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Making of a villain

Sudhirendar Sharma, Nov 27, 2016 0:10 IST
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Joby Warrick, Bantam Books 2016, pp 344, Rs 699
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS
Joby Warrick
Bantam Books
2016, pp 344, Rs 699


There are no laws in history, nor is history merely a string of facts. While repeating itself, history does leave footmarks of discerning patterns that are often ignored by the forces that coerce, invade or conquer other societies. No wonder, each war surprises the invader, as the society being attacked responds in unexpected ways.

Clearly, power over people stretches beyond technological prowess and territorial control. The scars of humiliation it inflicts on the invaded societies resurface in unimaginable forms, often shocking the invader. Borne out of such pattern is the unexpected rise of the dreadful killers who have been indoctrinated to fight for the creation of an Islamic state.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joby Warrick traces the roots of the leader who was a petty criminal in his early days in Jordan’s Al-Jafr prison. Were it not for a general amnesty given to more than 25,000 prisoners following the demise of King Hussein in 1999, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would not have gained notoriety as the dreaded founding father of what is now known as the Islamic State or ISIS.

Returning home in 1993 after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, Zarqawi had found a sense of purpose in confronting the perceived enemies of Islam, first in Jordan, which had an uneasy alliance with the religious fundamentalists, and later in Iraq, where jihadist were at the receiving end of the powers that be.

Black Flags offers a gripping narrative on a jihadist movement that emerged from a concoction of political instability, sectarian conflict and armed intrusion in the Middle East, and seeks to establish a caliphate whose zone of influence is projected to cover a vast swathe of land across northern Africa, southern Europe and West Asia.

Though prepared to start small, Zarqawi viewed himself as a modern incarnation of Nur ad-Din Zengi, the 12th century warrior-prince who had destroyed the imperialist forces in establishing a single sultanate that extended from southern Turkey to the Nile River. By erroneously anointing him as the high priest of terrorism in 2003, identifying him as a link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, the US had only served Zarqawi’s cause by launching his career as one of the century’s great terrorists.

Zarqawi didn’t let the US down, unleashing a reign of terror with his signature act of beheading the American hostage Nick Berg in 2004. The images he posted in cyberspace made him an icon and hero to many thousands of young men and women who saw him as avenging the Muslim nation for centuries of perceived humiliations and defeats. At one time, hardcore jihadists had streamed into Iraq at a rate of 100 to 150 a month to join ‘the sheikh of the slaughterers’. So persisting has been his charisma that years after Zarqawi’s death in the US airstrike in 2006, support has continued to pour in from as many as 86 countries.

As much a blow-by-blow account of the unleashed savagery, Black Flags is a study of the multiple personality disorder afflicting this terrorist mastermind.

Could deep personal insecurities and shattering religious guilt lead an ordinary convict on an arduous journey of death and destruction? Could the combination of American jets and the Arab jails be the fertile grounds for the jihadist to germinate? Could it be the strategic failure of the ruling elites and the invading forces that helped raise the black banners of violent dissent? Using his reporting skills, Warrick creates a revealing portrait of the man and his enduring legacy. In doing so, he draws heavily on Zarqawi’s personal immediacy with three important persons: Basel al-Sabah, the doctor who had treated Zarqawi in prison; Abu Haytham, Jordan’s intelligence service officer who had trailed Zarqawi in his early years; and Nada Bakos, a young CIA officer who was the agency’s top expert on Zarqawi.

There are many what-if moments in the absorbing thriller that lends credence to the widespread impression that by corralling Islamist radicals and ordinary Iraqis in the lawless desert pen, US officials have inadvertently created a ‘jihadi university’ that allows the Islamist ideas to pass from one generation of fighters to the next. Had it not been for the US invasion of Iraq, the Islamic State’s current butcher, Dr Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would likely to have lived out his years as a college professor. Instead, he joined the ‘jihadi university’ to keep Zarqawi’s black flags fluttering with a current monetary worth of over half a billion dollars.

While many believe that the idea of Islamic State has as much chance of survival as an ice cream cone in the desert, Baghdadi instead believes that raising the caliphate’s ancient banner would make righteous Muslims fall into line. Will they or will they not? The world is at the crossroads of its most defining moment in history.



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