Newspaper article International New York Times

Retracing the Birth of Our Terror Nightmare

Newspaper article International New York Times

Retracing the Birth of Our Terror Nightmare

Article excerpt

An emotionally electric triangle of a woman, a girl and a horse is mutually transformative.

Black Flags. The Rise of ISIS. By Joby Warrick.Illustrated. 344 pages. Doubleday. $28.95.

In the last month, terror attacks that left 130 dead in Paris and 43 dead in Beirut and took down a Russian airliner with 224 people aboard have made the entire world horribly aware that the Islamic State not only seeks to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, but also is beginning to export its monstrous savagery abroad. Although the Islamic State has been in the headlines for only two years, and its metastasis has been alarmingly swift, the seeds of the group -- in its many incarnations -- were planted many years ago, as Joby Warrick's gripping new book, "Black Flags," makes clear.

Mr. Warrick, a reporter for The Washington Post and the author of the 2011 best seller "The Triple Agent," has a gift for constructing narratives with a novelistic energy and detail, and in this volume, he creates the most revealing portrait yet laid out of Abu Musab Al- Zarqawi, the founding father of the organization that would become the Islamic State.

Although this book owes some debts to Jean-Charles Brisard's 2005 book, "Zarqawi: The New Face of Al Qaeda," Mr. Warrick places that material in context with recent developments and uses his own copious sources within the United States and Jordanian intelligence to flesh out Mr. Zarqawi's story and the crucial role that American missteps and misjudgments would play in fueling his rise and the advance of the Islamic State.

Perhaps emulating the approach Lawrence Wright took in "The Looming Tower," his masterly 2006 account of the road to Sept. 11, Mr. Warrick focuses parts of this book on the lives of several individuals with singular, inside takes on the overarching story. They include a doctor named Basel al-Sabha, who treated Mr. Zarqawi in prison; Abu Haytham, who ran the counterterrorism unit of Jordan's intelligence service and fought the Islamic State in its various guises for years; and Nada Bakos, a young C.I.A. officer who became the agency's top expert on Mr. Zarqawi. This narrative approach lends the larger story of the Islamic State an up-close- and-personal immediacy and underscores the many what-ifs that occurred along the way.

In "Black Flags," Mr. Zarqawi comes across as a kind of Bond villain, who repeatedly foils attempts to neutralize him. He was a hard-drinking, heavily tattooed Jordanian street thug (well versed in pimping, drug dealing and assault), and when he found religion, he fell for it hard, having a relative slice off his offending tattoos with a razor blade.

He traveled to Afghanistan in 1989 to wage jihad; during a stint in a Jordanian prison, he emerged as a leader known and feared for his ruthlessness as an enforcer among Islamist inmates. He began thinking of himself as a man with a destiny, and in the aftermath of the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, he set up a small training camp in Iraq's northeastern mountains, near the Iranian border.

At this point, Mr. Zarqawi was just a small-time jihadist. But then, Mr. Warrick writes, "in the most improbable of events, America intervened," declaring -- in an effort to make the case for ousting Saddam Hussein -- that "this obscure Jordanian was the link between Iraq's dictatorship and the plotters behind the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. …

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