Thursday, December 24, 2015

Book review: "Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS" by Joby Warrick

Reading the 2015 book "Black Flags" can be painful. As author Joby Warrick details the origins of the terrorist group ISIS, you learn of the many ways that the United States and its allies contributed to the group's growth. 

True, it's not fair to say we "created" a monster. But we certainly helped it along.

In attempting to document the rise of the organization that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Warrick has given himself a difficult task. This sort of  story could easily splinter into many pieces, losing the reader in a fog of too many players. 

But in "Black Flags," Warrick does well, maintaining a tight narrative that mostly follows the career of terrorist leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. While Zarqawi didn't live to see the birth of the entity called ISIS – he was killed by Americans in 2006– Warrick makes it clear that he laid the groundwork.

Zarqawi grew up a thug and a drunk. In trying to straighten him out, his family put him into a strict Islamic religion education program. It backfired, giving Zarqawi religious rationales for his anarchist urges.

"It was like he went too straight," said one source quoted by Warrick. "So now you've got the worst of both worlds."

Imprisoned in the 1990s in Jordan, Zarqawi was placed together with some of the most hardened criminals. Locking up the worst criminals in one place might have made sense on paper, but in reality it created a festering pot of Islamist rage that would burst loose when Zarqawi and his compatriots were released from prison in a wide 1999 amnesty by Jordan's new King Abdullah II.

(Abdullah would later say that he never intended to include such prisoners in the amnesty. "Why," he demanded of his staff, "didn't someone check?")

Free to terrorize, Zarqawi found what he wanted in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003. The U.S. had kicked out Saddam Hussein but failed to make sure a stable government was put in place. Into the vacuum came Islamist insurgents led by Zarqawi, feeding off the chaos and the growing hatred of U.S. occupiers. Each U.S. mistake, like the abuse of Arab prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison, made the insurgents stronger. 

"The combination of American jets and Arab jails was the critical fulcrum around which Al-Qaeda and ISIS could germinate," said a source interviewed by Warrick.

Had it not been for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, would likely have continued a career as a college professor, Warrick wrote. Instead, Baghdadi joined the insurgents, rose to lead ISIS and became "the Islamic State's greatest butcher."

In keeping a neat-and-clean story line, Warrick sometimes simplifies things too much. One Iraqi's comments about U.S. troops is used to symbolize the attitude of the whole country. He praises Jordan's internal police, the Mukhabarat, for rooting out terrorists, while overlooking that fact that its zealousness sometimes results in the harassment and imprisonment of innocent people.

Still, anyone who reads "Black Flags" will gain a better understanding of ISIS and its related Islamist terrorist kin. 

So what's the takeaway here? What does "Black Flags" tell us about the future?

First, Islamist terrorist groups will continue to try to kill Americans and western Europeans. This is how they build a following, gain prestige, and get money. And in their twisted world, the more they kill, the more prestige they earn

Second, special operations military forces can disrupt and set back these groups, but they must have reliable intelligence. This is hard, tedious work, and may require "boots on the ground."

Third, we can't afford mistakes. Every time the U.S. or its allies accidentally kills innocent civilians or mistreats Muslims, ISIS gains more followers.


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