Reviewed by Hannah Bloch, International Desk editor
In a year marked by ISIS-led and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, it's no longer possible to see the Islamic State as a threat limited to the Muslim world or the Middle East. For anyone seeking to understand the roots of this jihadist movement and how it has succeeded, there's no better place to start than Joby Warrick's Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS.
This is a vigorous, insightful and deeply reported look at the forces and individuals that helped create and shape a monstrous movement, and how ISIS found fertile ground to flourish in Iraq and Syria.
Warrick delves most vividly into the life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose brutal jihad a decade ago inspired what would eventually become ISIS. He traces the Jordanian's rise from mama's boy and heavy-drinking street thug to Islamist "sheikh of the slaughterers." Zarqawi was catapulted onto the world stage as the Bush administration prepared to invade Iraq in 2003. When America made its case to the United Nations Security Council, the obscure Jordanian's presence in a lawless part of northern Iraq was offered, wrongly, as evidence of Iraq's link to al-Qaida.
"In deciding to use the unsung Zarqawi as an excuse for launching a new front in the war on terrorism," Warrick writes, "the White House had managed to launch the career of one of the century's great terrorists."
The world came to know him better in 2004 when he appeared in a sickening video sawing off the head of U.S. hostage Nicholas Berg. Zarqawi presented himself as a black-clad jihadist ninja, Warrick writes, "killing an American with his own hands." This was a notable contrast to the world's most feared terrorist until then, the gray-bearded Osama bin Laden, "delivering ponderous sermons from behind a desk." It's not hard to guess which figure proved more charismatic to new jihadist recruits.
Warrick describes how Zarqawi engaged in an ambivalent dance with al-Qaida, both wanting its acceptance but resenting the unsolicited advice he received from its elders, who rebuked him for his ultraviolent tactics.
After Zarqawi's death in 2006 and a period of relative quiescence by his followers, they regrouped and returned with a vengeance, re-emerging in Syria in 2013 "not as a terrorist group," Warrick writes, "but as an army."
That army and its supporters and sympathizers are who the world confronts today.