“A Best Book of 2015”—The New York Times, The Washington Post, People Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Kansas City Star, and Kirkus Reviews
In a thrilling dramatic narrative, awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, Joby Warrick traces how the strain of militant Islam behind ISIS first arose in a remote Jordanian prison and spread with the unwitting aid of two American presidents.
When the government of Jordan granted amnesty to a group of political prisoners in 1999, it little realized that among them was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist mastermind and soon the architect of an Islamist movement bent on dominating the Middle East. In Black Flags, an unprecedented character-driven account of the rise of ISIS, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Joby Warrick shows how the zeal of this one man and the strategic mistakes of Presidents Bush and Obama led to the banner of ISIS being raised over huge swaths of Syria and Iraq.
Zarqawi began by directing terror attacks from a base in northern Iraq, but it was the American invasion in 2003 that catapulted him to the head of a vast insurgency. By falsely identifying him as the link between Saddam and bin Laden, U.S. officials inadvertently spurred like-minded radicals to rally to his cause. Their wave of brutal beheadings and suicide bombings persisted until American and Jordanian intelligence discovered clues that led to a lethal airstrike on Zarqawi’s hideout in 2006.
His movement, however, endured. First calling themselves al-Qaeda in Iraq, then Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, his followers sought refuge in unstable, ungoverned pockets on the Iraq-Syria border. When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, and as the U.S. largely stood by, ISIS seized its chance to pursue Zarqawi’s dream of an ultra-conservative Islamic caliphate.
Drawing on unique high-level access to CIA and Jordanian sources, Warrick weaves gripping, moment-by-moment operational details with the perspectives of diplomats and spies, generals and heads of state, many of whom foresaw a menace worse than al Qaeda and tried desperately to stop it. Black Flags is a brilliant and definitive history that reveals the long arc of today’s most dangerous extremist threat.
Named a Best Book of 2015 by Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, The Washington Post, People Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Kansas City Star, and Kirkus Reviews
“Gripping … Mr. Warrick has a gift for constructing narratives with a novelistic energy and detail, and in this volume, he creates the most revealing portrait yet laid out in a book of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the founding father of the organization that would become the Islamic State … For readers interested in the roots of the Islamic State and the evil genius of its godfather, there is no better book to begin with than Black Flags.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Warrick charts Zarqawi’s rise from booze-swilling Jordanian street tough to one of the most brutal jihadists in the world. He demonstrates how much the militants of the Islamic State owe to Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006—not only their ideology but even the color of the jumpsuits that prisoners wear in execution videos. The militants of ISIS, one of Warrick’s sources explains, are the ‘children of Zarqawi.’”—The New Yorker
“A revealing, riveting and exquisitely detailed account of the life and death of Zarqawi, the improbable terrorist mastermind, and the rise of the movement now known as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).”—San Francisco Chronicle
"A detailed, step-by-step narrative demonstrating how repeated miscalculations by the United States, Arab leaders and al-Qaeda wound up empowering the Islamic State ... Black Flags provides answers in this still-unfolding history of what happens when religious radicals try to outdo one another for the mantle of God’s favorite."—Dallas Morning News
"Invaluable for anyone struggling to understand the gruesome excesses and inexplicable appeal of ISIS ... [a] seminal book."—Los Angeles Times
"Warrick’s book might be the most thorough and nuanced account of the birth and growth of ISIS published so far. Black Flags is full of personalities, but it keeps its gaze carefully focused on the wider arc of history."
"The sort of work every journalist would love to write and few can: a detailed and perceptive analysis that's also a page-turner ... necessary reading for anybody who wants to put Islamic State into the context of both contemporary jihadism and the long history of Muslim fundamentalism."—Chicago Tribune
"[Black Flags] is clear and well-told, a good guide for those horrified by the group's emergence but not familiar with every step of the crumbling of Iraq and Syria over the past dozen years ... [It] lays out in strong detail just how rough a neighborhood, both geographically and ideologically, the struggle against ISIS is taking place in."—Associated Press
“Joby Warrick … [has] a great eye for memorable characters. In Black Flags he puts faces on the amorphous organizations we hear about all the time, namely ISIS and the CIA. Learning about the origins of ISIS is key to understanding the organization today—and key to understanding why we failed to halt ISIS’s growth.”
“Joby Warrick moves easily through the intelligence warrens of Washington and the shattered landscape of the Middle East to tell this insightful narrative of the rise of the Islamic State. Black Flags is an invaluable guide to an unfolding tragedy that must be understood before it can be ended.”
—Lawrence Wright, author of Thirteen Days in September and The Looming Tower
“Joby Warrick is one of America's leading national security reporters, so it's no surprise that Black Flags is the most deeply reported and well-written account we have about ISIS and its terrorist army.”
—Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad
“Joby Warrick weaves Black Flags with the tradecraft of a spy, the mind of an investigative reporter, and the pen of a novelist. The picture that emerges is sometimes hard to bear: of brutal ISIS
torturers and Jordanian interrogators, of bumbling U.S. leaders, of American intelligence services that still can't get it right quickly enough. We should all thank Warrick for telling a hard truth the government will not want to hear: how U.S. policies helped give birth to the so-called Islamic State.”
—Dana Priest, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter and author of Top Secret America
“Drawing on his unrivaled sources and access, Joby Warrick has written a profoundly important and groundbreaking book, one that reads like a novel, riveting from the first page to the last. If you want to know the story behind ISIS, and all of us should, this is the book you must read.”
—Martha Raddatz, Chief Global Affairs Correspondent, ABC News, and author of The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family
“A page-turner and a flat-out great book. This is the inside account of how we ended up with the Islamic State, with one revelation after another. If you read one book on ISIS, this is it.”
—Robert Baer, author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism
“Joby Warrick is an exceptional storyteller, and Black Flags is both illuminating and spellbinding. No book better explains the miscalculations, wrong turns, and bad luck that led to the rise of ISIS.”
—Rick Atkinson, author of The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945
“[A] crisply written, chilling account … Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Warrick confidently weaves a cohesive narrative from an array of players—American officials, CIA officers, Jordanian royalty and security operatives, religious figures, and terrorists—producing an important geopolitical overview with the grisly punch of true-crime nonfiction … The author focuses on dramatic flashpoints and the roles of key players, creating an exciting tale with a rueful tone, emphasizing how the Iraq invasion's folly birthed ISIS and created many missed opportunities to stop al-Zarqawi quickly.”
—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“Joby Warrick has written a penetrating and fascinating look at the birth and evolution of the world’s most violent terrorist network, ISIS, or ISIL. This is an eye-opening book … The author tells his story through rich details and revealing anecdotes that bring you into the violent world of Islamic extremism. At times, you feel as if you’re sitting in a tent in a remote region of Iraq, watching and listening to al-Zarqawi as he claws his way to the top of the terrorist chain … The writing is crisp, the reporting incredible, a combination of extensive digging and terrific use of sources.”