Review: 'Black Flags' traces the Islamic State group's rise

AP News
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Posted: Sep 28, 2015 11:28 AM

"Black Flags" (Doubleday), by Joby Warrick

"Once, during a raid in Ramadi, the GIs rounded up several men from a suspected safe house and forced them to lie facedown 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 tell the story of how the Islamic State group came to be. It's clear and well-told, a good guide for those horrified by the group's emergence but not familiar with every step of 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-Qaida in Iraq and of the signatures of a vicious new form of terror: beheadings, attacks on Shiite mosques and car bombings of innocent Muslims, even children.

This is the man that al-Qaida's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, admonished for harming the organization's brand. "We don't need this," al-Zawahiri wrote.

He ended that scolding letter, however, by asking the militant for about $100,000 in cash in support, a sign of al-Zarqawi's momentum among a younger generation.

The book tracks al-Zarqawi from a poorly educated brawler in Jordan to the architect behind the wave of bombings in Baghdad that hollowed out the Bush administration's declaration of victory in Iraq and lit new waves of hatred there, both internal (Shiite versus Sunni) and external (against the U.S.).

"Black Flags" follows the sparks that kept the brutal movement going even after al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. (The book, usually straightforward on U.S. actions and key missteps in the Middle East, allows an awkwardly chest-thumping line over the militant's death: "One thing that appears incontrovertible is that Zarqawi was conscious long enough to look into American eyes.")

His successors carry the strain of violence across the border into neighboring Syria as its chaos grows. Those who would like a good summary of how Syria has collapsed into an international crisis can find it here.

Author Joby Warrick has access to government and security insiders but, like almost everyone, can only watch the Islamic State group's work from afar. This is not the book that explains exactly what continues to draw the group's thousands of supporters. We barely hear from them.

But "Black Flags" lays out in strong detail just how rough a neighborhood, both geographically and ideologically, the struggle against ISIS is taking place in. The book ends with the burning to death of a young Jordanian pilot captured while taking part in the U.S.-led coalition of airstrikes in Syria.

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