Jessica Stern is the coauthor of “ISIS: The State of Terror” and a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law.
Much of the world awakened to the threat of the Islamic State in August 2014, after the organization began beheading foreign hostages on video. But ISIS, as it is also known, was not a new group, nor was it the first to use horror as a weapon. It was founded as al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 by an infamous Jordanian thug known by his nom de guerre, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Since its creation, the group has changed names several times, but it has retained and expanded many of the innovations put in place by its founder, who used his experience as a gangster to create an unusually wealthy, vicious and crude organization.
Zarqawi was a high school dropout, known around town as a boozer and a brawler, certainly not as a pious man, let alone a fundamentalist. He was well known to the local police for his involvement in violence and drug-dealing. His mother encouraged him to study Islam, hoping to rescue her son from a life of crime. But studying religion did not help Zarqawi find peace. The Islam that he discovered was an unusually violent one. His jihad had nothing to do with elevating himself spiritually and everything to do with justifying his preferred lifestyle — burglary and brutality.
In “Black Flags,” Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick explains the importance of this Jordanian gangster and analyzes his continuing influence on the Islamic State long after his death in 2006. There have been a number of previous biographies of Zarqawi, but Warrick takes the story much further and deeper. Most important, he shows, in painful but compulsively readable detail, how a series of mishaps and mistakes by the U.S. and Jordanian governments gave this unschooled hoodlum his start as a terrorist superstar and set the Middle East on a path of sectarian violence that has proved hard to contain.
Until 2003, Zarqawi was largely unknown outside Jordan. As Warrick recounts, in his famous speech to the U.N. Security Council in 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to the obscure Jordanian as the link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden as part of the Bush administration’s justification for the invasion of Iraq. That speech, Warrick explains, which Powell later described as a blot on his record, catapulted this small-time jihadist into the terrorist firmament. Many of Warrick’s sources in the CIA describe the pressure they were under to find a link between Hussein and al-Qaeda, but they kept coming up empty. Just before the 2003 invasion, Zarqawi was holed up in northern Iraq with Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group that viewed Hussein as an apostate enemy and was working on developing chemical weapons. CIA operatives were poised to take out this group, which, unlike the Iraqi president, really was linked to al-Qaeda. Most frustrating, in hindsight for those operatives, the Bush administration was determined to focus on removing Hussein instead. Ironically, it was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that gave purpose to Zarqawi’s chosen vocation. The invasion pushed him into an alliance with bin Laden and led to al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq, and ultimately to the emergence of the Islamic State.
The group acquired expertise, knowledge and inspiration from Zarqawi, leading it to form a hybrid of criminal organization, proto-state and apocalyptic cult that flaunts its brutality on social media. As leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Zarqawi exploited smuggling routes still used by the Islamic State to trade in stolen goods and personnel. He specialized in theatrical acts of lethal violence: He was not the first terrorist to behead his captives, but he made beheadings, as well as snuff films, a signature of his organization, practices that the Islamic State has perfected. He was rabidly anti-Shiite and ardently Takfiri — prone to accusing others of apostasy — and these views led him to kill anyone who did not accept his interpretation of Islam. For this, he drew condemnation from a number of prominent jihadi fighters and ideologues, including his mentor, the famous pro-jihadi preacher Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Zarqawi believed that his fate was foretold in prophetic passages of the Hadith, a collection of sayings and practices of the prophet Muhammad. “The black flags will come from the East, led by mighty men, with long hair and beards, their surnames taken from their home towns,” the ancient scholars had written. The Islamic State uses a black flag and quotes Zarqawi’s predictions about the coming “final battle” with the West in every issue of its online magazine, Dabiq, named after the Syrian town where that battle is anticipated to take place.
To tell Zarqawi’s story, Warrick turns to intelligence and military officers who spent years tracking the terrorist. One of his sources is Nada Bakos, a brilliant young CIA operative who describes her struggles to justify the invasion of Iraq as well as to hunt down Zarqawi. Perhaps the most surprising observations come from the doctor who treated Zarqawi while he was in prison in Jordan in the 1990s, where, together with his mentor, he ran a sort of jihadi university for fellow Jordanian militants. The doctor, whom Warrick interviewed, describes a very moody person, capable of horrific acts of violence but also surprising acts of kindness, especially toward those who were weak.
Jordan’s role, until now, has been largely unsung. (Jordanian officials admitted to Warrick that Zarqawi was accidentally left on a list of political prisoners to be released in 1999, as part of a general amnesty when King Abdullah ascended to the throne. Because Zarqawi was known to be trying to overthrow the Jordanian regime, he should not have been on the list.) The king comes across in Warrick’s narrative as courageous, wise and prescient. As Warrick shows, Abdullah repeatedly warned President George W. Bush that removing Hussein from power could do far more harm than good. He tried to talk Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, out of disbanding the Iraqi army, correctly anticipating the trouble those unemployed military personnel could cause, but his warnings went unheeded. Jordanian intelligence officers were able to pinpoint Zarqawi’s location in 2006, leading to the U.S. airstrike that killed him. But his descendants joined forces with former military officers to establish a proto-state.
Both the civil war in Syria and the disenfranchisement of Sunni Muslims were critical to the Islamic State’s rise. One of Warrick’s sources, a Sunni tribesman who had participated in the 2006 Anbar Awakening, during which Iraqi tribes formed an alliance with U.S. troops against al-Qaeda in Iraq, explains that, beginning around 2010, he began to see the Iraqi government as a greater enemy than the jihadists. Over time, some of the Sunni tribesmen turned against Baghdad and joined the Islamic State, partly as protection from Iran-backed Shiite militias and partly because the group offered them good salaries.
By now, much has been written about the rise of the Islamic State. What makes Warrick’s book unique is its focus on the group’s roots, especially the evolution of its founder. Warrick provides a great deal of reason for Americans to feel remorse: shame that we lashed out at the wrong enemy after 9/11; regret that we chose to remove Iraq’s military leaders from their jobs, leaving them vulnerable to recruitment by Zarqawi and his successors; sorrow that so many American and Iraqi lives were lost in fighting the jihadists, who nonetheless rose again in a more lethal form. No one heeded the warnings that the sectarian violence unleashed in Iraq would spread throughout the region or that majoritarian rule would lead to renewed civil war. But Warrick’s is not a partisan accounting. His narrative puts equal blame on the Obama administration for doing so little to stop the resurgence of a group we spent many billions to stamp out during the troop surge in the Iraq war.
What is missing from all these accounts thus far, including not only Warrick’s, but also, I am sorry to confess, my own, is a clear strategy for going forward. It is far easier to point out the flaws in our current strategy than to suggest a better one. Americans tend to imagine that all problems can be fixed and that we ought to do whatever we can to fix them. In this case, there is good reason to feel responsible, but it’s not clear what actions we can take that won’t make the problem even worse. It is going to take a great deal of ingenuity even to contain the Islamic State that Zarqawi unleashed, let alone defeat it.