Black Flags - The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick
(I finished this book concurrently with other books examining Al Qaeda and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and this review should be read in the context of the other books. A list of many of the books is at the bottom of this post.)
This is the best of the books on the origins of ISIS. There are articles on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with more recent and useful information than this book, but it's hard to understand Baghdadi without understanding his forerunner Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and this book tells Zarqawi's story well. There have been several long-form articles on ISIS and what is known of their leadership over the years, the one that maybe gives a synopsis of Baghdadi closest to this book is Graeme Wood's "What ISIS Really Wants" I highly recommend the interview with Nada Bakos by PBS Frontline. Also helpful are the sections of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's memoir on hunting Zarqawi, which I reviewed last year.
What I liked about Warrick's perspective is that he begins and ends in Jordan and highlights the difficulties that the new King Abdullah faced when he assumed the Hashemite throne. Jordan maintains a rather secular society by housing an intelligence aparatus that is notorious for its methods but effective at stopping terrorists; King Hussein had survived 18 assassination attempts. Abdullah's initial amnesty to potential enemies included the pardoning of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's associates. Zarqawi had been a high school dropout, a dissident who was harsh and never smiled but would become like a little boy when his mother was around. Zarqawi's parents signed him up for Islamic training after his rebellious youth, in which he perfomed many sadist acts including raping boys. His gang wanted to relive the glory days of Afghan jihad. By the time of Zarqawi's release from prison, he'd been both well-radicalized and interrogated/tortured many times.
From Jordan, Zarqawi fled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he was initially snubbed by Osama bin Laden. After 9/11, Zarqawi goes mostly independently to Iraq to try and impress Al Qaeda by setting up a mini-Afghan training camp but kept his distance from Baghdad. Zarqawi's focus was on operations in the Levant rather than trying to strike the US. While the US would later claim Hussein was harboring Zarqawi, Saddam was scouting for intelligence on his operations just as the CIA was. Those operations included experimenting with poison gas, among other things. Colin Powell's speech at the UN mentioning Zarqawi gave him more publicity than he would have had otherwise; recruits flooded in and preparations were made to fight a prolongued struggle against the US and its allies.
A CIA analyst that kept tabs on Zarqawi, Nada Bakos, fits an interesting profile. She grew up in the continental US and was hired right out of college with an economics degree; she applied for the CIA on a whim. She had no intelligence background but became an excellent analyst. Sam Faddis, analyst operating in northern Iraq (probably living among the ethnic Turkmen) scouts Zarqawi's activities and passes word that there are chemical operations, and a lot of terrorists, and the US should consider a strike on the camp. President Bush, however, turned down the idea of a strike before the US' deadline for Saddam to surrender. He doesn't want to look like he's striking before he said, or start the war before he said he would. Bakos maintains that the problem of ISIS could have been nipped in the bud then, but the US missed a golden opportunity and thousands of lives have been needlessly lost as a result.
The author writes that King Abdullah hated Saddam Hussein but felt the American invasion was a grave mistake and would only lead to an outcome that would favor Al Qaeda and the other extremists. VP Dick Cheney, on the other hand, violated protocol by calling CIA agents individually to try and sway their analysis to show an Al Qaeda-Hussein link to help persuade Congress and the world that Iraq itself was a threat. Once the invasion ws on, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Cheney did not want to hear about an insurgency. The CIA warned that Zarqawi's network was growing and beginning an insurgency but it fell on deaf ears; this is remarkable since Zarqawi was listed as a reason for justifying the invasion in the first place. Many CIA officers actually lost their jobs. (Reading Left of Boom and other books about CIA incompetence and gross violation of US law makes me unsympathetic to the CIA on these points.) While the war spirals downward, Zarqawi writes a raving plea to Bin Laden to endorse his war, including the large-scale killing of Shia. Al Qaeda rejects the targeting of Shia and other Muslims who might turn against Zarqawi and Al Qaeda.
Zarqawi uses his own suras and hadith passages to justify his suicide attacks and other measures. Some scholars furiously debated Zarqawi's positions. The author points out the apocalyptic beliefs about the mahdi and the caliphate that some hadiths indicate will be set up in Syria. Sunni Islam is often compared to Protestantism in Christianity-- there is no central authority which determines correct doctrine. Sunni imams can issue contradicting fatwas and rulings. But Al Qaeda was critical of Zarqawi's alienation of a majority population in Iraq and this led to conflict.
