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Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS Hardcover – September 29, 2015
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Named a Best Book of 2015 by Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, The Washington Post, People Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Kansas City Star, and Kirkus Reviews
“Gripping … Mr. Warrick has a gift for constructing narratives with a novelistic energy and detail, and in this volume, he creates the most revealing portrait yet laid out in a book of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the founding father of the organization that would become the Islamic State … For readers interested in the roots of the Islamic State and the evil genius of its godfather, there is no better book to begin with than Black Flags.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Warrick charts Zarqawi’s rise from booze-swilling Jordanian street tough to one of the most brutal jihadists in the world. He demonstrates how much the militants of the Islamic State owe to Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006—not only their ideology but even the color of the jumpsuits that prisoners wear in execution videos. The militants of ISIS, one of Warrick’s sources explains, are the ‘children of Zarqawi.’”—The New Yorker
“A revealing, riveting and exquisitely detailed account of the life and death of Zarqawi, the improbable terrorist mastermind, and the rise of the movement now known as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).”—San Francisco Chronicle
"A detailed, step-by-step narrative demonstrating how repeated miscalculations by the United States, Arab leaders and al-Qaeda wound up empowering the Islamic State ... Black Flags provides answers in this still-unfolding history of what happens when religious radicals try to outdo one another for the mantle of God’s favorite."—Dallas Morning News
"Invaluable for anyone struggling to understand the gruesome excesses and inexplicable appeal of ISIS ... [a] seminal book."—Los Angeles Times
"Warrick’s book might be the most thorough and nuanced account of the birth and growth of ISIS published so far. Black Flags is full of personalities, but it keeps its gaze carefully focused on the wider arc of history."
"The sort of work every journalist would love to write and few can: a detailed and perceptive analysis that's also a page-turner ... necessary reading for anybody who wants to put Islamic State into the context of both contemporary jihadism and the long history of Muslim fundamentalism."—Chicago Tribune
"[Black Flags] is clear and well-told, a good guide for those horrified by the group's emergence but not familiar with every step of the crumbling of Iraq and Syria over the past dozen years ... [It] lays out in strong detail just how rough a neighborhood, both geographically and ideologically, the struggle against ISIS is taking place in."—Associated Press
“Joby Warrick … [has] a great eye for memorable characters. In Black Flags he puts faces on the amorphous organizations we hear about all the time, namely ISIS and the CIA. Learning about the origins of ISIS is key to understanding the organization today—and key to understanding why we failed to halt ISIS’s growth.”
“Joby Warrick moves easily through the intelligence warrens of Washington and the shattered landscape of the Middle East to tell this insightful narrative of the rise of the Islamic State. Black Flags is an invaluable guide to an unfolding tragedy that must be understood before it can be ended.”
—Lawrence Wright, author of Thirteen Days in September and The Looming Tower
“Joby Warrick is one of America's leading national security reporters, so it's no surprise that Black Flags is the most deeply reported and well-written account we have about ISIS and its terrorist army.”
—Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad
“Joby Warrick weaves Black Flags with the tradecraft of a spy, the mind of an investigative reporter, and the pen of a novelist. The picture that emerges is sometimes hard to bear: of brutal ISIS
torturers and Jordanian interrogators, of bumbling U.S. leaders, of American intelligence services that still can't get it right quickly enough. We should all thank Warrick for telling a hard truth the government will not want to hear: how U.S. policies helped give birth to the so-called Islamic State.”
—Dana Priest, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter and author of Top Secret America
“Drawing on his unrivaled sources and access, Joby Warrick has written a profoundly important and groundbreaking book, one that reads like a novel, riveting from the first page to the last. If you want to know the story behind ISIS, and all of us should, this is the book you must read.”
—Martha Raddatz, Chief Global Affairs Correspondent, ABC News, and author of The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family
“A page-turner and a flat-out great book. This is the inside account of how we ended up with the Islamic State, with one revelation after another. If you read one book on ISIS, this is it.”
—Robert Baer, author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism
“Joby Warrick is an exceptional storyteller, and Black Flags is both illuminating and spellbinding. No book better explains the miscalculations, wrong turns, and bad luck that led to the rise of ISIS.”
