Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS

There is a wonderfully human moment recounted in the early pages of Joby Warrick’s Black Flags, a history of the terrorist group ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria): a would-be jihadist, sent into an adult movie theatre by his puritanical masters, placed his homemade bomb beneath a seat, but became so engrossed in the action on-screen that he forgot that his particular explosive had been set to a timer. The luckless jihadi paid for the temporary titillation with the loss of both his legs. Fast forward more than a decade, when the same joyless strain of Islam has spread out of Jordan and into a ravaged Syria, and there is still much to laugh at, but not for the helpless Syrian shopkeepers, who are told they cannot present cucumbers and tomatoes in their store windows due to their physical “similarities” to male and female genitals. When bearded men with guns and a penchant for crucifying their enemies take issue with your fruit, on whatever grounds, you do as you’re told. But how did this insanity take hold, and how did it spread?

Here’s something of an open secret: prisons are prime recruiting grounds for Islamic terrorists. This has always been the case in the Middle East, where they conveniently collect the criminals, radicals and fanatics under one roof, and often torture them into even greater levels of fanaticism, but it is now true of Europe, where Islamic preachers work hard to convert disaffected inmates to a particularly violent interpretation of the faith, one that draws a sharp distinction between the damned and the saved and offers the possibility of redemption for even the most grievous of sinners. In Jordan in the early 1990s, in an ancient fortress repurposed to house the most dangerous of the state’s prisoners, one particular preacher had a reputation for converting not only his fellow inmates, but the guards as well; so effective were his preachings, and so susceptible his audience, that the prison supervisors were forced to regularly rotate the guards on duty, to prevent them from falling under his spell. This silver-tongued preacher was Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, famous for publishing books such as Democracy Is A Religion, which argued that liberal democracy was, by its nature, un-Islamic, and that the Arab nations and their leaders were therefore heretical; in fact, he went even further, arguing that every true Muslim had a personal obligation to act, up to and including killing in the name of their faith. This position might be termed radical, but it was hardly novel: Warrick notes that the famous Egyptian theologian Sayyid Qutb made a similar argument, and had a much larger influence. But like Qutb, Maqdisi was, at heart, a religious scholar, someone happier debating the necessity of jihad than waging it himself. Warrick quotes from the prison doctor, who remembers Maqdisi delivering this extraordinary contradiction to him, in a moment of concession: “You can be a member of Parliament and still be a good Muslim. If someone is elected because he wants to serve the people, that’s being a good Muslim. But if he believes in democracy – if he believes in rules made by men – he is an infidel.” That is a fine distinction to draw, particularly when you consider that a “good Muslim,” in Maqdisi’s view, must be protected from harm, but an “infidel” may – and perhaps should – be killed.

When it came to implementing Maqdisi’s theology, putting theory into action, his second in command, Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayleh, took charge. He was a fierce man with a criminal past, whose acolytes spoke of him as “the one from Zarqa,” the rough industrial town in northern Jordan where he was born – thus “al-Zarqawi.” Before his conversion to devout Islam, and his imprisonment with Maqdisi, he had a reputation for raping the male victims of his crimes, “as a way to humiliate them and assert his own dominance.” Together with his quick temper and imposing physical presence, he was distinguished for covering his forearm in tattoos – which are prohibited under Islam – and then, in repentance, attempting to shave them off with a knife. Zarqawi took Maqdisi’s teachings to heart, and no doubt found within them a possibility for his own redemption. But then, in 1999, King Hussein of Jordan died unexpectedly, but not before naming his son, Abdullah II, as his successor; upon Abdullah’s ascension, a good faith gesture was made by his supporters to curry favour with the divided loyalties of Jordan, from rival claimants to the throne to religious groups eager for greater representation, and many of Jordan’s prisoners were granted clemency. Among those freed was al-Zarqawi, who promptly left Jordan on false pretences, seeking training and funding in al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan. It was a decision the Jordanians would come to regret.

After American forces swept aside Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, they were faced with a problem that al-Zarqawi masterfully exploited: how could a small occupying force control a large and divided nation without losing the support of the common people? The Americans, largely ignorant of the nuances of Iraqi politics and culture, compounded their troubles by purging all Baath party members from positions of authority. In theory, this was done to oust Saddam loyalists, just as Germany needed to be “de-Nazified” after World War II, but in practice it meant ejecting competent civil servants (up to and including university professors) from their jobs – men and women who had joined the party out of fear and self-interest rather than genuine ideological commitment. The result was a large group of professional, well-educated Iraqis were left without jobs and robbed of their pensions, and the social services they provided – including sanitation – were largely abandoned. Sensing his opportunity, al-Zarqawi masterminded a series of suicide bombings on military and civilian targets that were calculated to simultaneously increase American aggression towards the Iraqi people and focus the anger of Iraqi citizens on the occupying forces that claimed to be looking out for their best interests but could not protect them from random violence. Tensions inevitably rose, the tide of public opinion shifted dramatically, and the spark ignited by Zarqawi grew into a full-blown insurgency that would, almost inevitably, sour American attitudes towards the war and undermine support for the occupation.

Zarqawi was also the pioneer of another form of barbarism: the video-taped executions – often by beheading, but also by immolation, crucifixion and stoning – that were disseminated over the Internet and acted as a clarion call to the region’s psychopaths. Incredibly, it was exactly these extreme actions that tarnished al-Qaeda’s opinion of Zarqawi; in one recovered letter to him, for example, he is cautioned for doing damage to their public image! But however much they might have disapproved of his methods, their effectiveness was not in doubt. Zarqawi is killed midway through our narrative, the victim of good American intelligence and precision bombing, but the strategy he pioneered – of entering into a dying country and exploiting the power vacuum – would be repeated in Syria by the remnants of his followers, the eventual Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), to even greater success. Black Flags presents their history in a gripping narrative, one that indicts the ignorance of one American presidency and the utter ineffectiveness of another, and conjures in the reader a stomach-wrenching pity for the citizens of Iraq and Syria who have had to suffer the rampaging of a medieval sect reborn in the 21st century.