Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Black Flags by Joby Warrick

ISIS appeared to us in the West to have come out of nowhere, but Joby Warrick's careful journalism shows its roots, its alliances, its continuance in light of Western involvement in the Middle East.

Warrick bookends his narrative nonfiction describing the origins of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) with the story of the failed suicide-bomber, Sajida al-Rishawi, who was executed in Jordan just this year, shortly after ISIS put to death-by-burning the downed Jordanian air pilot, First Lieutenant Muadh al-Kasasbeh in Syria in January. This bookending is entirely appropriate for it links the Jordanian thug-turned-radical Abu Musad al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) with the later leader of ISIS, Iraqi Islamic scholar Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Just this week (Oct 2015) we learned that al-Baghdadi was targeted in an air strike as he convoyed to a meeting of senior ISIS leaders in western Iraq. It is not known if he has been wounded or killed.

I would be happy never to hear or read the name Zarqawi again, but here he is in the pages of this book. Abu Musad al-Zarqawi was the Jordanian national who created and led AQI during the Iraq War. He gained credibility and followers when American forces labelled him a threat in 2003, just before the American invasion of Iraq. Warrick traces the path of Zarqawi’s radicalism, beginning while he was in a Jordanian jail from 1993-99, through his contact with and split from Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization, through to his death in by American airstrike in 2006. After his death his organization, which had attracted many followers amongst the Sunni minority in Iraq, lost its thrust and seemed on the point of disintegration.

The American withdrawal from Iraq gave the remnants of Zarqawi’s group more freedom to operate. They continued to consolidate, now with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gradually rising to third in the leadership in charge of Sharia law by 2010. In 2010 an airstrike took out the other two top leaders, leaving Baghdadi to step into the vacuum and impose his own vision on the men under his command. He announced ISIS involvement in Syria in 2011 with a carefully shot and edited quarter-hour video heralded on Islamic websites for days before its release.

Warrick shows us how the radical insurgent movement could have begun, given impetus through a combination of American bombs and Arab prisons. Western ideology and invasion is an undeniable spur to Islamists of any sort, who resist any foreign influence and incursion into their lands, whether or not bombing was meant to help. Warrick adds Arab jails because this is where Zarqawi got his instruction and indoctrination. Inmates were segregated by creed, and the Islamists lived by Sharia law. Jails became, in effect, jihadi universities which helped extremists inculcate moderates, and fueled the insurgency inside the wire. Like Arab jails, the American military system of corralling all insurgents together as “bad guys” was “dysfunctional and counterproductive”, in Warrick’s opinion.

Baghdadi survived and thrived in prison. He was picked up in a sweep in early 2004 and sent to the American-administered jail called Camp Bucca. His academic expertise as a conservative, educated religious scholar gave him stature. He both taught and spoke classical Arabic and led religious prayers. When he was released in 2004 after ten months in prison, he finished earning his doctorate in Islamic studies and gravitated to the militants operating outside the major cities. By 2010 he was third in the leadership of radicals in charge of Sharia law and when an American airstrike took out two of the top leaders in late 2010, al-Baghdadi stepped up.

Now ISIS has Sunni, Shia, as well as Western governments and Russia, all seeking their demise. One reason is that the predominantly Sunni ISIS organization burned the Jordanian Sunni air pilot flying over Syria rather than behead him. Death by burning is something forbidden in the Koran—a retribution something only Allah can presume. There must be a reason an Islamic scholar would order such a death, but the effect was galvanizing. In the film posted online of the burning death, Warrick tells us the voice of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi intones a voiceover: “Lo and behold, the spark has been ignited in Iraq and its fires shall only get bigger…” drawing a clear connection between the former AQI under Zarqawi and the renamed ISIS under Baghdadi. We can only hope that fire will consume them in the end.

It was not this book alone, but my concurrent reading of a book of essays by Mohsin Hamid called Discontent and Its Civilizations that started the beginnings of a breakthrough in the development of my own opinion about American power in the world. Hamid’s essays discuss the American war in Afghanistan from the point of view of Pakistan. America cooperated with Pakistan, in a manner of speaking, for a time. My thinking runs something like this: if a situation in one’s own country gets so bad one thinks one wants to call upon the strength of the American army to save one, think again. Calling upon their superior forces may just wipe out what you were hoping to save.

American military power is a blunt instrument, no matter what they say about precision strikes. Add to that American reluctance to involve their own blood or treasure in a fight they do not perceive as their own. The tool one wishes would save one’s country or one’s faction may come so late (after the bitter wrangling in U.S. Congress) that one no longer really cares about war’s outcome and only wishes the fighting to stop before everyone is dead. Better not to wish for American military might, for that way lies destruction. Why must we learn this lesson again and again? Because the wise are dead, I suspect. It is painful to contemplate the future when one has no faith in discourse, arms, or aid.

I listened to the Penguin Random House audio production of this book, read by Sunil Malhotra. Malhotra reads slowly enough for us to grasp the complicated connections he relates, and reads the Arabic names with comprehension and precision. Great job.

More reading on ISIS:
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn
Too Weak, Too Strong: Russia in Syria (essay in London Review of Books) by Patrick Cockburn
The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction by Charles R. Lister
Understanding ISIS and The New Global War on Terror by Phyllis Bennis
ISIS: State of Terror by Jessica Stern & J.M. Berger

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. So hard to make any sense of all this. Easier to smash things, I guess. Nice review.