—Rick Atkinson, author of The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945
“[A] crisply written, chilling account … Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Warrick confidently weaves a cohesive narrative from an array of players—American officials, CIA officers, Jordanian royalty and security operatives, religious figures, and terrorists—producing an important geopolitical overview with the grisly punch of true-crime nonfiction … The author focuses on dramatic flashpoints and the roles of key players, creating an exciting tale with a rueful tone, emphasizing how the Iraq invasion's folly birthed ISIS and created many missed opportunities to stop al-Zarqawi quickly.”
—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“Joby Warrick has written a penetrating and fascinating look at the birth and evolution of the world’s most violent terrorist network, ISIS, or ISIL. This is an eye-opening book … The author tells his story through rich details and revealing anecdotes that bring you into the violent world of Islamic extremism. At times, you feel as if you’re sitting in a tent in a remote region of Iraq, watching and listening to al-Zarqawi as he claws his way to the top of the terrorist chain … The writing is crisp, the reporting incredible, a combination of extensive digging and terrific use of sources.”
About the Author
JOBY WARRICK has been a reporter for The Washington Post since 1996. He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize, for journalism and for his book Black Flags: The Rise of Isis. He is also the author of The Triple Agent.
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Warrick's narrative arc begins in Jordan, and centers on the prison where terrorists and suspects are held. The lead characters are Jihadist activists who will go on to play pivotal roles in Iraq and Syria, the redoubtable (if reluctant) King Abdullah II, and the principal figures of the Jordanian intelligence service. Cruel but not sadistic, hard-nosed but still human, dogged but not dogmatic, it is the Jordanian intelligence officials who come across as some of the real heroes of the piece. Warrick's access to them is a true journalistic tour de force.
The main Jihadist character is Abu Musad al-Zarqawi, leader of something of a break-away faction of Al Qaeda in Iraq and founder of ISIS. A true religious fanatic (there is simply no other word for him), Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan to fight the infidel Americans and curry favor with Osama Bin Laden. Although his battlefield exploits showed extraordinary courage, Bin Laden and his cohorts disliked and distrusted him and kept him at a far remove. As the Taliban strongholds were wrested free by the Americans, Zarqawi retreated to a lawless enclave of Iraq not controlled by Saddam Hussein's government, From that inauspicious backwater in 2002 Zarqawi put together the skeleton of a Jihadist militia that would ultimately lead the insurgency against the Americans in Iraq.
With unprecedented access to primary sources, Warrick has been able to produce a detailed profile of Zarqawi's rise to power--his character, his murderous message, and why that message fell on such receptive ears. (Spoiler alert: It had a lot to do with American missteps in the occupation, but such missteps occurred in a context that was hardly America's making. Underlying the insurgency, and the subsequent rise of ISIS, is the 1000-year-old Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict. The Iraqi Shi'ites, long suppressed by the majority Sunnis, were only too thrilled to settle ancient scores. That's what they were in the midst of doing when Zarqawi's group essentially rallied them under the banner of "Kill every Shia you can find." Ultimately Zarqawi would die in his "safe house" when it was hit by American 500-pounders. But the bones of his Jihadist organization and its revolting ideology would survive. The best analysis of his successor, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (the self-styled Caliph) is found in McCants's ISIS Apocalypse, mentioned above.)
In a delicious irony, Zarqawi's ragtag bunch of AK-toting thugs was under the watchful eye of a CIA team that had smuggled themselves into Iraq to get a handle on Saddam's military and its possible links to radical Islamists back in 2002. It was soon obvious that the only only thing that Saddam and the Islamists shared was mutual hatred. (Indeed, Charles "Sam" Fadis, the 47-year-old leader of the CIA team of soldier-spies, realized that a team of under cover Iraqi military men camped nearby were doing the same as he was--spying on the militants to assess how much of a threat they were.) For six months Fadis begged and pleaded with his superiors for a strike that would have wiped out Zerqawi's whole troop, then numbering just a few hundred at most.
In irony bordering on paradox, his requests were turned down. Initially, Stan McCrystal at the Pentagon proposed a large, complex strike (which Rumsfeld, to his credit, supported), but which Condoleza Rice opposed on political grounds and others felt was just too complex. Fadis proposed a variety of simpler approaches (any one of which could have been decisive), but these too were turned down. The last turn-down came in January 2003. Among the arguments against an assault at this point was that the decision to invade Iraq had been made, but the public rationale had not been. In that a main pillar of the argument was that Saddam was supporting Islamic terrorists (the reality was just the opposite), it would ruin our argument for invading Iraq if the terrorists were eliminated in a pre-emptive strike before the war began. In other words, having terrorists in Iraq was just too good a pretext for an invasion to let it go to waste by actually solving that problem before it got out of hand, the rationale being that since we were invading anyway, we could wipe them out more publicly once we got there.
