incredibly hard to see all the missteps and oversights that led to so much continuing violence, though A difficult read, but very engaging despite the amount of information being given. Five stars because I feel like I learned a lot and I'm not sure how it could have been done better. I liked the way the author uses characters to drive the "story" forward and give different perspectives. It kept things human and easier to grasp.

My main take away was how frustrating the rise of ISIS is, though. Incredibly hard to see all the missteps and oversights that led to so much continuing violence, though I'm sure without hindsight some of them were more reasonable. Makes you think hard about the right/ effective ways to fight extremism in all its forms. ...more
4

May 05, 2016

Black Flags is a chilling, well written examination of the events that led to the formation of ISIS. Warrick identifies a number of factors that assisted ISIS’ rise, including repressive Arab regimes, conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and U.S. interventionism in the Middle East.

This was a very strong read. Despite its disturbing subject matter, the book was extremely engaging, consistently interesting, and highly informative. Warrick (a journalist by trade) has a gift for narrative Black Flags is a chilling, well written examination of the events that led to the formation of ISIS. Warrick identifies a number of factors that assisted ISIS’ rise, including repressive Arab regimes, conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and U.S. interventionism in the Middle East.

This was a very strong read. Despite its disturbing subject matter, the book was extremely engaging, consistently interesting, and highly informative. Warrick (a journalist by trade) has a gift for narrative nonfiction, and Black Flags was never boring at any point – at times it was hard to put down. Despite dealing with some complex subjects (Sunni/Shia conflict, Middle Eastern politics, etc.), Warrick doesn’t lose the reader. I would definitely pick up something by this author in the future.

One quibble: the structure of the book felt just a bit off. A disproportionate percentage of this book is focused on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the key figures in the escalation of Islamic extremism and, by extension, the rise of ISIS. This emphasis gives the book a character-driven feel, which has its advantages (readability, etc.). But the book ended up feeling like it was as much about Zarqawi’s life story as about the actual birth of ISIS, which is crammed into the last 20% of the text. The book actually has precious little information about conditions on the ground in ISIS controlled territory today, although as its focus was on the rise of the Islamic state this could be intentional.

That said, the positives certainly outweigh the negatives here, and this is a book well-worth reading. Readers should be warned that this book describes some brutal and inhumane acts performed by ISIS and its agents; after all, ISIS is a brutal and inhumane entity that is about as close to true evil as one can find in the world today. One important point which I am glad that Warrick stressed towards the end is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims – like the vast majority of non-Muslims – are appalled by the policies and actions of the Islamic State, which have been broadly rejected as non-Muslim. After finishing this book, it is easy to see why. 4.5 stars, highly recommended. ...more
4

Dec 03, 2017

This review and others can be found on BW Book Reviews.

This year, I've been educating myself a lot about politics and, really, terrorism. I mean, it's something that we should think about. Domestic and foreign when it impacts America. This book takes place within my lifetime, so I feel like I should know about how the current affairs got created. I thought this book was very succinct and a bit critical of America.

Mainly, this book is very easy and clear to read. Despite not being good at foreign This review and others can be found on BW Book Reviews.

This year, I've been educating myself a lot about politics and, really, terrorism. I mean, it's something that we should think about. Domestic and foreign when it impacts America. This book takes place within my lifetime, so I feel like I should know about how the current affairs got created. I thought this book was very succinct and a bit critical of America.

Mainly, this book is very easy and clear to read. Despite not being good at foreign names, I didn't get many mixed up and the author constantly reminded me of who people were so I didn't feel like I lost anything. There were multiple viewpoints of this book so I felt like I got the full scope of things, from American and Middle Eastern perspectives.

Moreover, this book does have an anti-Bush bias. While I do have that same bias myself -- I like him far more out of his presidency than when he was in it -- I think that it's important that he honestly thought he was doing the best he could. We can be critical, yes, but we still have to consider that he was being given biased information that led him to make those decisions, as this book discussed.

Another important thing this book does is tell us where and why al-Qaeda and ISIS diverged. I came into this knowing that they did, but I wasn't sure why it was since, to me, they basically do the same sort of thing. Bomb innocent people. Hate the people who don't think like them and have been "Westernized". Etc.

