Their flags are black, and most of the world considers their hearts to be cold. But the terrorists of ISIS are more than walking symbols of evil. They have motives and a martyr, and we’ll only be able to defeat them if we understand both.
That’s the message underlying the new book Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, a masterpiece of international reporting that should be read by every presidential candidate.
Author Jory Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, vividly uncovers the life and the bloody legacy of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. As Warrick explains, American decisions boosted Zarqawi’s bid for power, and even his death nearly a decade ago couldn’t snuff the cruel movement he created. Thanks to Warrick, readers will understand how ISIS seeks the destruction of the Middle East’s nations and an apocalyptic global battle.
In an interview, Warrick explores the crucial differences between al-Qaeda and ISIS, the evolution of terror tactics and the best way forward.
“ISIS is run by radical fanatics who, like Zarqawi, are a blend of thuggishness and religious extremism,” he says. “They do not negotiate or compromise. Stopping them will require military action to defeat their army and deny them a sanctuary... [and] it also will require a concerted effort to discredit their ideology. It is essential that other Muslims take the lead is both fights.”
Q: What does Zarqawi’s story tell us about ISIS?
Zarqawi's importance as a transformational figure in the jihadist movement has been long overlooked. Nearly every innovation associated with ISIS started with him, from the brutal assaults on Shiite innocents to the videotaped beheadings of hostages in orange jumpsuits. If you want to truly understand ISIS, from its origins to its tactics to its future plans, you have to start with him.
Q: What surprised you the most as you researched the book?
Like many readers, I had not fully understood the extent to which US policy decisions directly contributed to the rise of Zarqawi and his brutal movement. In 2003, we transformed Zarqawi from a fringe figure to a celebrity by inaccurately claiming that he was a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Then we gave him the war he had always wanted with the invasion of Iraq later that year.
So much of what followed, from the Iraq insurgency to the formation of ISIS, can be traced back to those key moments.
Q: There's that old saying that every general fights the last war. How much of an issue is that here for the US and its allies?
It's a really big issue going forward. Those who advocate a large US troop presence on the ground in Syria and Iraq may not anticipate the extent to which ISIS welcomes that fight and benefits from it because it feeds the group's ideological narrative and drives recruitment.
Q: What should politicians, military, media, and the public understand about the differences between ISIS and al Qaeda?
Both are dangerous adversaries, but ISIS is a more virulent strain.
Al-Qaeda uses violence strategically and sees caliphate-building as a distant goal. ISIS uses brutality to shock and intimidate, and it is more prone to strike targets of convenience – like concert halls and restaurants, as we saw in Paris – rather than symbols of governmental and economic power. Its leaders are motivated by an apocalyptic vision that sees the restoration of the caliphate as a vital step that presages the defeat of the infidel West and the dawning of a godly new age.
Q: Your book notes that even al Qaeda thinks ISIS is too extreme. What should we understand about this mind-boggling divide?
It goes back to the original rivalry between Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi. Bin Laden viewed Zarqawi as a dangerous extremist – quite a statement, coming from the mastermind of 9/11 – and he refused for years to associate with him. The two eventually forged a relationship of convenience in 2004, but even then, Zarqawi constantly tested the boundaries by committing acts so barbaric that bin Laden worried that his disciple was tarnishing the brand.
As violent as it was, al-Qaeda ultimately wanted to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses. For Zarqawi and his ISIS successors, the goal is to provoke and inflame.
Q: What should we take from your book about the big questions people are asking about ISIS: What does it want? And what can we do to stop it?
ISIS wants to be the instigating force behind a restoration of the ancient caliphate and creation of a new world order spanning from southern Europe to Asia under their austere, twisted interpretation of Islam. They want to ignite a war with the West because they believe such a conflict will force the Muslim nation to rise to defend itself, ultimately emerging victorious.
ISIS is run by radical fanatics who, like Zarqawi, are a blend of thuggishness and religious extremism. They do not negotiate or compromise. Stopping them will require military action to defeat their army and deny them a sanctuary – a safe haven such as now exists in eastern Syria and western Iraq.
It also will require a concerted effort to discredit their ideology. It is essential that other Muslims take the lead is both fights.
Q: What sort of message do you hope readers take from the book?
First, ISIS is not Islam. It is an extremist cult that drapes itself in religious imagery but espouses views that are heretical to mainstream Islamist thought.
Second, our actions – and sometimes inaction – have played a profound role in the evolution of this movement. My hope that readers will come away with a better understanding of how we got here and how the decisions we made as a country, despite good intentions, helped create the situation in which we now find ourselves.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.