Joby Warrick’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS is an incredibly quick and easy read. Even while checking some sources and constantly flipping to endnotes, I still managed to finish the book in one weekend. I will emphasize that my main critique of the book is that it needs more endnotes, and I would have preferred them to be referenced throughout the text. This would have made tracking the sources easier. But, the author’s style did not lend itself to this kind of structure. There was some creative license used in the book as it reads more like a novel than a summary of historical events. But, I do not think Warrick was trying to mislead the reader. On the other hand, it’s appropriate to say he was adding “color” (my quotes) to the story. For example, the discussion of Zarqawi in prison “commanding with his eyes” is an early example of this. The point is that Zarqawi held a lot of influence, but the author mentions that Zarqawi could simply look at his fellow prisoners and they obeyed him. Is that a stretch? I think it’s important to realize that there is some creative license at work here based on strands of truth.
Warrick’s book goes into detail about the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from a hard-drinking, tattooed, street thug from Jordan into an improbable leader of a vast terrorist network that would overtake Al-Qaeda, plunge Iraq into brutal sectarian violence, and whose legacy would continue to this day in the form of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The book focuses more on Zarqawi’s rise than it does on current day ISIS. It also concentrates on individuals within the American CIA and Jordanian Mukhabarat who were committed to stopping Zarqawi and preventing his influence from spreading. In many ways, the book is similar to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower about the rise of Al-Qaeda and the events leading to 9/11. Black Flags points to several U.S. failures that unwittingly abetted the rise of Zarqawi. The most glaring example is the speech that Secretary of State Colin Powell made to the U.N. in February 2003 arguing a connection between Zarqawi and Sadam Hussein’s regime. This is one of those unfortunate historical episodes where the reader feels a sharp pang of disappointment. As one can imagine, there are a lot of moments like these scattered throughout the book. The episode in which the CIA was apparently ready to eradicate Zarqawi’s camp in northeastern Iraq is another one.
One hero that emerges prominently in the book is General Stanley McChrystal. Through his unrelenting leadership and drive to kill or capture Zarqawi, changes were made in the cycle of intelligence and the conduct of operations that would eventually bring the terrorist mastermind to justice. From Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, Mr. Warrick fast forwards nearly five years to the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War, which sowed the seeds for the rise of the Islamic State in the bloody Syrian conflict. Furthermore, between the instability of Iraq’s neighbor and the terribly sectarian policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, conditions were rapidly set for the rise of ISIS in the disaffected and fearful population of Iraq’s Sunni tribal lands namely Fallujah and Ramadi. Warrick focuses on some Sunni tribal leaders who had helped the U.S. during the surge of 2006-2007, but when faced with sectarian violence and marginalization by Shiite Prime Minister Maliki, these same Sunni tribal leaders welcomed ISIS with open arms to defend their tribes from Shiite oppression.
Compared with the books in depth look at Zarqawi, Warrick does short work on the rise of Baghdadi, the current leader of ISIS and self-declared Caliph. The reader shouldn’t expect a lot of information on the organization’s unique means of recruiting via social media (although this is obviously mentioned). Also, there is not a lot of detail on military tactics, nor does he go into detail on the groups governing of conquered territories. This is a story about the rise of the group, and it doesn’t go into specifics that might interest someone looking for a more in depth look at the group as it exists today. If one wants these details, David Kilcullen’s most recent book, Blood Year should satisfy. However, Black Flags tells the story of ISIS rise with painful detail and precise focus on the most critical events.