What the White House war planners failed to appreciate, of course, was that these guys did not have their feet nailed to the sand, and were free to disband and relocate once the invasion occurred. That is what they did, and in the chaos that ensued from our abject failure to plan for post-invasion government, they were well-entrenched in urban areas before we knew they'd left the countryside. Many tens of thousands of lives were lost in consequence, and the ISIS threat emerged from the ruins.
It would be too cynical to suggest that everyone in the White House knew that there was no link between Saddam and the Islamo-terrorists. Some did, but some didn't, and the loudest voice of denial came from Dick Cheney (misadvised by the equally misguided Douglas Feith). Dick Cheney's apparent faith in the veracity of this fictional linkage is almost a thing of beauty--if the consequences had not been so ugly and so vastly at variance with America's best interests. While Cheney plays a very small role in Warrick's narrative, and is never singled out for any kind of special criticism, it is hard not to see him as either a bullying imbecile or a pathological liar or both.
(In truth, Cheney probably saw Saddam as unfinished business from his time as Secretary of Defense in the first Iraq War in 1991. He longed to finish that business, but there was no serious legal basis for starting another war. In that context, 9-11 came like a gift from the Almighty, providing a rare opportunity for an historic do-over. If, that is, Saddam was somehow instrumental in 9-11. Hence Cheney's pathological need to connect the dots, even when it was manifest that the dots were on completely different pages and written in different books. To the degree that Islamic extremists are a threat to Western values, Saddam's secularist regime was one of the better allies we could have had, but such was the prevailing arrogance and almost willful blindness, this practical political reality was rejected out of hand.)
For Warrick there are definitely some heroes in this page-turning tale. One is Nada Bakos, the 20-something CIA analyst who made a specialty of profiling and tracking Zarqawi. How a farm girl from Montana (there were only nine boys and girls in her high school class) has the chops to sift thousands and thousands of pages of raw intelligence to limn an accurate picture of a major terrorist about whom no one else in the Agency had any inkling is something of an enduring mystery. But there it is, and it says something good about the CIA that it could still find and cultivate talent of that ilk. (Cheney tried unsuccessfully to bully her into silence, and was still badgering her to establish an Iraqi link to the terrorists of 9-11 two years after the invasion of Iraq!) In yet another irony of history's turning wheel, numbers of Baathist soldiers whom we stripped of all power and prestige after the invasion have now re-emerged among the ranks of ISIS, giving ISIS a level of military competence they never would have had if we had just left things alone.)
Another hero (not dwelt on but certainly of serious note) is Gen Stan McCrystal, who led the Special Forces in Iraq. This was urban fighting at its toughest and dirtiest--house to house, room by room, usually in the dark of night. Maybe it was atonement for not coming up with a better plan to kill Zarqawi in 2002, but McCrystal led numbers of these urban attack squads personally.There aren't many in the Pentagon with such a valid claim to gallantry.
President Bush does not come off that badly. While Rumsfeld is locked in denial that an insurgency is even occurring, Bush sadly realizes that everything has gone terribly, terribly wrong and does his level best to right the ship that he has inadvertently steered onto the rocks. President Obama comes off less well, hoping that diplomacy and some sort of mythical public pressure will force Assad of Syria from office without his having to commit American troops. Most particularly grievous was (and remains) the failure to arm the Free Syrian Army (the non-Islamist Sunni opponents of Assad) in a timely manner.
Such an opportunity was presented, and rejected by Obama, in the summer of 2012. I thought Warrick was a bit one-sided in his argument in this section, failing (as he did) to mention that the President was locked in a tight re-election race at the time. In that getting our troops out of war in the Middle East was a central tenet of his campaign message (as it had been in 2008), it struck me as a tad unreasonable to expect the man to completely reverse himself in the middle of a campaign and fan the winds of war. The exigencies of politics aside, the President's continuing refusal to get involved a year later, in 2013, is something else again. The facts on the ground had changed, and seriously worsened, and by then he would have had enough political cover to change course and do something constructive (meaning destructive, where ISIS is concerned). Interestingly, among those arguing unsuccessfully for a more aggressive approach was Hillary Clinton. Consequently, I would surmise that no matter who wins the 2016 Presidential sweepstakes, U.S. forces will be taking a more active role in Syria in 2017.
