“Tomorrow, God willing, we will be in paradise, and they will be burning in hell.” said a militant of Islamic State of Iraq and al ShamsISIS, in the released footage from the final stronghold in Syria. With the eight-year-long war facing its final days, nearly 20,000 people have been evacuated from Baghuz in the last two weeks. Now it seems like a well-written ending that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Army and the U.S. Air Force will successfully occupy the Syrian town of Baghuz, ISIS’ final stronghold. But does retake all the occupied land mean the end of ISIS Even in the idealist situation, does the demise of ISIS mean the destruction of extremism The answer is obvious, the answer is blurred.

If you want to defeat something, understand it first. So, I immerse myself into the Black flags.

To a large extent, the Black flags is famous as the 100th Pulitzer Prize-winning work. The author, Mr. Warrick, is a reporter for the Washington Post, responsible for covering the Middle East and National Security. Since 2011, Mr. Warrick has covered a wide range of events in the Middle East, of course, including the war in Syria. All these experiences provide a fertile ground for his non-fiction writing in the Black Flags, with a clear and fluent narrative, an accurate and perceptive analysis as well as a detailed depiction. 

Warrick’s narration begins with Sajida al-Rishawi. Is Rishawi hateful? As a “man bomb” to create bloody killings, resulting in the death of more than 60 innocent civilians, she certainly hateful; Is Rishawi pathetic? Intend to revenge for her loved ones who lost their lives because of Americans, but was bewitched by Zarqawi and became a tool of ISIS to attack Jordanian civilians, she is also pathetic; is Rishawi lucky? Although she pulled the fuse in confusion, the bomb tied to her body was inexplicably dumb. At the moment when she picked up her life, she was undoubtedly surrounded by the aura of luck; is Rishawi unfortunate? Even though she had never seen Zarqawi, she was dubbed “Zarqawi’s Woman” after being arrested and became the “chess piece” between ISIS and the Jordanian government. The “jihad sisters” eventually faced death in deadly silence.

Rishawi’s multiplicity is the epitome of the vast majority of characters in this story, can even be seen as a personalized microcosm of the situation in the entire Middle East. As is shown in the Black Flags, the reasons for the rise of ISIS are extremely complex. The collapse of social order, America’s misunderstanding of the Iraqi people and culture, and the “Jihadi Universities” scattered across the Middle East, the prisons.  

From another point of view, the portrayal of Rishawi is precise and powerful, and the description of her fate runs through the book. This characterization method combines horizontal and vertical dimensions and has been used many times in the Black Flags, such as King Abdullah II, Zaydan al-Jabiri as well as Zarqawi’s former cellmate and mentor, Maqdisi. This sophisticated writing approach lends me the larger story of the ISIS an up-close-and-personal immediacy, help me to have a deeper understanding of not only the principal characters but also the background of the rise of ISIS in the Middle East.

In subsequent chapters, from Zarqawi established al-Qaeda in Iraq, to al-Baghdadi formally established today’s ISIS, Warrick recounted this period of Middle East history with novelistic energy and detail. In this process, he also drawn on his unrivaled sources and access as an experienced reporter, obtained a large amount of private information from politics, military, and intelligence personnel in the United States, Jordan, and other related places. All these made it a page-turner and a flat-out great book, especially for people who are curious about the story behind ISIS, who are willing to learn more about the Middle East, apart from the daily newsletters.

As there has been a detailed, step-by-step narrative demonstrating about Zarqawi and Baghdadi’s life, I do not repeat it here. However, the inevitable history, assembled by a series of “accidents”, is of great interest to me. Warrick underscores many what-ifs along the writing process, what if Zarqawi and Maqdisi didn’t become cellmate; what if King Abdullah II didn’t release Zarqawi at the beginning of his tenure; what if the Bush administration didn’t exaggerate the horror of Zarqawi in order to reflect the legitimacy of the Iraq war; and even what if the U.S. military didn’t withdraw troops from Iraq prematurely because of miscalculations.

