Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS
First books about major events and movements are usually a bit thin and haphazard (Taliban is an exception). In the first year or so after a major event occurs such as a terrorist organization taking over vast amounts of one of the most contentious areas in the world, there’s a strong desire to understand how we got here. That desire is sure to be quickly filled by a book by a journalist. Unfortunately, it is often too early to really understand what is happening. These first drafts of history books are usually filled with background material, but light on the specifics of the event in question. It isn’t necessarily that the author isn’t up to the task; rather it is that the situation hasn’t settled enough to for the story to be told.
Such is the case with Black Flags. This is, frankly, more a book about the pre-history of ISIS than it is about the actual terrorist organization itself. Warrick is a very capable reporter and he does an excellent job laying out the story of the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the forefather as it were of ISIS. We get detailed telling of Zarqawi’s rise in Jordanian militant circles, his travels to Afghanistan, and his horrific campaign against innocents in Iraq. I’ve read a fair amount about what happened in Iraq after the U.S. invaded, but this is some of most concise, informative, writing about that time, and Zarqawi, one of the eras main protagonist that I have come across.
But when Zarqawi is killed, and ISIS rises, the book becomes less informative. Little is known about how ISIS’s leader, Al-Baghdadi, became the heir to Zarqawi, and even less is known about the inner workings of the organization. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t provide much insight into either. While its helpful to have all the known information about ISIS put together in a smart, well written package, if you’ve read the New York Times coverage of ISIS, you know much of what is included here.
Still, if you care about the Middle East (and you should) it pays to read books like this. They show us both what we know, and how little of it we understand.