Pulitzer Prize, General nonfiction, 2016
In a thrilling dramatic narrative, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter 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 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 account of the rise of ISIS, 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, US officials 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 ungoverned pockets on the Iraq-Syria border. When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, and as the US largely stood by, ISIS seized its chance to pursue Zarqawi's dream of an ultraconservative Islamic caliphate.
Drawing on high-level access to CIA and Jordanian sources, Warrick weaves 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 definitive history that reveals the long arc of today's most dangerous extremist threat.
"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) "[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." (
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