Black Flags

The Rise of ISIS

by Joby Warrick

Number of pages: 368

Publisher: Doubleday

BBB Library: Politics and Public Affairs

ISBN: 9780385538220

About the Author

Joby Warrick (born August 4, 1960) is an American journalist who won two Pulitzer Prizes. He has worked for The Washington Post since 1996, mostly writing about the Middle East, diplomacy, and national security. He has also written about the intelligence community, Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) proliferation, and the environment, and has also served as a member of the Post’s investigation branch.


Editorial Review

In a thrilling dramatic narrative, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Joby Warrick traces how the strain of militant Islam behind ISIS first arose in a remote Jordanian prison and spread with the unwitting aid of two American presidents. Drawing on unique high-level access to CIA and Jordanian sources, Warrick weaves gripping, moment-by-moment operational details with the perspective of diplomats and spies, generals and heads of state, many of whom foresaw a menace worse than al-Qaeda and tried desperately to stop it. 

Book Reviews

“Mr. Warrick, a reporter for The Washington Post and the author of the 2011 best seller “The Triple Agent,” 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.”—NYtimes

“From the mistakes made before and after the invasion ofIraq, to the continuing tragedy of Syria’s civil war, Warrick’s account is both compelling and authoritative.”—the guardian

“Black Flags, named for the iconic banners brandished by ISIS forces, is anything but relaxed holiday reading. That its history could not be written chronologically makes the narrative more complex. Warrick, of necessity, tells sections of the story from the point of view of one of his sources — he had more than 200 — then goes back and relates the same history from another source, adding new data. But the reader’s struggle to understand ISIS pays off.Black Flagsis the best and most complete telling of ISIS’ gruesome story I have come across.”—Washington Independent

“Readers trying to keep track of the heads of state, CIA operatives, tribal leaders, clerics, and diplomats will be glad for the list of principal characters in the book’s front matter, but they’ll rarely need to consult it, thanks to Warrick’s firm grasp and skillful explanation of the complicated subject matter. This is an eye-opening read for general audiences seeking to learn more about the current crisis in the Middle East.”—Publishers Weekly

“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.”—Boston globe

“Pulitzer Prize–winningWashington Postreporter Warrick (The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA, 2011) 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.”—Kirkus Reviews

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Wisdom to Share

To everyone’s surprise, Zarqawi plunged into Islam with all the passion he had once reserved for his criminal pursuits.

Zarqawi fought with enthusiasm and quickly gained a reputation for bravery bordering on foolhardiness. By the time he left Afghanistan in 1993, he was a combat veteran with years of battlefield experience. He had been steeped on the doctrine of militant Islam, learning at the feet of radical Afghan and Arab clerics who would later ally themselves with the Taliban or with Osama bin Laden.

The leaders of Mukhabarat were not entirely sure what to do with Zarqawi when he emerged unexpectedly from prison in the spring of 1999. The spy agency was still pondering the question six months later, right up to the morning he turned up at the airport with a coach-class ticket to Pakistan.

Anyone as stubbornly opinionated as Zarqawi could never be part of al-Qaeda, but the al-Qaeda deputy who met Zarqawi had an idea about a different way Zarqawi could be helpful to the organization. Zarqawi was given money to start his own training camp, especially catering to Islamists volunteers from Jordan and other countries of the Levant, as well as Iraq and Turkey.

Until 2001, Zarqawi’s two great hatreds were Israel and the government of his own country, Jordan. Now the pain from his cracked ribs provided a constant reminder of his wish to inflict harm on the United States.

Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Qaeda lieutenants,” Powell said, just before Zarqawi’s bearded image appeared on a large screen behind the council’s circular table. With one speech, the White House had transformed Zarqawi from an unknown jihadist to an international celebrity and the toast of Islamist movement.

Intelligence officials and terrorism experts who studied the early war years marveled at Zarqawi’s strategic cunning. Whether deliberately or by coincidence, he picked targets that would confound U.S. ambitions for Iraq and ensure that the occupation of the country would be long and painful.

“By attacking the UN, he drove out all the nongovernmental organizations and discouraged anyone from opening an embassy,” Riedel said. “Then he went after Shia-Sunni fault line with attacks on the Shiite mosques. So he first isolated us in Iraq, then he put us in the midst of civil war.”

Zarqawi was hailed as the “Sheikh of the slaughters.” He became a terrorist for a brutal new age in which broadcasting butchery on the internet would be used as a tactic to win support among the hardened and to sow fear among everyone else.

Osama bin Laden had never tried to disguise his personal dislike for the Jordanian. But three years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Zarqawi offered the potential for something that Bin Laden desperately needed: a win.

Zarqawi’s death in June 2006 changed everything. The heirs to the Jordanian’s al-Qaeda in Iraq movement had different ideas about how to run an insurgency, and they quickly reorganized themselves under a new name: the Islamic State of Iraq.

Outside the capital, the institutions that maintained security within Syria were failing, one by one, and this was Baghdadi’s chance. The plan was to establish a Syrian-run Islamist militia to join the rebels already battling Bashar al-Assad’s government. This militia was called Jabhat al-Nusra.

On April 9, 2013, Baghdadi posted an audio message on Islamic websites, announcing a major organizational restructuring. Baghdadi said that the group known as al-Nusra Front was officially banished. In its place was a newly merged organization that Baghdadi called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The later word, roughly synonymous with the English term “Levant,” referred to the lands of eastern Mediterranean, from southern Turkey through present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. English speakers would know the Organization as ISIL, or ISIS.