Yet history has no assumptions and no rehearsals. It seems like all those kinds of misjudgments, wrong turns and bad luck that led to the rise of ISIS. It is the germination and growth of various types of extremist ideas under the turbulent situation of the whole world, that is the root cause of this fire of terrorism, at the same time, the root reason of why the ISIS is so hard to be knocked down.

From my perspective, terrorism, as a malformed product under the oppression of internal authoritarianism and external violence, has been intertwined with Islam, the world’s second largest religion for such a long time, which indicates that this religion has a particular affinity with violence. In my reading travel of the Black Flags, an old Chinese saying popped out to my mind from time to time, “It is easy to catch thieves in the mountain, it is hard to catch thieves in the heart.” The U.S. Army should have defeated many other “Zarqaweis” in countless other military and intelligence operations, but in essence, killing a particular person is not enough to eliminate terrorism. As long as the idea of terrorism is spreading, the act of terrorism has a chance to start all over again.

After Bin Laden, Zarqawi stood out from the al-Qaida Iraqi branch; after Zarqawi, Baghdadi stood out from the al-Qaida Syrian branch. Who is next? 

When it comes to the rise of terrorist groups, the United States’ purposed support has been playing a vital role. Actually, Warrick is one of the first journalists to question the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, so it is not strange that he presents such a clear position in the Black Flags. It is now almost becoming a practice that the U.S. to support enemies of hostile forces to fight against a hostile force. They are the experts of the principle; the enemy’s enemy is my friend. Warrick tells the truth about how U.S. policies helped give birth to the ISIS, while currently, the Kurdish force, another extreme organization against the ISIS, is emerging. 

His mind is of an investigative reporter, and his pen is of a novelist. Beyond all doubts, the Black Flags is excellent in the detailed description and character portrayal. There was an Iraqi customs officer called Karbouly, in the pay of the ISIS. Warrick wrote that after completing a mission to kill a truck driver, somehow Karbouly answered the call from the driver’s brother

and even cried for the photos of four daughters showed in the deceased’s phone. Of course, these vivid details also made a foreshadowing of Karbouly’s change in attitude toward “jihad”. The Black Flags are full of similar details. Like Zarqawi used a razor blade to have a relative slice off his offending tattoo without anesthetic, this detail showed his hard to the religion; in the Amman Hotel Attack, two little pretty still in white dresses, but never could they wake up again, this detail is targeting to represent the extreme cruelty of Zarqawi and his base.

The first two chapters of the book are both illuminating and spellbinding, while the final chapter gives me a somewhat hurried feeling. Besides, the book is suitable for the beginners of Middle East affairs, but not enough for those who decide to launch in-depth research. On the one hand, Warrick emphasize too much on the U.S., Jordan, Iraq, and Syria, ignoring the role of other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran; on the other, as for why the ISIS can attract followers from remote Europe; why some European “lone wolf” attackers are so loyal to the ISIS; and how ISIS affects outside Europe. Warrick has no explanation at all.

At the end of the Black Flags, on January 1, 2015, Egyptian president Abel Fattah al-Sisi called for an Islamic reformation, a “revolution” to “reclaim the ancient religion from fundamentalists and radicals who had perverted its central message.” Four years are fleeting; the brand-new flowers of the Islamic revolution have not blossomed on the land of the Middle East. In the evacuation of the previous period, some ISIS soldiers’ relatives have indicated that they will continue to loyal to Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.

The will of my people to die is as strong as your desire to survivesaid an Islamic Mujahedin. After tracing the birth of ISIS with the Black Flags, we all have to face the final problem, it is, how to gradually disintegrate the ISIS’ ideology, and further to extinguish the flame of terrorism to the greatest extent possible. Never forget, “Safety and victory are incompatible, that the tree of triumph and empowerment cannot grow tall and lofty without blood and defiance of death.” quote from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  

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