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Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby…

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS (2015)

by Joby Warrick

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Joby Warrick's Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS makes a complicated mess easier to understand. Readable and accessible to anyone with an interest in how we ended up with ISIS, his Pulitzer prize winning narrative of the rise of the terrorist cum state of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq is a must-read.

If there's anything I know about the politics of the Middle East, it's that it's bloody, and it almost always has been (go check out Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem: A Biography for a fascinating, if relatively brief, history of that piece of the Middle East). After centuries--nay, millennia--of war between various international interlopers, small-time despots, and religious zealots, recent years have seen the rise of ISIS, something more than just another political movement in the vein of the Palestinian Liberation Organization or a terrorist organization like Al Qaeda.

No, ISIS is something else, something more dangerous, a boogeyman that is every bit as malignant for the chaos it breeds as for the violence it intentionally perpetuates.

That ISIS holds itself out as a state, controls territory, and was born of the mistakes during the early days of the invasion of Iraq only complicates the world's response. More clearly, it complicates the United States' response. On the heels of an invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, American response is handicapped. But perhaps that is another story.

This story, though, is not about the impact those invasions have had on America's influence on the world. Rather, this is a narrative about the individuals that turned the quagmire of Iraq into the quagmire of ISIS. Primarily, it's the story of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who rose from street thug to a terrorist mastermind who turned the Iraq insurgency against the US into a Shia-Sunni civil war. Although he ostensibly gave his due respects to bin Laden as the senior leader, al-Zarqawi eventually competed with Osama bin Laden for the top place on the US Most Wanted list and became known for his brutality and ability to turn terrorism into propaganda. Even after his kill by US Special Forces in 2006, al-Zarqawi continued to influence others. The chaos in the Syrian civil war gave space to his followers, and as the country digressed into deeper instability gave breathing room to extremists seeking their own Islamic-based state. Al Qaeda in Iraq soon becomes the Islamic State in Iraq, controlling massive assets of oil and the innocent people caught up in the crossfire.

Joby Warrick's narrative is fascinating, carefully told to build a story accessible to the lay reader and more informed alike. Warrick never lets the story lag or falter with the minutia of Middle East politics. He builds his characters with portraits that are descriptive and clear and brings life to a story that is for most Americans no more than fear inducing headlines. It makes for good reading, and it left me feeling like I understood what had happened and where ISIS had come from. I don't know that it makes solutions any more obvious than before, but it does help to explain why solutions for stopping ISIS, or for bringing peace to the Middle East, are not easy. Warrick's writing, however, makes the story seem effortless, and an easy choice for winning a Pulitzer. ( )
1 vote publiusdb | Jan 10, 2017 |
A wonderfully well researched book about the infancy, growth and maturity of ISIS. The two major players are Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (early period) and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (recent years). These men are masters of violence and for running their organizations in areas of the middle east that are outside government control in countries like Syria and Iraq. Before reading this book I was somewhat knowledgeable about ISIS. But, this book is a wealth of information and I feel much better informed including America's missteps over the years. A must read for a true grasp of terrorism. ( )
  muddyboy | Dec 14, 2016 |
In 1999, a very dangerous man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was released from prison unintentionally when Jordan granted amnesty to a group of political prisoners. When he was released, he began a crusade to rid the Middle East of Western influence using terrorism and media manipulation. His type of terrorism went beyond mass killings using bombs. He beheaded people on camera and broadcast it to the world.

The reasons Zarqawi became who he was are complex. He was born in Jordan to a large family. When he was a young man, he went to Afghanistan to fight. This is where his religious education began after meeting Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a militant cleric. When he returned to Jordan, he was profoundly disappointed to learn that Jordan was in peace negotiations with Israel. He began connecting with others who held similar views, and they formed a group bent on terrorism. He was imprisoned in 1994.

While in prison, he was a man of influence. He worked with Maqdisi to convert others to their cause. When they were released, they were ready for a fight. Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan where he met Osama bin Laden. They deeply disliked each other, but bin Laden was persuaded to give Zarqawi some funds for his cause. Zarqawi began building an army.

Zarqawi’s forces did not join with al-Qaeda until the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. forces in 2001. Soon he left Afghanistan and entered Iran where he continued to expand his enterprise. Only three months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Zarqawi moved there where he continued his attacks as well as video recording murders of civilians.

Zarqawi also had many enemies in the Islamic world who upbraided his tactics as well as his ideology. Unfortunately, he was a master at recruiting men, often uneducated and poor, into his service. He died in an airstrike in 2006, but his movement lived on.

The group that was left became ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, eventually led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS began a campaign of driving government forces out of Iraqi cities and taking over. When civil war broke out in Syria, Baghdadi made his move by sending troops into Syria to recruit fighters and establish cells full of people who wanted to see Bashar al-Assad removed from power.