But I digress. The arc of Black Flags takes us back to Jordan where it began. And Warrick argues convincingly that that's where our key alliance must begin. That King Abdullah was in Washington in mid-January 2016 and did not get to meet with the President, signals to me that he is still substituting hope for experience, which may make the next President's job--and the lives of Syrians and Iraqis both--a lot tougher than they absolutely need to be.
It will not be easy. It is not simply a matter of dropping a bunch of bombs and then walking away triumphant, as some simple minded souls seem to believe. The lesson of the Iraq fiasco is that once the bombs stop falling, you need to pick up the pieces: Restart the water and food supplies, provide at least basic medical care, get electricity and phones working, provide a police force that is at least reasonably honest, courts of justice, and prisons that aren't training grounds for the next generation of terrorists. We are talking about the work of years, not weeks or months. Obama doesn't think that the American people wish to bear that burden. For all I know, he's right. But we really ought to talk about it.
In conclusion. Black Flags reads like a fast-paced novel: part spy thriller. part war story, part political intrigue. I really wish it were fiction, but it's not. It is the sad and tragic history of our immediate past and present, with insights into our future.
One of the major themes of the book is something I have said for about 50 years: The people on the front line, the actual workers, know what's going on. The further up the chain of command you go, the more information gets twisted and distorted. By the time you get to the president (of a corporation or the USA), ignorance reigns supreme. There are exceptions, but they are rare. (In a personal example that seems like a Dilbert cartoon but is true, I once made the huge mistake of talking to a VP while waiting for the elevator. Within minutes I was in my supervisor's office being chewed out for not going through the chain of command. But if the president only talks to senior VP's, who only talk to the VP's, who only talk to the senior directors, who only talk to the directors, who only talk to the managers…ignorance prevails.)
King Abdullah of Jordan makes appearances throughout the book. He warns of things to beware of, he suggests courses of actions, he pleads for help. He is ignored--constantly. Why the West is not listening to him and supporting him in every way possible is a mystery. Did you know about the "Amman Message" Abdullah issued in 2004? I didn't, and I've studied this subject for 20 years. It has its own web site: Amazon won't let me post it, but you can search for it.
Various people (for example, State Dept. spokesperson Marie Harf in 2015) have blamed socio-economic problems for the rise of Islamic extremism. Read what the extremists say about themselves (for example, ISIS publishes a slick monthly magazine called "Dabiq" that's available online (again, do a search). Not once do extremists complain about the economy, jobs, discrimination, or all of the Western hit list of societal ills. So what motivates them? Religion. It's that simple. So if the West offers them democracy, free speech, and better jobs, Islamic extremists just mock them if they take any notice at all. Anyone who thinks this isn't about religion simply hasn't read or listened to what the extremists have to say. So propaganda aimed at non-religious issues just misses the mark and bounces off its intended targets. What the West should be supporting wholeheartedly are religious arguments (as in "The Amman Message" or "Open Letter to al-Baghdadi"). These religious arguments should be given full page advertisements in major newspapers and magazines, should be discussed constantly, and should be reproduced and dropped as leaflets oven extremists territory. They should also be reproduced and distributed in every mosque in the world--Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries alike. Every dollar spent on these activities would be better spent than a million dollars on bombs.
Another hero of the story is Nada Bakos, a CIA analyst assigned to track Zarqawi. She writes reports to her superiors, who alter her reports to suit their own bosses, who alter them to suit their own bosses…. you get the idea. Page 97: "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." Bush and the boys twisted her reports 180 degrees, turning black into white! Good job.
Another revealing incident is when the CIA operatives and some Kurds have Zarqawi and his group in their sights in a hideout in N. Kurdistan. They plea for an air strike to take him out. Nope, do can do. Then they plea for better weapons to take him out. Nope. Then they plea for permission to just go in with what they've got. Nope. Political considerations. And so it goes…Zarqawi of course got away by the time Bush decided to act--after the 2004 election. But hey, that didn't matter did it? Just the foundation of ISIS, a few thousand deaths, the destabilization of Europe, mass terrorism, you know, the usual.
One can only hope that in 10 years it is not necessary to write a book detailing all the missed opportunities and the ignorance of leaders.