Black Flags; The Rise of ISIS

Black Flags; The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick. Anchor, 2016 paper.

This is the complicated story of the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, to a leadership position within ISIS, a radical Islamic organization which he claims to have founded. Zarqawi is known for his cruelty and ultimately that brought him down.

Joby Warrick is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. He works for The Washington Post.

The black flags referred to in the title of the book are associated with the Caliphate, the tradition that a “steward” would arise to unite the fractured world of Islam. The Caliphs would more-or-less anoint themselves as a supreme religious and political leader. The institution of the Caliph dates back to the seventh century, most recently it was claimed by the Ottoman Empire. Calling for the reestablishment of a Caliphate provides opportunity for acquiring reputation. Warrick argues that the civil wars in Syria and Jordan and our responses have actually created a set of opportunists.

Zarqawi was a Jordanian, imprisoned in 1992 and released in 1999 from a Jordanian prison under a royal amnesty. He became a “terrorist star” after he planned the bombing of three western-owned hotels in Amman, Jordan in 2005.  But there were many Jordanians who were appalled at the loss of life and particularly the fact that one of the hotels had a wedding party going on. Witnesses had to face stacked bodies of young girls in their pretty white dresses.

Jordan’s intelligence community was not sufficiently informed to stop the bombing of the three hotels, though they did arrest Zarqawi and other terrorists. But then what is to be done with these terrorists. Mix these men together and you have what Warrick calls a “jihad university.”

Warrick argues that the Central Intelligence Agency, Colin Powell’s Defense Department, and Jordan’s intelligence service gave Zarqawi a career. Their response to his minor role in the terrorist movement made him his reputation.

Zarqawi’s terrorism intended to intensify existing divisions within the Arab world. The targets of his insurgent bombs were selected so as to divide Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites, Moslems and secularists. The bombing of the Imam Ali Mosque (Najaf) in 2003 or the Al-Askari Mosque( Samarra) in 2006, for example, involved picking sites that would maximize internal conflict at that point and then later as scores were settle.

In 2004 an American, Nicholas Berg, had gone to Iraq to look for opportunities in an American secured country. He was taken hostage by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi took this opportunity to gain a needed notoriety for brutality in order to make an impression on other terrorists. As the video cameras rolled Zarqawi cut Berg’s throat, then cut off his head, and lifted his head for all to see. He could depend upon the Internet to provide him with international attention. It also got him the “promotion” within the terrorist community that he sought. Zarqawi was eventually assassinated by an American-Jordanian air strike on one of his hiding places.

The author argues that George W. Bush’s Gulf War was not thought out well. Who would govern Iraq after the invasion in 2003? The decision to dissolve the Iraqi army’s officer class and ban anyone with membership in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party from positions of authority in the new government failed to take into account the fact that anyone with any management experience in Iraq would have to have joined the Party. For example all applicants for University positions had been forced to join. Hence there was no pool of government officials from which to draw once Hussein was out of the way, leaving leadership positions open to many new “entrepreneurs.” Like Zarqawi.

Not enough has been said about the continuing presence of outsiders in the Middle East and elsewhere who are often using terrorists as proxies for acquiring stakes in this oil-rich Islamic world. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian monarch, has been able to survive despite his chemical warfare and other outrages because he manages to balance himself between Russia, Iran, and Syria vs. the US, Europe, and Jordan.

Thus Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is one of many ambitious terrorists and al-Qaeda and ISIS are two of several organizations in which he had acquired leadership positions. We took care of him, but how completely should we involve ourselves in these deadly squabbles. John McCain and others have urged strongly for us to keep our distance.


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