(Abu Mu’sab al-Zarqawi, the man who laid the foundation for ISIS)

If one were to read one book to gain an understanding of how the Islamic State (ISIS) was able to conquer a land mass that is as big as Israel and Lebanon, it should be Joby Warrick’s new monograph, BLACK FLAGS: THE RISE OF ISIS.  Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Washington Post writes in a clear style that allows the reader to gain insight and understanding of the many important points he makes.  What separates Warrick’s effort from the myriad of works on ISIS that have appeared in the last year is the perspective he brings.  A major part of the book presents the rise of ISIS from the Jordanian point of view.  Concentrating on King Abdullah II of Jordan, the reader is exposed to the inner workings of the Hashemite Kingdom as they try to cope with what is occurring on two sides of their border.  The book opens with attempts to negotiate the release of the downed Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasabeh with ISIS, and the plight of Sajida Rishawi, a convicted ISIS terrorist who is facing execution for trying to unleash a horrendous attack in Amman.  In the end al-Kasabeh is burned alive, creating revulsion throughout the Muslim world, and Rishawi is executed.

In addition to being led inside the Jordanian national security bureaucracy through the work of Abu Haytham, a senior officer in the Jordanian counterterrorism division; the author concentrates on the role of American Ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford; and Mouazi Moustafa, a Syrian immigrant who became a veteran Capitol Hill staffer who lobbied hard to assist the Syrian people and arm moderate elements who were opposed to Syrian president, Bashir el-Assad in explaining events and policies that evolved before and after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Apart from discussing policy decisions as ISIS develops, Warrick spends the first two-thirds of the book presenting a biography of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi who is credited with creating the foundation of the Islamic State.  We meet an uneducated street thug who fought in Afghanistan and was eventually imprisoned in Jordan.  Warrick and others point to Zarqawi’s imprisonment as attending “Jihadi University” as many like-minded individuals came together and became radicalized.  Further, after the United States invaded Iraq it set up Camp Bucca which will become another branch of the “Jihadi University” as over 26,000 prisoners lived in communal tents according to their own sectarian identification.  The result is that the camp created the nucleus of the ISIS leadership as men like the future self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was also in residence.

(King Abdullah II of Jordan who personally led air stikes against ISIS)

The author explores the developing story that culminated in Vice President Dick Cheney’s charge that Zarqawi met with Saddam Hussein to discuss access to chemical weapons which was false, but was used as one of the excuses to invade Iraq.  Further, Warrick does an excellent job synthesizing the information that reflects the “head in the sand” approach taken by the Bush administration in dealing with post-invasion Iraq.  After declaring victory on the USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush faced a developing insurgency by the end of August, 2003 that his administration refused to face up to.  This lack of accepting the reality of events in Iraq left a vacuum that allowed Zarqawi to take advantage of and fill.  Warrick describes Zarqawi’s approach to the insurgency and his disagreements with Osama Bin-Ladin nicely, and what emerges is a ruthless individual who justifies his murderous action with the cover of his own Koranic interpretation.

(President Bush places a medal around the neck of Paul Bremer III….it could not have been for his actions taken in Iraq!)

Another important perspective that Warrick presents is the analysis offered by Nada Bakos, a CIA operative who became the agencies “targeter” whose function was to concentrate on Zarqawi until the United States killed him.  Bakos takes us inside the CIA as they try to develop a coherent strategy to deal with the “Sheik of Slaughterers” as he referred to himself.  Warrick also exposes one of the most disturbing aspects of American actions in Iraq.  Warrick describes the arrogance and incompetence of Paul Bremer III, the Bush appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004.  King Abdullah II had warned the U.S. repeatedly against the invasion of Iraq as well as deBathification of the army, intelligence, and government agencies which were in charge of the country’s infrastructure once the invasion took place.  After detailing Zarqawi’s massive plot to set off what would have been a “dirty bomb” in Amman in March, 2004, Abdullah II met with Bremer as Warrick reports, to appeal once again not to deBathize Iraq.  Bremer’s reply was brusque, “I know what I am doing.  There’s going to be some sort of compensation.”  I’ve got it all in hand, thank you very much.” (148)

 (US Ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford)

The last third of the book is devoted to the disintegration of Syria and the opportunity those events presented for ISIS.  Warrick dissects Assad’s reaction to the Arab Spring of 2011 and how he hoped to manipulate the rebellion against him by releasing jihadis from Syrian prisons to enhance the revolution against him.  This was done to show the west that he was fighting an Islamic insurgency, rather than a civil war.  Warrick examines the approach taken by the Obama administration in dealing with Syria and the rise of ISIS.  His analysis is not very complementary as he discusses the schisms within the administration as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and CIA head David Petraeus tried to convince the president to provide more than humanitarian aid to moderate elements opposing Assad. Finally, when Assad employs chemical weapons against the rebels, Obama launches an air campaign that is ongoing.  The effectiveness of this campaign has been hotly debated and with the Russian entrance into the war to prop up its ally with cruise missiles and bombing runs the situation is growing more precarious each day.  Warrick does explain Obama’s thinking throughout the period as he is sorely limited in terms of options with Iran and Russia providing money and weapons to Assad, and the United Nations not an option because of Moscow’s opposition.

