Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter tackles ISIS
London - For many, the group that came to be known as the Islamic State (ISIS) appeared out of the blue, taking the bloodthirsty ideology of al-Qaeda to a new level and adding an apocalyptic twist that generated gains its predecessor only dreamed of; for this was not just a terrorist organisation but a functional terrorist state with plans for rapid expansion.
Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Joby Warrick sheds much-needed light on the murky extremist group with his book Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, which traces the roots of the organisation in a three-part odyssey across the hotspots of the region. He spoke to The Arab Weekly about his work and the problem of understanding the ideology of ISIS.
Black Flags is the story of Ahmad Fadil, a Jordanian drug-addled, tattooed gangster who transformed into the prototype of the modern-day Islamist jihadi and became known as the “sheikh of the slaughterers”, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Warrick highlights Zarqawi’s journey from the rough streets of the city of Zarqa, north-east of the Jordanian capital Amman, to the country’s jails, where his commitment to jihad was born, and from there his rise to prominence as leader of al- Qaeda in Iraq.
In the pantheon of Islamic terrorists, Zarqawi has a special place, with a unique appeal to a new generation of would-be jihadists, Warrick said. Canadian diplomat Robert R. Fowler, kidnapped in Mali in 2008, said that during his 180 days in captivity his captors would sometimes have a film night and watch the latest jihadist videos.
Although the kidnappers all admired Osama bin Laden, they saw the al-Qaeda leader as a dull and ponderous older man preaching from a podium.
“What really excited them was Zarqawi, a young vibrant and charismatic man kind of like a Che Guevara figure, carrying a machine gun and executing hostages with his own hands,” the author said. The image of a powerful bold fighter who stands up to the West resonates more with some of these young jihadists than al-Qaeda ever did.
Warrick also successfully underscores the differences in methodology and ideology between al-Qaeda and ISIS. “I think that’s an important distinction and interesting how now we see al-Qaeda and groups affiliated with them, like al-Nusra. They seem much milder in comparison,” he told The Arab Weekly.
Another imperative distinction stressed in Black Flags is Zarqawi’s personal obsession with the establishment of a caliphate, an innovation frowned upon by other al-Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, with whom Zarqawi was at one point infatuated and tried hard to please.
According to Warrick, Zarqawi would talk during his sermons about the great showdown between Islam and the West, with the final battle to take place in the Syrian village of Dabiq.
This idea of Zarqawi’s is heavily referenced in ISIS propaganda and recruitment media. “They reach out to their hard-core recruits with this message saying this is the great end times showdown with the infidels and this is something that’s quite prevalent in their ideology,” Warrick said.
“They also embraced violence in a way that was alien to al-Qaeda because for al-Qaeda violence was used strategically, sometimes dramatically, but with a greater purpose in mind.”
Black Flags also underscores missteps by the international community that helped give rise to the establishment of ISIS, particularly the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and decisions such as the ‘de-Ba’athification’ laws and the dissolution of the Iraqi Army, both of which made the country fertile recruitment grounds for al- Qaeda and eventually ISIS.
Geographically, a pivotal part of the story takes place in the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, which, despite its limited economic means, is at the forefront of the war against ISIS. The heroes here are the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate (GID), otherwise known as the dreaded Mukhabarat, which helped the author gain unprecedented access to unpublished reports and figures central to the ISIS story. It took him years to build and maintain these relationships.
“That was very important to me and I wanted to be able to protect confidences, and over time it paid off and some of these sources ended up becoming quite helpful in filling in the blanks and providing information that hasn’t been made public before,” Warrick said.
In order to win the trust of normally hostile Islamists, Warrick relied on good fixers on the ground who were able to set up interviews but with a mandatory introduction first, in order to set the interviewees at ease.
“I found that once you get past the initial barriers, the fact that we come from very different planets culturally, that there was eagerness from the other side to explain their point of view,” Warrick said.
“They wanted to articulate what to them was a rational vision of where they want things to go and what’s wrong in the Middle East, and it was illuminating in helping understand where Zarqawi and his views came from,” he added.
Warrick, whose previous book dealt with the US intelligence community infiltrating al-Qaeda, said he has not seen evidence that suggests the same level of success with ISIS. “It’s been a real challenge for the American intelligence community and that kind of penetration was never their strongest suit,” he said.
“They are more apt at to rely on other agencies and counterparts in other countries to help them in that regard and I don’t really see strong evidence that there has been much penetration of ISIS.”