I'd definitely recommend this book to people who want to know the history of this issue. ...more
4

Jan 21, 2016

(4.5/5.0) Fascinating book. Amazing how deep the author goes in tracing the rise of ISIS. Impressive, given the dark nature of the subject and what I'd imagine would be very hard to get intelligence. Painful to relive the blunders of U.S. foreign policy during this time.

Would definitely recommend.
3

Jul 29, 2016

This is not a personally reflective book on how ISIS came to be, but more a factual one, as reported by a "western" journalist. With that in the bag, I think the book is notable for its critique directed towards the USA and other countries as well, and makes valid points.

Rami Khouri, noted journalist with deep insight into ISIS, calls them a Salafist takfiri extremist group. Salafist refers to a muslim who wants to go back to the old, literal way of Islam, takfiri refers to a Sunni way of This is not a personally reflective book on how ISIS came to be, but more a factual one, as reported by a "western" journalist. With that in the bag, I think the book is notable for its critique directed towards the USA and other countries as well, and makes valid points.

Rami Khouri, noted journalist with deep insight into ISIS, calls them a Salafist takfiri extremist group. Salafist refers to a muslim who wants to go back to the old, literal way of Islam, takfiri refers to a Sunni way of pointing out apostasy where they see it, and extremist as in, yeah, being extreme. And that's what ISIS is. I define this to point out that ISIS is neither a common-day group nor one that has been welcomed much, anywhere; one could compare ISIS with the German terrorist group named RAF: while some people liked them just because they were against oppressors, most people firmly denounced them following their bombings, et cetera.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is by many considered to be the modern father of ISIS, active before ISIS - also known as IS, ISIL and Daesh -started. Was he a mastermind to begin with? People that I usually speak with neither know much of ISIS nor more of them other than their extreme videos that they have heard of. Here's a quote on Zarqawi from the book:

Such hallmarks, like the voice on the audio recording, unmistakably belonged to Zarqawi, a man the Mukhabarat knew exceptionally well. He was, at the time of the bombing, the head of a particularly vicious terrorist network called al-Qaeda in Iraq. But the Jordanians had known him back in the days when he was Ahmad the hoodlum, a high school dropout with a reputation as a heavy drinker and a brawler. They had watched him wander off to Afghanistan in the late 1980s to fight the communists, then return as a battle-hardened religious fanatic. After a first try at terrorism, he had vanished into one of Jordan’s darkest prisons. This time he emerged as a battle-hardened religious fanatic who also happened to excel as a leader of men.

ISIS is, naturally, not alone in this sense. For example, Putin is a former cocaine addict and Obama is - by US definitions - one of the most fervent terrorist leaders of all time, as his drone-driven global assassination program is, by far, the world's greatest terrorist campaign.

The book does well with examining differences between ISIS and other groups, for example al-Qaeda:

Osama bin Laden had sought to liberate Muslim nations gradually from corrupting Western influences so they could someday unify as a single Islamic theocracy, or caliphate. Zarqawi, by contrast, insisted that he would create his caliphate immediately—right now. He would seek to usher in God’s kingdom on Earth through acts of unthinkable savagery, believing, correctly, that theatrical displays of extreme violence would attract the most hardened jihadists to his cause and frighten everyone else into submission.

It's interesting to see how the book handles Obama's (and previous American presidents') views on ISIS and other terrorist organisations, as the USA deems Saudi Arabia to be one of their closest allies. "During previous visits, President Obama had declined Jordan’s requests for laser-guided munitions and other advanced hardware that could take out ISIS’s trucks and tanks." Also, on how Obama met with the ruler of Jordan: "Inside the Oval Office, Obama offered condolences to the pilot’s family and thanked the king for Jordan’s contributions to the military campaign against ISIS. The administration was doing all it could to be supportive, the president assured the monarch. “No, sir, you are not,” Abdullah said, firmly."

The book basically treats the spawning of ISIS quite well, I think. Most international scholars agree that ISIS came about through the so-called anti-terrorist campaigns, notably the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and also recognise them as terror-generating campaigns at the same time. As Janine di Giovanni notes in her excellent 2016 book named "The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches From Syria", the way the "allied" forces have left places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq merely strengthens the extremist groups that are against the allied, which makes for a perfect growing ground for them.

