Book Reviews

From Al Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS, From al Zarqawi to al Baghdadi

By Bruce Riedel
Tuesday, September 15, 2015, 3:00 PM

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS

Joby Warrick

Doubleday (2015)

Reviewed by Bruce Riedel

Veteran Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick's Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS is a thrilling account of the rise, fall and resurrection of the most dangerous terrorist group in the Middle East. Warrick traces the origins of the Islamic State to its founder Ahmad Fadil Al Khalayleh - better known as Abu Musaib al Zarqawi or, as his followers called him, the "shaykh of the slaughterers."

The Jordanian thug who created Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) is at the center of this account, as he should be. Zarqawi almost single handily defeated George W. Bush's Iraq war, which then paved the way for Barack Obama's Iraq war. He joined Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, despite bin Laden's doubts about his competence. After the fall of Kabul in 2001 Zarqawi moved to Iraq where he skillfully planned the destruction of the American occupation and a civil war. He first drove all the foreign delegations from Baghdad by bombing the Jordanian and United Nations embassies, then he lit the fuse to start a Sunni-Shia civil war. Bush didn't know what hit him.

Like bin Laden, Zarqawi thought big. The book records his audacious plot to set off a multiple car bomb chemical weapons attack on Jordanian intelligence headquarters in Amman that would have killed 80,000. Only good intelligence work by Jordan's spies prevented a disaster far larger than 9/11. Zarqawi bombed innocent weddings in Amman when his CW plot failed. He was ruthless, personally beheading an American captive. He quarreled with bin Laden's number two Ayman Zawahiri who thought war with Shia Muslims counterproductive. He ignored the Egyptians' cautions.

Along the way we meet the CIA chief of station in Baghdad who early in the war warned Washington that it was losing the insurgency and was cashiered for telling truth to power. We also meet the Agency's targeter, a female analyst from Montana, who tracked Zarqawi's career. She is another example of why women are so good at connecting the dots. And we meet the Jordanian intelligence officers who played a key role in bringing justice to Zarqawi. His death on 2006 and the surge that followed it was supposed to be Al Qaida's funeral in Iraq.

Of course it was not. The surge did not destroy AQI except in Republican fantasy land. It simply burrowed underground and waited. New leadership was provided by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi who today promises to finish Zarqawi's quest to build a caliphate here and now. Carefully he rebuilt the group's cadres, freed its prisoners in Iraqi jails and exploited the chaos in Syria to revive Zarqawi's jihad.

The spectacular success of Baghdadi's fighters in 2014 did not come as a surprise to those who had fought Zarqawi a decade before. General Michael Flynn who had been in charge of the intelligence team chasing Zarqawi testified to Congress in early 2014. "These are children of Zarqawi" who learned from his mistakes and are thus even more dangerous, Flynn warned. Baghdadi has now surpassed his predecessor in brutality and conquest.

This is the definitive book on Zarqawi. It will become one of the must reads on how Al Qaida has adapted again and again in spite of global efforts to destroy the group and especially its ideology and narrative. Understanding our enemy is the first key to defeating it. Black Flags is a significant contribution to that understanding.

(Bruce Riedel is Director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution; his most recent book is What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989.)