The terrorist organization ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has much of the world on high alert. Their brutal attacks, including the recent bombings in Brussels, have dominated news headlines, and there is well-founded worry that the militants are amassing a growing army in Syria and elsewhere.
In his book, “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,” Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Joby Warrick traces the history of the terrorist group, also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or the Islamic State, back to its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Zarqawi exhibited the telltale signs of a troubled youth, Warrick writes. The Jordanian dropped out of high school, gained a reputation for drinking, drugs and fighting, and then headed off to fight in the Afghan War in the late 1980s. His own mother doubted he was bright enough to lead any kind of organization, but those who shared his extremist views looked up to him.
Zarqawi used the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the backlash that followed as a backdrop for forming what eventually became known as ISIS. He and his followers launched a series of bombings, beheadings and attacks, and he became well known to the world as the extremist group’s brutal leader. In 2006, when Jordan and the United States tracked Zarqawi down and killed him, his terrorist organization appeared to be dead, too. Instead, it merely slept. In 2013, ISIS emerged bigger and stronger than ever in Syria, utilizing civil unrest to rally a new legion of fighters around its militant Islamic message.
Warrick, a Washington Post reporter who has covered national security and the Middle East, also introduces us to members of the intelligence community who chased Zarqawi and helped first identify and track his terrorist network. They include Nada Bakos, a rancher’s daughter from Denton, Mont. She applied to the CIA at the urging of her father but didn’t expect to actually land a job. But the rookie analyst with superior sleuthing skills quickly became the CIA’s top expert on Zarqawi. Bakos was among a handful of CIA analysts who, before the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq, remained convinced that there were no ties between Saddam Hussein’s government and al-Qaida, and her portrayal in the book helps illuminate how decisions were made in the tenuous weeks leading up to the invasion.
“Black Flags” was named a best book of 2015 by The New York Times and others, and this week won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. It is a timely and engaging narrative about an organization that has grabbed international attention for its brutal attacks, regressive ideology and sophisticated social media presence and recruitment tactics. The book offers some optimism — contending that we know what works against ISIS — as well as questions about whether world powers like the U.S. will be willing to do what it takes to eliminate them.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Warrick, are online and available for podcast at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.