Before the foundation of ISIS, however, Zarqawi built his own vicious army based on little else than hate and principles, wanting to build a caliphate at once, not seldom resulting in tragicomedy:

Their efforts at jihad in Jordan had been anything but glorious. The leaders of Maqdisi’s small band had been arrested before they could carry out their first operation, a planned attack on an Israeli border post. The other groups’ targets had consisted of small-time symbols of Western corruption, from liquor stores to video shops and pornographic movie houses. One of the early attempts at a bombing had been a spectacular failure: A member of the group had volunteered to plant explosives inside a local adult cinema called the Salwa. After a few minutes in the theater, the would-be assailant had become so engrossed in the film that he forgot about his bomb. As he sat, glued to the screen, the device detonated under his feet. No patrons were hurt, but the bomber lost both his legs. Six years later, the double-amputee was among Sabha’s charges at al-Jafr Prison. The doctor had noticed him on his first visit, propped up on his bunk, his pant legs neatly pinned at the knee.

I think the book suffers some due to it being quite black-and-white, and to me, it seems the author hasn't performed any in-depth interviews with people. There are a bunch of detailed descriptions on what goes down in quite a few of the infamous ISIS execution videos, and only where famous western (mainly American) persons are featured.

There are quotes from high-ranking American military officers, but severely lacking of interviews with people on the ground, notably civilians who have lived through it all.

Still, the style of writing is simple and allows for a not-too-gung-ho run-through of events.

How did Zarqawi gain global notoriety? The US gave it to him:

The world’s introduction to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi came on February 5, 2003, in the sixty-first minute of Colin Powell’s speech to the UN Security Council making the case for war against Iraq. It began with a declarative sentence that, like many others in the seventy-five-minute presentation, was technically true but widely off the mark. “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants,” Powell began, just before Zarqawi’s bearded image appeared on a large screen behind the council’s circular table. Nada Bakos, watching on a TV monitor at work, heard the line and cringed. Yes, Zarqawi lived in the remote mountains of northeastern Iraq—in an area off limits to Iraq’s military. To suggest that Saddam Hussein was providing sanctuary to him was contrary to everything that Bakos, the Zarqawi expert, knew to be true. It was like claiming that America’s twenty-second president, Grover Cleveland, had “harbored” Geronimo, the famed Apache chieftain of the frontier West who attacked settlers and Blue Coats from his base along the U.S.-Mexican border.

[...]

“Iraqi officials protest that they are not aware of the whereabouts of Zarqawi or of any of his associates,” Powell said. “Again, these protests are not credible. We know of Zarqawi’s activities in Baghdad.” The assertions were coming faster than Bakos could mentally counter them. It was becoming painful. This was not how intelligence analysis was supposed to work. When Cheney had made similar claims on Sunday talk shows, Bakos often found herself yelling at the television screen, as though she were contesting a referee’s blown call in a football game. Now Powell, like Cheney, was “asserting to the public as fact something that we found to be anything but,” she later said. Ultimately, the speech would tarnish Powell’s reputation and further undermine the credibility of the Bush administration with key allies, particularly after claims that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction turned out to be false.

[...]

It was one of the great ironies of the age, Abu Hanieh said. In deciding to use the unsung Zarqawi as an excuse for launching a new front in the war against terrorism, the White House had managed to launch the career of one of the century’s great terrorists.

There's a good bit in the book on how come the USA took quite some time to act, when George W. Bush was in charge:

“There was a firestorm,” recalled Richer, who retired from the agency in 2005. “The CIA is saying that an insurgency is developing, and now the White House is pissed off.” In effect, he said, two versions of reality were colliding in Iraq: the one witnessed by the agency’s spies, and another that sought to reinforce the message communicated so dramatically by Bush in May on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. “The problem for the White House,” Richer said, “was that the president had just landed on a ship to say that we had won.”