Warrick has written an important work as he synthesizes much of the material dealing with Zarqawi and how the Islamic State declared itself a Caliphate in July, 2014.  It is clearly written for the lay person and should enhance any reader’s understanding of what is probably the most dangerous situation American foreign policy has faced in decades.  After reading this book the reader will wonder what the United States could have done differently based on events, not the partisan harangues that emanate from Congress.  It is important for all to pay attention to what is occurring as people in the region wait for the next shoe to drop.  One can only feel trepidation for King Abdullah of Jordan as he tries to maneuver his way in a region that is a tinderbox.

(Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi)

(Caliph Ibrahim, or Abu Umar al-Bahgdadi, the leader of the Islamic State)

Since 2014 a number of interesting works have appeared that try to explain the background history of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and why it has been successful to date.  William McCants, the Director of the Project on U.S. relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution has added his new book, THE ISIS APOCALYPSE: THE HISTORY, STRATEGY AND DOOMSDAY VISION OF THE ISLAMIC STATE to that genre.  What separates McCants monograph from the others is his emphasis on the role of Islamic messianism in the policies pursued by the Islamic State, and the differences between the Islamic State and Osama Bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda’s view of jihadism, and how and when to establish an Islamic caliphate.

In his introduction McCants presents himself with a challenge as he takes the reader on a tour of the Islamic State.  He tells the reader that they will be exposed to explanations concerning obscure allusions to Islamic history and theology, in addition the reader will be able “to appreciate how the Islamic State thinks of itself, and how its self-understanding has affected its political fortunes, and what will happen if those fortunes change again.” (2)  Having completed McCants’ tour, as a reader I believe he has accomplished his goals.  At the outset he does a nice job explaining the origins of ISIS by exploring the relationship and differences that existed between Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawri and Osama bin-Laden, and the creation and failure of ISIS by 2008.  McCants discusses the different historical figures and events that influenced ISIS as well as the current leadership in the different jihadi movements.

(An english speaking ISIS member leads a mass execution)

The most important aspect of the book is how McCants delves into the role of messianism in Islam and how it affected the rise of ISIS and the policies it pursues.  The prophecies of Islam play a major role for ISIS.  The concept of the Mahdi, “the rightly guided one,” is important because according to Islamic prophecy he would appear at the end of time to lead the final battle against the infidels.  The similarities between the Abbasid Dynasty and ISIS is treated carefully and presents an interesting dichotomy for the reader.  The popularity of the Dabiq prophecy attracted foreign fighters as the prophecy called for the conquering and cleansing of this small town near the Syrian-Turkish border before a caliphate flag could be raised.  Aspects of Islamic prophecy hold today that before the final apocalypse, sectarian conflict must precede it, as it took place following the death of Mohammad.  Each sect is trying to complete the task of killing the infidel, but first they must destroy each other to achieve the honor of doing so.  The apocalyptic message that ISIS employed along with the restoration of the caliphate that ended after World War I, and revolution are the core of its principles.  However, Osama Bin-Laden refused to accept this.  The al-Qaeda leader believed that the needs of the people must be taken care of first and the United States had to leave Iraq and Afghanistan before a caliphate could be declared, something he believed would not take place in his lifetime.

McCants is accurate in his explanation as to why ISIS was able to expand so easily and acquire the territory that would provide legitimacy to its restoration of the caliphate.  Bashir al-Assad’s policies in Syria facilitated ISIS’ task by funneling hundreds of jihadists into Iraq to fight the U.S., and releasing numerous prisoners to foster the chaos that allowed him to crack down on opposition to his rule.  Assad chose not to fight ISIS but concentrate on domestic opposition thus allowing ISIS to expand into eastern Syria, and with the issues attendant to Iraq they could easily capture western Iraq giving them a stronghold that encompassed Mosul to Aleppo.  McCants is also on firm ground as he detailed the rise of Abu Umar al-Bahgdadi within ISIS and the announcement of the restoration of the “caliphate in accordance with the prophetic method,” in addition to declaring himself caliph.  McCants explores the opposition by al-Qaeda and others to this move explaining that the trappings of a caliphate do not make it a caliphate.

(ISIS takes villagers hostage in Syria)

The book is a slim volume, but McCants certainly maximizes the space.  He explores events in Yemen and the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as well as other al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and the Horn of Africa.  He points to their differences with ISIS, but also areas of support.  The influence of the Arab Spring is discussed in relation to ISIS ideology and its role in the apocalyptic narrative that ISIS spins.

Everyone seems to want to know why ISIS was so successful between 2013 and 2014 – it is a simple answer – they were pretty much left alone.  When Sunni rebels try to overthrow Assad, ISIS concentrated on setting up a state in the Syrian hinterland.  It filled its leadership with ex-Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s military and intelligence branches and attracted thousands of foreign fighters “by using a propaganda mix of apocalypticism, puritanism, sectarianism, ultraviolence, and promises of a caliphate.” (153)  all of these aspects of ISIS are fully explored by the author in creating an important addition in trying to understand the success of ISIS and where we go in the future.