Warrick chronicles the battle of Gen. Stan McChrystal and JSOC against Zarqawi, and the long road to Zarqawi's death. Task Force 626 works 18 hour days and ride a series of small victories toward their overall objective of capturing or killing Zarqawi. Meanwhile, Shiia reprisal militias also fight against Zarqawi-backed Sunni insurgents. Jordanian intelligence picks up a large plot to bomb a target in Jordan, but King Abdullah's concerns are only met with a rebuke from USVP Cheney. Throughout the book, Warrick weaves in a story about a would-be female suicide bomber in Jordan who came in from Iraq. Prior to the war, Zarqawi had succeeded in killing a USAID worker but had failed to do anything larger in Jordan. (Zarqawi's group succeeded in blowing up the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad in 2003.) The woman was arrested in 2005 after arriving at a hotel with her husband intent on blowing it up. Her husband's bomb worked and killed 60 people, while hers did not. The woman allegedly claimed she did not intend to kill innocents, had been duped in Iraq, and had never met Zarqawi. Her story is relevant because ISIS demanded her release in 2015, shortly after which she was executed.
The February 2006 bombing of the Samarra mosque, which the US claimed was an Al Qaeda plot, prompted hundreds of reprisal killings which might mark the peak of the insurgency. The Jordanian government set up successful traps for Zarqawi soldiers. Task Force 626 was able to launch pre-emptive raids and finally succeeded in killing Zarqawi by aerial bomb in June. Nada Bakos had mixed feelings on his death. On the one hand, he was dead; on the other, the US had missed the earlier opportunity to eliminate him and now Zarqawi was a martyr with many disciples. Iraq might be pacified for a time, but disgruntled and fearful Sunni would take up arms again if they felt threatened and Zarqawi's network was still out there.
Meanwhile, a parallel set of events was unfolding in Syria. Future Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was stationed in Iraq from 2004-2006 where he witnessed US policy ramifications first-hand. Syria had been strongly opposed to the US-led war and its porous border with Iraq allowed a an easy way for fighters to come in easily and refugees to go out. Syria re-established formal diplomatic ties with Iraq in 2006 just as Ford was departing for a position in Algeria. The Syrian government would later be implicated in pro-Sunni attacks within Iraq. As a college student in the 1980s, Ford had spent time in Syria and enjoyed Syrian hospitality there, and President Obama appointed him US Ambassador in 2010. Warrick notes that King Abdullah in Jordan began to implement modest reforms to placate any nascent protest movement and encouraged Assad to do likewise. (PM Erdoğan of Turkey supposedly encouraged him likewise) On the eve of the Arab Spring, Ford had angered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by lecturing him on human rights. During the early days of the protest movement, Ford visited Hama which was interpreted as a tacit backing by the US of a rebellion against Assad. Assad responded to protests with force and by releasing hundreds of Zarqawi-style extremists from prison in order to prove his point that there were indeed an extremist threat within Syria, and Ford was forced to leave in 2011. Pandora's box was now open as the Arab Spring freed many other extremists to operate across the Middle East and North Africa.
The least-known character in the story is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who would rise to a prominence Zarqawi would have envied by adopting many of his tactics. Warrick recounts what was known of Baghdadi at the time of authorship: He was 32 and working on his doctorate when the US invaded Iraq. He was released from an American-controlled prison because he came across as a scholarly figure and not seen as a threat; he got his doctorate in 2007. His time in prison with other jihadis allowed him to form a network and as Sunni felt threatened by an increasingly vengeful Shiia-led government, and events unfolded in Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring, there was a chaos that Baghdadi was able to tap into. Baghdadi's group attacked Iraqi prisons, freeing people they could immediately employ. While the CIA warned the White House that ISIS was headed toward Baghdad, everyone was surprised by the rapidity at which the larger US-equipped Iraqi army abandoned entire regions of the country to a few head-strong fighters.
Warrick also tells the story of a Syrian-American lobbyist who looks for aid for the Free Syrian Army and the frustrations he experiences as Syria is torn apart. As the radical Al-Nusra Front forms to fight Assad, King Abdullah allegedly opposes Gulf state money going to arm them, forseeing a worsening of the problem. Warrick recounts the debate in the White House about arming the FSA and quotes from Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton's memoirs (both of which I have reviewed here), which Obama would not back, especially during the 2012 election season. Mustafa had a hard time helping the Syrians, but his group are the ones who captured samples of Assad's chemical weapons attacks. Robert Ford resigns from the State Department in 2014 because he can no longer support US policy. Warrick's account ends as ISIS is in full control of the situation. While there are calls for introspective Islamic reform from Egypt's President Fattah al-Sisi, it remains to be seen if influential Muslims worldwide follow.
I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. Warrick does a great job telling the stories of those who saw the precursor to ISIS and understood best how it was formed. He also does a good job showing the perilous position of Jordan who has to live with the consequences. This is a very informative book, the best of four I have finished thus far on the origins ISIS. Warrick does not focus as much on the methods and operations of ISIS itself.
Al Qaeda and ISIS books reviewed in 2016:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
Black Flags - The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
ISIS - Jessica Stern (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed - Eric Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)
The Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow (1 star)