Black Flags: The Rise of Isis by Joby Warrick

This looked interesting and was on my wish list even before it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.  So picking up that award brought it to the top – and here we are.
Actually,  the book was coming along so nicely I wanted a bit more – so I got the Kindle version where there are maps and lists of characters etc.

I’ve not read all that much about ISIS so I really need a bit of a background in order to catch up and this felt  like it was the right book for it –  where did Zarqawi come from and how did it all come to what we have today?



Black Flags:  The Rise of Isis
by Joby Warrick
2015 / 368 pages
read by Sunil Malhotra  13h 33m
rating –  9 /  general nonfiction

I had to read the Prologue  twice –  I listened, then bought the Kindle version and started over.   Good thinking – there’s a lot of material here,  a lot of names,  places and events – it’s an overview of sorts.

This is the story of how Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian and veteran of the battles in Afghanistan,  came to form the now infamous ISIS,  a  group of many thousands  bent on the destruction of the old corrupt regimes in the Middle East and the West in general, specifically Israel,  Europe and the US.  Zarqawi  was joined by a small group of radical Islamic thugs,  the ousted leaders and military from the old regime in Iraq which the US (in all its wisdom) simply removed when they took out Saddam Hussein.  They apparently had some unwitting help from a few other people including the Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.  And even after Zarqawi was killed there remained a small tight group under the leadership and training of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which managed to use what was left to take advantage of the civil war in Syria.

Warrick starts his story with a Prologue dealing with the February, 2015 execution of Sajida al-Rishawi,  “Zarqawi’s woman.”  She had been the suicide bomber whose vest failed to explode back in the terrorist attack in the horrendous  2005 bombings in Jordan.  Now she was finally being executed but ISIS  wanted her back –  they were claiming her – and that was the point – there had been no real ISIS in 2005 – by 2013 they were an army.

The story of the execution of al-Rishawi bookends the Prologue. The interior covers the crime she was convicted of as well as the “ties” between ISIS and al-Qaeda; the incredible growth in strength due to the erroneous  “connection” between Zarquawi and Iraq were  involved in 9/11;  the attacks on Iraqi Shiite communities,  the naming of their group ISIS, the reluctance of the US to get involved after a couple of  botched attempts and more.  It gets scary:

In the prophetic passages of the Muslim holy texts known as the Hadith, Zarqawi saw his fate foretold. He and his men were the black-clad soldiers of whom the ancient scholars had written: “The black flags will come from the East, led by mighty men, with long hair and beards, their surnames taken from their home towns.” These conquerors would not merely reclaim the ancient Muslim lands. They also would be the instigators of the final cataclysmic struggle ending in the destruction of the West’s great armies, in northern Syria. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq,” Zarqawi preached, “and its heat will continue to intensify until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

Warrick, Joby (2015-09-29). Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS (pp. 8-9). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is a really well conceived, nicely organized and well  written book.   There’s a basic chronological order,  but because there are so many threads which have their own backgrounds Warrick has to use some digressions to weave them in. He does this with perfect timing.

Chapter 1 takes the story back to the Ikhwan  the origins of al-Jafr, the notorious Jordanian prison built by the British, abandoned in 1979 then re-established in 1998 for  a bunch of seriously hardened criminals with militant Islamic leanings (invented by Maqdisi)   and an anti-government crusade.  The enforcer for Maqdisi’s prison group was al-Zarquwi (“the one from Zarqa”), a very complex person,  but completely charismatic.

Chapter 2 is a recap of Jordan history,  it’s recent leaders and their difficulties, the new King’s decisions – most importantly,  the release of 2500 prisoners – this was 1999:

Many months would pass before Abdullah learned that list had included certain Arab Afghans from the al-Jafr Prison whose Ikhwan-like zeal for purifying the Islamic faith should have disqualified them instantly. But by that time, the obscure jihadist named Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayleh had become the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Warrick, Joby (2015-09-29). Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS (p. 43). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


Reading through some reviews I’ve been interested enough to try ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan-Hassan and/or ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger – both with somewhat more current information.