Crisply written, chilling account of the personalities behind the emergence of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post reporter Warrick (The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA, 2011) 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. Initially, he focuses on Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a sullen thug who discovered Muslim fundamentalism while incarcerated in the 1990s and turned it into a framework for savagery against other Muslims. Against the backdrop of the bungled American invasion of Iraq, al-Zarqawi stoked a Sunni-Shiite civil war and normalized horrific tableaux like the suicide bombing of the United Nations mission. Soon, “Islamist media were awash in Zarqawi-inspired gore,” effectively increasing his support, until he overstepped with a hotel bombing in Jordan. Although the U.S. military killed al-Zarqawi in 2006, Syria’s civil war provided a second front for the remnants of al-Zarqawi's jihadis. His successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who transformed the group into ISIS, "was not a violent troublemaker like Zarqawi or an adventurer like Osama bin Laden." Indeed, Warrick notes, “had it not been for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Islamic State’s greatest butcher would likely have lived out his years as a college professor.” Yet, ISIS achieved rapid military success across Iraq and Syria beginning in 2013 and revived their emphasis on terrorist atrocity, with Baghdadi’s goals clear, as a U.S. official noted: “He was talking about physically restoring the Islamic caliphate in a way that nobody else did.” 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.
Warrick stops short of offering policy solutions, but he provides a valuable, readable introduction to a pressing international security threat.