In the last month, terror attacks that left 130 dead in Paris and 43 dead in Beirut and took down a Russian airliner with 224 people aboard have made the entire world horribly aware that the Islamic State not only seeks to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, but also is beginning to export its monstrous savagery abroad. Although the Islamic State has been in the headlines for only two years, and its metastasis has been alarmingly swift, the seeds of the group — in its many incarnations — were planted many years ago, as Joby Warrick’s gripping new book, “Black Flags,” makes clear.
Mr. Warrick, a reporter for The Washington Post and the author of the 2011 best seller “The Triple Agent,” has a gift for constructing narratives with a novelistic energy and detail, and in this volume, he creates the most revealing portrait yet laid out in a book of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the founding father of the organization that would become the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL).
Although this book owes some debts to Jean-Charles Brisard’s 2005 book, “Zarqawi: The New Face of Al Qaeda,” Mr. Warrick places that material in context with recent developments and uses his own copious sources within the United States and Jordanian intelligence to flesh out Mr. Zarqawi’s story and the crucial role that American missteps and misjudgments would play in fueling his rise and the advance of the Islamic State.
Perhaps emulating the approach Lawrence Wright took in “The Looming Tower,” his masterly 2006 account of the road to Sept. 11, Mr. Warrick focuses parts of this book on the lives of several individuals with singular, inside takes on the overarching story. They include a doctor named Basel al-Sabha, who treated Mr. Zarqawi in prison; Abu Haytham, who ran the counterterrorism unit of Jordan’s intelligence service and fought the Islamic State in its various guises for years; and Nada Bakos, a young C.I.A. officer who became the agency’s top expert on Mr. Zarqawi. This narrative approach lends the larger story of the Islamic State an up-close-and-personal immediacy and underscores the many what-ifs that occurred along the way.
In “Black Flags,” Mr. Zarqawi comes across as a kind of Bond villain, who repeatedly foils attempts to neutralize him. He was a hard-drinking, heavily tattooed Jordanian street thug (well versed in pimping, drug dealing and assault), and when he found religion, he fell for it hard, having a relative slice off his offending tattoos with a razor blade.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founding father of the group that would become the Islamic State.CreditDepartment of Defense, via Getty Images
He traveled to Afghanistan in 1989 to wage jihad; during a stint in a Jordanian prison, he emerged as a leader known and feared for his ruthlessness as an enforcer among Islamist inmates. He began thinking of himself as a man with a destiny, and in the aftermath of the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, he set up a small training camp in Iraq’s northeastern mountains, near the Iranian border.
At this point, Mr. Zarqawi was just a small-time jihadist. But then, Mr. Warrick writes, “in the most improbable of events, America intervened,” declaring — in an effort to make the case for ousting Saddam Hussein — that “this obscure Jordanian was the link between Iraq’s dictatorship and the plotters behind the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.” As C.I.A. analysts well knew, this assertion was false; in retrospect, it would also have the perverse effect of turning Mr. Zarqawi into “an international celebrity and the toast of the Islamist movement.” Weeks later, when United States troops invaded Iraq, this newly famous terrorist “gained a battleground and a cause and soon thousands of followers.”
Accused by the Bush administration of being in league with Saddam Hussein, Mr. Zarqawi would use the Americans’ toppling of the dictator to empower himself. He was a diabolical strategist, and he quickly capitalized on two disastrous decisions made by the Americans (dissolving the Iraqi Army and banning Baath Party members from positions of authority), which intensified the country’s security woes and left tens of thousands of Iraqis out of work and on the street. Soon, former members of Mr. Hussein’s military were enlisting in Mr. Zarqawi’s army; others offered safe houses, intelligence, cash and weapons.
While the Bush White House was debating whether there even was an insurgency in Iraq, Mr. Zarqawi was helping to direct the worsening violence there, orchestrating car and suicide bombings and shocking beheadings. He also used terrorism to change the battlefield, fomenting sectarian hatred between the Shiites and the disenfranchised and increasingly bitter Sunnis, guaranteeing more chaos and discrediting the electoral process.
Mr. Zarqawi’s penchant for ultraviolence had won him his favorite moniker, “the sheikh of the slaughterers,” but by mid-2005, his bloodthirstiness and killing of Shiite innocents worried Al Qaeda’s leadership, which warned him that “the mujahed movement must avoid any action that the masses do not understand or approve.”
After many narrow escapes, Mr. Zarqawi was finally killed by a United States airstrike in June 2006, and over the next few years, the United States managed to decimate much of his organization. Still, dangerous embers remained, and they would burst into flames under the group’s new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who shared Mr. Zarqawi’s taste for gruesome violence, and who had built up a valuable network of supporters while serving time in Camp Bucca, a United States-controlled prison known as a “jihadi university” for its role in radicalizing inmates. The sectarianism of the Iraqi prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki drove increasingly marginalized Sunnis into the embrace of the Islamic State — a dynamic hastened by the withdrawal of American troops in 2011. Meanwhile, in Syria, the chaos of civil war created perfect conditions for the Islamic State’s explosive growth and a home base for its self-proclaimed caliphate.
The final chapters of this volume have a somewhat hurried feel. In fact, more detailed examinations of the rise of Mr. Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s sophisticated use of social media, and its efforts to displace Al Qaeda as the leader of global jihad can be found in two illuminating recent books: “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, and “ISIS: The State of Terror,” by Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger. But for readers interested in the roots of the Islamic State and the evil genius of its godfather, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, there is no better book to begin with than “Black Flags.”