The situation on the CIA and military side of things, for the Americans, was dire:

If Abu Musab al-Zarqawi could have dictated a U.S. strategy for Iraq that suited his own designs for building a terrorist network, he could hardly have come up with one that surpassed what the Americans themselves put in place over the spring and summer of 2003. Countless articles and books have documented the Bush administration’s missteps, from the refusal to halt massive looting after the invasion to the wholesale dismantling of the Iraqi military and security structure by Bremer’s CPA. But no Americans appreciated the magnitude of the blunders more than the intelligence officers and U.S. diplomats in Iraq who were watching Zarqawi’s organization gain momentum. Years later, CIA officials who were brought into the final planning for the March 2003 invasion expressed astonishment at the lack of forethought on how the country would be managed after Saddam Hussein’s deposal. Junior officers were pressed into service at the eleventh hour to draft papers on possible risks U.S. soldiers could face in attempting to preserve order in occupied Iraq. But by then it was already too late to affect the outcome. “Right before the invasion, I asked the Pentagon, ‘Is anyone writing policy on force protection?’ The answer was no, so I said I’d do it,” said one former CIA analyst who was enlisted to help. “I was doing military analysis because they had literally no one doing it on the inside.”

There's remarkable information describing how takfiri took over places and tried to apply their way of life:

Shopkeepers who tried to stay open found themselves subjected to arbitrary and occasionally bizarre regulations. In some neighborhoods, grocers were threatened with punishment if they displayed cucumbers and tomatoes in the same stall. The jihadists maintained that the vegetables resembled male and female body parts and should not be permitted to mingle.

After a while, most muslims from the Islamic world came together to denounce the takfiris:

It was the first time scholars and religious leaders from across the Islamic world had come together to denounce takfiri ideology collectively, in a consensus statement considered legally binding for observant Muslims. No one expected an immediate halt to the bloodshed in Iraq, and, indeed, the killings continued as before. Yet Abdullah, reflecting on the effort afterward, said there had been no choice but to speak out. Even though Zarqawi might be fighting Americans and Shiites, his chief targets were ultimately the minds of young Muslims he hoped to win to his cause. Each bombing shown on the nightly news, each grotesque video uploaded to the Internet, brought Zarqawi closer to his goal. And until now, the rest of the Muslim world had offered nothing substantial in reply. “The ability of a few extremists to influence perceptions through acts of barbarity places greater responsibility on the moderates, of all religions, to speak up,” the king said. “If the majority remains silent, the extremists will dominate the debate.”

The book naturally reaches beyond Zarqawi, and into the formation of ISIS, into 2015. The author thinks that the collapse of Syria sparked the resurgence of the takfiris that formed ISIS:

The group was nearly broke. It had lost its sanctuary and freedom of movement, so essential for communication, training, and resupply. And it was selling an ideology that the Muslim world seemed no longer to care for. Five years after Zarqawi’s death, the Islamic State of Iraq had become the thing that terrorist organizations fear even more than their own annihilation. It had become irrelevant.

The jihadists’ new chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was a man of soaring ambitions, but in late 2011, well into his second year as leader, his boasts were as empty as the group’s coffers. The Islamic State of Iraq lacked resources, fighters, and sanctuary. And, perhaps most critically, it lacked a cause—a single big idea with which it could rally its depleted forces and draw other Muslims into the fold. Soon, within the chaos of revolutionary Syria, it would find all four.

On April 9, 2013, Baghdadi posted a twenty-one-minute audio message on Islamist Web sites, announcing a major corporate restructuring. Officially banished, Baghdadi said, was the group known as the al-Nusra Front. In its place was a newly merged organization that Baghdadi called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The latter word, roughly synonymous with the English term “Levant,” referred to the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, from southern Turkey through present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. English-speakers would know the new organization as ISIL, or ISIS.

Even though Baghdadi obviously learned from many of the mistakes made by Zarqawi, what squelched support for ISIS to a large extent - notably when al-Quaeda denounced them in 2014 - he did not learn that while extreme violence lures some people to their fray, it repels most.

All in all, this book is well-written and a good way to learn of ISIS. It's bloody, but then, this is to be expected when dealing with ISIS on any level. ...more
4

Jun 19, 2019

SUPER FAST REVIEW:
Pretty good but definitely feels like a nonfiction book in it’s pace.
That being said it’s still interesting, informative and gives the information in a way that tells the reader everything in a nice order.
Recommended.

4/5

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