As its name makes clear, the Islamic State is after something far more permanent than its nihilistic, destructive methods might suggest. Over the past few years the movement has come terrifyingly close, confidently deploying modern tools of warfare and propaganda to establish a blood-soaked caliphate whose barbarity feels prehistoric. In his new book “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,” Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick sets out to explain how a motley group of criminals considered too unruly by Al Qaeda transformed into the world’s most successful and savage jihadi group.
Warrick’s account centers as much on American missteps as it does on the jihadi long game to build capacity. He telegraphs his disgust with ISIS without turning his book into a two-dimensional jeremiad and takes pains to include accounts of the group’s thinking, evolution, and internal political disputes.
The Islamic State, better known here by the acronym, ISIS, swept into American consciousness about a year ago when it conquered northern Iraq and almost toppled the US-backed government in Baghdad. But ISIS didn’t come out of nowhere. Inhabitants of the Arab heartland had followed the steady entrenchment of jihadi groups in the region.
Since Sept. 11, America’s counter-terror establishment has been obsessed with kill lists, personalizing Al Qaeda and its offshoots as the fiefdoms of a few easily demonized leaders.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, Syria, and on computer screens around the world, a vast, well-funded network recruited legions of talented and capable individuals, learned from its setbacks, innovated, and built effective institutions to buttress a durable reign of horror.
“Black Flags” tries hard to explain how ISIS came of age and why so many supposedly moderate or conservative forces in the Arab world have been willing to stand with extremists.
Most bracing of all is Warrick’s historically-grounded corrective, which blames the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the single most pivotal factor in the organization’s creation.
Warrick spends plenty of time on a riveting and detailed biographical account of the man who founded the group that became ISIS, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian thug whose commitment to violent religious extremism was forged in jail. Blithe prison officials allowed jihadis free reign and then carelessly released them to curry political favor for the new king.
The US government made Zarqawi famous by naming him as the link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, part of the spurious grounds to justify the Iraqi invasion. America’s mistakes were a bonanza for Zarqawi, who hired from the ranks of newly jobless soldiers and intelligence officials and capitalized on the disenfranchisement of Sunni tribes suddenly in need of a new protector.
Zarqawi reengineered the parameters of violence — no small feat in a neighborhood where despots like Saddam Hussein and the Assad dynasty in Syria already had spawned a vast torture complex. He personally beheaded civilians on video; directed suicide bombs at targets that other jihadis considered off limits like the UN, NGOs, and Arab embassies; and struck Shia religious targets with the ultimately successfully goal of provoking a destabilizing Sunni-Shia civil war. Even Al Qaeda thought he was going too far, Warrick notes, but Zarqawi’s methods proved to have enduring traction long after his death in 2006.
His successors built ISIS into an organization determined to go much further than Al Qaeda and implement a brutal caliphate immediately. Today ISIS runs oil fields, banks, and a formidable military. The group’s executions grab our attention, but ISIS applies equal zeal to tax collection, education, and indoctrination — all good reasons to suspect that it may remain part of the scene for years to come.
There are a few missing pieces in this otherwise fine book. Warrick neglects the rich context of torture, abuse, and extremism fed by Arab governments and international patrons, including the United States, in the decades before Al Qaeda and then ISIS came to maturity. He mentions but does not delve deeply into the widespread sympathy for hardline Islamist ideas among the Arabian peninsula monarchies and many supposedly mainstream Sunnis.
Also some big questions remain at the end of “Black Flags,’’ including the mystery of the group’s technical achievements. How did ISIS refine its training, military tactics, and administrative abilities so thoroughly that it could control a nation-sized swath of Syria and Iraq? Warrick’s account fills in important conceptual blanks, but doesn’t explain why this time around the same old cocktail of takfiri jihad, Gulf money, and impressionable testosterone-filled volunteers yielded an army and government-in-waiting more effective than any of its regional peers.
Overall, however, 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.
Thanassis Cambanis writes The Internationalist column for Globe Ideas and is a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York. His most recent book is “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.’’