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Black Flags


The centre can't hold
JOBY WARRICK | Issue Dated: November 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Black Flags | Joby Warrick |


Black Flags
Author : Joby Warrick
Penguin Random House India

Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 9780593076828
Pages: 370
Price : Rs699

The spectacular rise of Islamic State has spawned several books in the last few years. As with any rising phenomenon, publishers and writers alike try to cash in the prevailing hype and sell as many books as thy can. More often than not, the biggest victim of this game is content. Poorly done research, hastily brought together facts and awful editing take their toll on serious readers and put them off completely. The same has happened with the books on ISIS.

A slew of books started appearing when Islamic State was still in its fledgling form ISIS or Islamic State of Iraq and As Sham. Because of my immediate interest in the subject, I gorged upon whatever came my way. Let me tell you, it was a traumatic exercise. The kind of rubbish I had to go through was painful to say the least. That is, until I came across Joby Warrick’s ‘Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS.’

The best thing about Black Flag is that you can notice the tussle that would have happened between the writer and the publisher from the name itself. It becomes more obvious when you reach to the content part. As the name suggests, it deals with years preceding the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and As Sham and factors that led to its subsequent birth. At no point does it claim to be an exhaustive book. And it is not.

In essence, Black Flags remain the biography of mercurial Jordanian terrorist and al Qaeda leader    Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is through the exploits of al Zarqawi that Warrick traces the rise of ISIS.

Written in the style of a thriller, the book holds your attention from the word go. Lately, more and more writers—many of them journalists—have started to adopt narrative style as their favourite one to deal with contemporary issues. Not only this style holds on to the existing readers who are game to serious content; it also brings in a large number of new readers who are otherwise hooked on to genres such as Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

The book starts with the early years of Zarqawi in Jordan when he was little more than a street punk, more suited for a job as a pimp than the commander of a pan-Islamist terror group. In between somewhere, he found religion. The book goes at length about his early days, his incarceration and his meteoric rise fuelled by US’ attack of Iraq and its subsequent occupation.

Warrick appears to have done a lot of legwork in Jordon, including dipping into the murky world of Jordanian Mukhabrat, and that shows. His primary sources include Abu Haytham, who ran the counterterrorism unit of Jordan’s intelligence and fought the Islamic State in its earlier, and later more consolidated forms, for years; and Nada Bakos, an American intelligence rookie who became CIA’s top expert on al Zarqawi.

Al Zarqawi always had a different style of functioning than his group leader Osama Bin Laden. Although a follower of the sectarian Takfiri Wahhabi ideology; Osama Bin laden was an advocator of “unity in Islam” against the western “infidel” onslaught. It is now a known fact that he instructed his commanders not to specifically target Shiites, even if it was merely for tactical reasons. His speeches were always targeted against the West and the local governments that supported their campaign in the region. It was never specifically against Shiites.

Al Zarqawi on the other hand had no time for such necessities. He broke through on the global jihadist radar by starting to post gruesome pictures and videos of beheadings that immediately led to shock and awe in the internet world and gave him his pedestal to take a leap. 

The era of de-Baathization process of Iraqi military and administration came as a positive development for al Zarqawi. The out-of-job Baath generals made a beeline to join what was essentially developing as a more autonomous wing of al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Zarqawi also tweaked the structure of al Qaeda to make it more sustainable for the future. The independent module set-up was proving good for their local operations, but it was not going to be enough if they mounted a spectacular rise in years to come.

Al Zarqawi started forming the pyramid structure with lots of second rung commanders and their neatly assigned duties. It as among these second rung commanders that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the present “Caliph” of Islamic State, first made his bones.

Al Zarqawi’s al Qaeda was also not averse to targeting Shiites. If anything, they were more interested in attacking them and splitting the Islamic world into two.     

Warrick also insists in as many words that while al Zarqawi was always a mercurial leader destined for infamy, he was not as potent as the subsequent US attack on Iraq made him. Without even an iota of proof, US linked al Zarqawi with the September 11 Attacks, and used it as the casus belli to attack Iraq. Warrick’s research prove that CIA analysts knew it all along that this theory was outright false, not merely erroneous. However, they went with the tide. The attack ended up boosting the ranks of fledgling al Qaeda body and gained it hundreds and thousands of followers, many of whom later turned into the most ruthless drones for Islamic State.

The book is not without problems. Like most of the Western analysts, Warrick also holds on to now debunked theory that it was Nouri al Maliki’s sectarian anti-Sunni policies which lend succour to the Islamic State. The myth of Sunni disenchantment is the creation of General Petraeus, which tried to shift some of the blame from US’ action to that on Maliki. It is rather sad to see an author of the calibre of Warrick still lapping up to that propaganda trope.

However, in totality, the book remains a triumph.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017