Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – may be familiar to the average news reader who has followed the developments of the jihadist militant organisation. On the other hand references to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, even though he was the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and who therefore laid the ground for the Islamic State, may not resonate as keenly. In this vein, Joby Warrick’s “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS” is a useful primer to the roots of ISIS, with attention paid to destabilisation in Iraq and Syria after the American invasion in 2003 and the Arab Spring demonstrations between 2010 and 2012 respectively. Attention is also paid to the brutal terrorism of Baghdadi, thought to be Zarqawi’s offspring.
Across its three chronological parts, the book reads like an extended news report, complete with a kicker at the end referencing Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh, who was captured and burned to death by ISIS. This gruesome murder, according to Warrick, not only invited condemnation throughout the Islamic world, but also “sparked a change among ordinary Arabs”. Through anecdotes like this, the role of Jordan was emphasised: the jailing of Zarqawi in 1992 (though the Jordanian was later made famous by the United States, when it was alleged that he was the link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden), the capability of the Jordanian Mukhabarat, one of the most professional intelligence agencies in the Arab world, as well as the political nous of King Abdullah II and the assistance rendered to the Americans.
In the presentation of these themes the writing style is engaging, with seamless transition from the main narrative to specific incidents, and to the perspectives of actors, either through first-hand interviews or secondary sources like correspondences, interrogations, or speeches.
While informative, the book is not necessarily comprehensive. Countries of Jordan, Iraq, and Syria – in that order of the three parts – feature heavily, yet there is little to no mention of the roles of Iran and Saudi Arabia, which represent Shia or Shi’ite Muslims and Sunni Muslims, and have been known to sponsor non-state actors or even terrorists. In this battle for supremacy in the Middle East, it can be argued that these countries have a hand in the unstable circumstances which have allowed ISIS to attract adherents and to expand their military operations. Perhaps a follow-up book or companion pieces should explore these issues in greater detail, and to maybe assess recent developments, but “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS” provides a reader enough for more informed evaluations in the future.