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.
This review was originally published on a now long defunct livejournal account.
The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq
Packer was an earlier supporter of the war in Iraq, and for that, he deserves to get called out at every event at which he speak, forever. Despite that ill-advised position, he is also an incredible writer, and Assassin’s Gate is the best written book I have read on the war in Iraq. Packer moves between DC and Iraq from the beginning of the plans for the war to the time of publication, and you can feel his disgust with the Bush administration grow and his hope for Iraq fail as the book progresses.
Assassin’s Gate is an excellent read, and a good primer on the basic outline of the lead up to the war, but where the book really shines is in the profiles of people caught up by the war, whether that’s anti Saddamist Iraqi exiles, US soldiers, or young women in Baghdad. It’s a popular book, so you’re not going to get all that much depth, but the personal stories make it well worth the read.
Saudi Arabia Exposed : Inside a Kingdom in Crisis, Updated Edition
With the amount of attention Saudi Arabia gets in the western press, you’d think that there would be a metric ton of decent books out there on the modern history of Saudi Arabia. You’d be wrong.
This one by journalist John Bradley was recommended as a good one, since he was one of the few western journalists inside Saudi at the time of the 9/11 attacks he did have unique access. Too bad he can’t write to save his life. How’s this for a crap chronology:
From 1964, Saudi Arabia was ruled by King Faisal, a son of Ibn Saud, but he was assassinated by a nephew in 1975. Back in 1926, Faisal had been appointed the first governor of the Hijaz, immediately after the region was conquered by his father in battles Faisal himself had played a crucial role in leading. As king, Faisal continued to be based a great deal in Jeddah, as did much of the working government – although the capital was officially moved to Riyadh in 1961.
I mean, what? This guy has written for the Economist? Seriously? Another example that success is 90% luck.
In Bradley’s defense, this book is at least somewhat balanced, and he clearly has a real affection for the culture and some of the people he met there. This isn’t jingositic western propaganda (like much of what is written about Saudi) but it also isn’t a very good book.