ISIS saturates the news. But few of us know much about its origins or its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In his new book, Black Flags: The Rise of Isis, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Joby Warrick takes us inside the twisted mind of Zarqawi and his followers, reconstructs the hunt for Zarqawi by a female CIA agent who could have stepped right out of the movie Zero Dark Thirty, and traces the U.S. response to ISIS across several administrations, laying bare our mistakes.
Talking from his home in Fairfax, Virginia, he describes how former Secretary of State Colin Powell first gave Zarqawi global celebrity status, how ISIS perfected the art of publicizing its violent actions via the Internet, and what we have to do if we’re to stop ISIS spreading to Europe—and beyond.
Zarqawi is probably the least likely person ever to become a major terrorist figure. He was from a middle class family in a town called Zarqa, Jordan, a gritty, industrial city not far from the capital. He was a bad seed from early on, who got into trouble with the law as a kid: heavy drinking, thuggery, petty crime, drug abuse. Later, he “gets” religion and goes to Afghanistan, where his views were shaped by being around the bin Laden generation of jihadists. These were then hardened by years in prison after he was arrested for a terrorist plot.
Where bin Laden had a long-term vision for slowly toppling secular Arab regimes and bringing about God’s kingdom on Earth, Zarqawi felt that if he took bold steps, shock the world with violent action, he could make these things happen in the here and now.
Where does the name ISIS come from? And to what extent does ISIS draw on Islamic scripture?
The so-called Islamic State grew out of Zarqawi’s original movement, Al Qaeda in Iraq. After Zarqawi’s death, it became Islamic State in Iraq, and its name reflects its ambition. It is an Islamic state, a caliphate, which doesn’t recognize secular rules or democracy.
There’s a long tradition in both the Koran and the Hadith supporting the idea of a caliphate or Islamic state. The symbol of the black flag can also be traced back to the Hadith. There’s one particular passage that talks about these mighty men coming from the East with black flags and long hair and beards. So you have this colorful image of armed forces marching from the East to conquer the world.
Zarqawi took that literally and tried to fashion the style of his group along those lines. They had the prominent black flags with the prophet’s message on it, “There is no God but God.”
They also dressed in black clothes, a style Zarqawi personally adopted. It’s laden with symbols and intended to convey to the Muslim devout that they are the warriors the Prophet told us about, and they’re on a march to take over the world.
Thousands of young people are flocking to ISIS’s banner. How has ISIS managed to become a mass movement, in the way that Al Qaeda never did?
There are many things bound up in this. First of all, ISIS has become expert at manipulating social media. We’ve seen that many times on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. That’s something that goes back to the earliest days. One of Zarqawi’s signature acts, the first time he presented himself to the world as a terrorist, was to use the Internet, which was just beginning to take off, to behead an American captive on screen named Nick Berg.
They take this innocent young man and put him in an orange jumpsuit evoking the mistreatment, in their view, of Arab hostages and prisoners in American camps like Abu Graib and delivering retribution for all the perceived insults and abuses that Muslims have suffered at the hands of the West.
In the dramatic final moment, Zarqawi himself takes a knife and cuts the young man’s head off. It’s a very grizzly scene using uncut, very raw videography, showing this man being beheaded in a very slow and torturous process.
The video circulated around the world. It horrified most people but energized Zarqawi’s, which is exactly what he intended. He was reaching out very deliberately to a specific audience—young men frustrated that the Islamic world of the Arab states has been exploited by the West, that God’s message has gotten lost, and societies are corrupt. He appealed very strongly to these young men and gave them a cause and a purpose to believe in.
Who is financing ISIS? And why can we not stop the flow of money from our so-called allies, like Qatar?
We’ve done it with the drug cartels, and we were fairly effective with AQ [Al Qaeda] early on because there were well-documented routes through which money flowed to AQ, mostly from Islamic charities.
Much of the Islamic State income comes not from these charitable gifts but directly from their criminal enterprises in the areas they now occupy. In the case of Syria and Iraq they now have oil wells under their control and can sell oil on the black market, and they have tentacles out in a million different directions from which they can derive income.
In the early days there was also direct aid from some of our good friends in the Gulf, who began supplying people they thought were allies in the fight against Assad. Some of them now are starting to get the message. But on an individual level there are still people in Kuwait, Qatar, and other countries who continue to donate money using Twitter or other online means.
