Book Review: ‘Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS’



Just yesterday we were discussing a new group of terrorists called al-Qaeda that had taken hold where Palestinian terrorists had left off.

We were debating Osama bin Laden origins, the pronunciation and spelling of al-Qaeda, and how widespread it might become. We were incorporating the word “jihadist” into our vocabulary, even as we were unsure of its meaning, other than “suicide bomber.”

Then, in 2015, a small and savage group called  ISIS – the Islamic State, in English – seemed to arise from the ashes of our war on terror.

How quickly ISIS, too, became an ordinary word in our vocabulary. President Obama called the group Daesh, almost defiantly, as though it was the right and respectful thing to do. Others in the media called it ISIL. But ISIS is the name that has stuck.

One minute Obama was calling ISIS a “junior varsity” group, and the next minute black flags were flying over Syria and Iraq.

ISIS has grown into a terror organization whose venom stretches across the world, with institutionalized rape, slavery, slaughter and bombings as its arsenal. Jets were blown apart in midair, and suicide bombings became commonplace. War on terror has seeped into our lives as a constant; children born in the year 2000 have never known a world without metal detectors, airport body patdowns, and terrorists.

Author Joby Warrick explores the rebuilding and rebranding of the Islamic state during the early 2000s. The author weaves the personal stories of the characters with the skill of a spy novelist, beginning with the hanging of a convicted female terrorist named Rashawi, who had failed to detonate her suicide bomb at a wedding in Jordan in 2005.

Warrick does a deep dive into the short and violent life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the mastermind behind an Islamist movement, who became an avenging dark angel in search of power and destruction of the elite Middle East ruling class, building a terror network that has since spread across the world. Warrick follows the rise of this barely literate Bedouin tribesman from Jordan, who had the goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate unlike any other in history, and whose organization lives on, even after an U.S. airstrike killed him in June of 2006.

Black Flags is a riveting read. Warrick’s Washington Post beat is the Middle East and that’s given him access to CIA and Pentagon sources for many years. If you don’t get to it this summer, a television miniseries is in the works for HBO that you’ll not want to miss.