Book review: Black Flags details the rise of Islamic State from the ruins of Iraq and Syria

Joby Warrick offers a clear account of the origins of the Middle East terror state in a neighbourhood of violent ideological struggles

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 September, 2016, 11:57am

“Once, during a raid in Ramadi, the GIs rounded up several men from a suspected safe house and forced them to lie face down on the concrete with their hands behind their heads. From inside the house appeared a small boy of about four years. Seeing his father lying on the ground, the boy walked between the rows of prostrate men and, without a word, lay down next to his father, placing his tiny hands behind his head.”

This is a wrenching aside in a book that aims to  explain how Islamic State came to be. It’s clear and well told, a good guide  to the crumbling of Iraq and Syria over the past dozen years.

Black Flags focuses on  Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of what became al-Qaeda in Iraq and  its vicious new form of terror: beheadings, attacks on Shiite mosques and car bombings whose targets included children. This is the man that al-Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, admonished for harming the organisation’s brand.  

The book tracks  Zarqawi from poorly educated brawler in Jordan to  architect  of a wave of bombings in Baghdad that hollowed out the Bush administration’s declaration of victory in Iraq and lit new waves of hatred there.

 Black Flags also follows the sparks that kept the brutal movement going even after  Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in  2006.  His successors carry the  violence  into neighbouring Syria as its chaos grows. Those who would like a good summary of how Syria has collapsed can find it here.

Warrick has access to government and security insiders but, like almost everyone, can only watch Islamic State’s work from afar. The book doesn’t explain why IS continues to draw thousands of supporters.  But Black Flags lays out just how rough a neighbourhood, both geographically and ideologically,  IS operates in. The book ends with the burning to death of a young Jordanian pilot captured while taking part in US-led  airstrikes in Syria.

 “From Jordan’s cosmopolitan capital to the conservative Wahabi villages of Saudi Arabia came  condemnation and rage,” Warrick writes. “The beheading of prisoners, brutal though it was, was specifically countenanced by the Koran and regularly practised by the Saudi government as an official means of execution. But with the burning of a human being, – and, in this case, a practising Sunni Muslim –  Islamic State had broken an ancient taboo.”

Black Flags by Joby Warrick (Doubleday)

Associated Press