One of the planks of ISIS’s vision is the recreation of a pan-Arabic caliphate. Talk about the background to this notion and Zarqawi’s vision for its modern day realization.
Zarqawi became obsessed early on with the fact that the country he lived and grew up in, Jordan, and other countries around him, were created on maps by Europeans at the end of WWI for their own purposes. The traditional caliphate, which spanned traditional national boundaries, had been erased.
Zarqawi’s idea was to destroy the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916 that had created all these countries and put into its place a caliphate. In a sense, that’s what ISIS has managed to do. They argue there is now no boundary between western Iraq and eastern Syria. It’s all part of the so-called Islamic state of Iraq and Levant. And they would like to replicate that throughout Mesopotamia and the Gulf.
You write that American blunders in Iraq created “a black hole” that enabled Zarqawi’s organization to gain momentum. Are we responsible for ISIS then?
It’s hard to say that we were the primary cause of ISIS becoming what it is today, but we certainly played a role in its founding. Nobody had heard of Zarqawi in early 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell got up before the UN to make the pitch for an invasion of Iraq. He put Zarqawi’s photograph on the big screen and identified him as a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, suggesting a nexus able to pass weapons of mass destruction from Iraqi to terrorists around the world, using this one individual as the poster child for the invasion of Iraq.
It turned out that Zarqawi had not even been a part of Al Qaeda. They thought he was too extreme and wouldn’t let him in. He was certainly no friend to Saddam Hussein, either. We helped turn him into an international celebrity and create a terrorist organization that came close to driving the U.S. out of Iraq a few years after President Bush’s famous “mission accomplished” speech.
Zarqawi became known as “the sheikh of the slaughterers.” The most infamous example of his violent methods was the immolation of a Jordanian pilot. Describe that incident—and how it backfired.
They really stretched their imaginations to come up with the most extreme way to carry out this act. They put him in a cage, doused him with fuel, and set him ablaze while filming the whole thing. They then posted the video. Not just any video. It was a very slick, well-produced video that ends with a chilling list of other pilots’ names, addresses, and pictures, offering reward money to anyone who captures or kills them.
For ISIS, this was an act of revenge against the Jordanian government. But it backfired. Burning a human being, particularly a Muslim, is a great taboo in the Islamic world. There was a huge outcry from Egypt and throughout the Gulf and Levant. The leaders of both the Shia and Sunni faiths stood up and very strongly condemned it, saying, “This is not just wrong, it’s evil.” That became the turning point for many Muslims around the world.
The hunt for Zarqawi was masterminded by a CIA operative named Nada Bakos. Tell us about her—and how this became a personal mission, as hunting bin Laden was for the character, Maya, in the movie Zero Dark Thirty.
One of her former supervisors said to me that Nada was like someone who counts cards in Vegas. She could instantly see all the permutations of a possible deal, connect the dots, and come up with a very smart analysis to help the CIA get closer to their target.
She ended up almost by accident becoming involved in the hunt for Zarqawi in the pre-invasion days. She was part of the team that tried to determine whether there was a link between Zarqawi, Saddam Hussein, and AQ. Their conclusion was that he was not involved in any significant way with either organization. Later on, as a Zarqawi expert, she becomes “the targeter, to use their term, the officer responsible for gathering intelligence to find where he was and how to kill or capture him.
What shocked you most in researching this book?
What was hardest was the level of malevolence that you see in ISIS’s leadership and in their followers. One thing I forced myself to do as part of my research was look at their propaganda. I get their latest Tweets and video posts on sites like Facebook. They outdo themselves with horrific acts, from crucifixion to immolation, or forcing some young kid take a gun and kill a captive. You see these things every day, and it boggles your mind that another human being could carry out acts like this.
How can we stop ISIS? Or will they one day reach the gates of Vienna?
With ISIS we have something unprecedented—a terrorist organization that for the first time in history has the apparatus of a state. It’s so entrenched, and its resources are so impressive, that it’s going to take a long time for us to root them out.
The only way to do it is with an all-of-the-above approach, except for involvement of U.S. ground forces. As we saw in Iraq, putting boots on the ground in a Muslim country only incites people to join ISIS. We have to be involved in the intelligence game, use airpower and diplomacy to rally our sometimes-reluctant allies into doing more.
All these thing have to be done aggressively and urgently because this is a problem that is not limited to the Middle East. It’s aimed at our own capitals as well. ISIS says the next stop will be Europe. So we have to be extremely vigilant to make sure they don’t get any farther than they are right now.