As I write, the Middle East remains in a struggle to stabilize. Who will be victorious remains to be seen, but I find it difficult to believe that those bent on terror and hatred will win in the end. Or perhaps there is no end and all is cyclical and all we have left is to wait it out.

It cannot be understated that the rise of ISIS is also intensely tied to actions of Western governments, particularly the United States. The U.S. and other Western nations have long histories with the Middle East and have contributed much to the weaponization of groups over the years. That paired with inconsistent follow through in helping to establish governments that can withstand invasions from militant armies have led to the current situation.

I learned a tremendous amount of information from reading this book. Failing to understand fully and take into account differing world views and conflicting agendas causes angst the world over. Civil discord cannot be ignored and a hard look at the reasons for discord cannot be neglected. ISIS is just the newest kid on the block in a long human history of groups vying for control.
  Carlie | Nov 4, 2016 |
Another excellent historical book by Joby Warrick. The author meticulously researched how ISIS had it's beginnings and takes us forward to a year or two ago. There is plenty of material here to attach blame to many different people. It is not a hit piece on George W. Bush, on Barack Obama or others. What I found interesting was how Jordan's King Hussein was spot on in his predictions of what could happen in the Middle East if things weren't "handled" properly.

Of course, hind sight is always 20/20. It is simple enough, with sufficient research to point out that if people or governments had taken a different action, current events might be different, for better or worse. But, what the author did not do (and you can certainly have differing opinions on whether authors should or should not do this in non-fiction), is include a lot of the context of the events occurring during the time that ISIS arose. Missing is the context that we were under massive terrorist threats after 9/11. Tremendous fear existed that we were targeted for massive terrorism in the homeland.

What the US and other governments did in the Middle East after 9/11 can easily be compared to what Roosevelt did with interning US citizens of Japanese descent in America after Pearl Harbor. If you speak with people that lived through December 7, 1941, many will still insist that in the context of the period, Roosevelt's action was completely appropriate, despite no evidence it was necessary. And through hindsight, we now know it was a horrible thing to do, although we will never know if there were saboteurs living in America and if Roosevelt's actions prevented them from carrying out plans.

So I feel a little more context here on the environment of the times would have been helpful to understand the mindset of many in the US. There are many folks that now claim the Iraq war is the cause of all our current problems and resulted in the rise of ISIS, but yet they were totally on board with it at the time.

Too often historic events occur because of faulty information, a refusal to see what is in front of your eyes, or some kind of "shock to the system" which creates a sense of urgency to do something. Looking back and having the benefit of being able to see the totality of the events from multiple angles allows us to "see" how things went wrong, if they did. Context is so important in interpreting history. ( )
  highlander6022 | Oct 11, 2016 |
This is a well written and persuasive book. Yet, it suffers from a lack of depth. Because it is done in a journalistic rather than academic style, this is mostly a surface treatment. When the author cites a fascinating connection or insight, there is no exploration, no footnote. What you see is what you get. And that's a good deal. Here is the timeline of ISIS--from its conception to the current day. One definite plus is the author's Jordanian contacts; the material about Amman adds a whole new dimension to the story. This is a fine starting point for an investigation of ISIS and the Jihadi mind, as well as an overview of the stresses found in the Middle East. ( )
  neddludd | Aug 17, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385538219, Hardcover)

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.
   When the government of Jordan granted amnesty to a group of political prisoners in 1999, it little realized that among them was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist mastermind and soon the architect of an Islamist movement bent on dominating the Middle East. In Black Flags, an unprecedented character-driven account of the rise of ISIS, Joby Warrick shows how the zeal of this one man and the strategic mistakes of Presidents Bush and Obama led to the banner of ISIS being raised over huge swaths of Syria and Iraq.
   Zarqawi began by directing terror attacks from a base in northern Iraq, but it was the American invasion in 2003 that catapulted him to the head of a vast insurgency. By falsely identifying him as the link between Saddam and bin Laden, U.S. officials inadvertently spurred like-minded radicals to rally to his cause. Their wave of brutal beheadings and suicide bombings persisted until American and Jordanian intelligence discovered clues that led to a lethal airstrike on Zarqawi’s hideout in 2006.
   His movement, however, endured. First calling themselves al-Qaeda in Iraq, then Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, his followers sought refuge in unstable, ungoverned pockets on the Iraq-Syria border. When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, and as the U.S. largely stood by, ISIS seized its chance to pursue Zarqawi’s dream of an ultra-conservative Islamic caliphate.
   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.

(retrieved from Amazon Sat, 08 Aug 2015 01:48:47 -0400)

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