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Publisher's Summary

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.

©2015 Joby Warrick (P)2015 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"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." (Kirkus Reviews)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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So much learned

Before listening to this book I knew very little about Isis or the situations it spawned from. I was nervous before starting the book that I would have issues with characters names and remembering who was who in the same way I struggled remembering who was who in the Russian classics like war and peace and crime and punishment. However the author did a good job reminding the reader who was who and at the same time didn't do it so much that someone who wouldn't have that problem wouldn't be annoyed by it. I learned so much about the situations that Isis evolved from and what countries in the area the key players came from. Although the book covers a large period of time and doesn't do it in a linear manor the history is digestible and the nonlinear nature of the book is setup in a way that keeps things interesting but not confusing. My only complaint about this book is how the reader over emphases words or phrases. At times it felt melodramatic to me. At the same time I understand that he didn't want to sound boring or dry and it's possible it's just me being weird and nothing to do with how the book was read. Overall I strongly recommend this book for anyone that wants to start to learn about Isis on a richer way.

12 of 12 people found this review helpful

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Good storytelling.

A quick recap: The first 6 hours address faults at the Bush administration, there's 20 minutes addressing faults at the Obama administration and the rest is great listening as it discusses specifics about King Abdulla II and al-Zarqawi.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Frightening

Good info, well laid out , evenhanded and informative. Makes the point that all Muslims are not the same. It lays some of the blame for the existence of ISIS on the failed US military adventure (particularity the botched post invasion period) in Iraq and our dithering in Syria. Anyone interested in the region should give this a listen.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Very informative, detect a political bias

A great deal of information and was a good listen. Was slightly disappointed that there was some political bias. Bush was portrayed as incompetent but Hillary Clinton and the Obama Administration was treated like they were just trying to do the right thing.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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What a Disappointment . . .

This book was beyond a disappointment. It took ten hours to get to ISIS. The book failed to adequately explain why and how ISIS rose to power and instead is a biography of the men who came to lead ISIS. There's essentially no guidance on how to deal with ISIS going forward.

The narrator is also horrendous. He changes the cadence of voice at random as though to be dramatic. It's distracting and unnecessary.

This book is everything that the Looming Tower is not.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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want to really understand the rise of ISIS ?

this well written and wonderfully read book will help you understand the lead up to ISIS, the failures of US policy, particularly Bush et al, and the role if Iraq, Syria, and Jordan in where we have ended up...so far. Highly recommended.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Couldn't have been done better

Informative. Compelling. Disturbing. Joby is a phenomenal writer who (in the best of his ability) objectifies a terrorist group by breaking it down to its hellish beginnings, strategic growth, and expansive damages.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Where We Are Today - Where We Were Before

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, by Joby Warrick is highly recommended for those who want to understand how and why ISIS came into existence, and what if anything it has/had to do with Al Qaida.

This is how history should be told. What do I mean by that? I believe history is the study of what/where we are today by assessment of what/where we were before. As such Warrick, provides for us an understanding of our present dilemma with ISIS as a result of what we, the West, and It, a claimant on behalf of Islam, did to get us where we are today. It is a story of antagonism between modern and pre-medieval values.

It is not a psychological study as to why the progenitors of vicious retribution on behalf of Islam are nihilists but rather just a story as to how ISIS’ leaders fell into their opportunistic but destructive circumstance.

The history tells how ISIS came into being and what foolery allowed its cruelty to flourish. The tale has its true heroes, and its requisite buffoons, evil doers and misguided forces. Actually, Warrick lists two distinct sets of champions and two distinct sets of satanic forces. There are the heads of state and the secrete service men and woman whose job it is to track threats to our equanimity and destroy those forces before they act and those demonic leaders and their blind faith followers who seek treachery and murder. An example of those on the hero side would be Abdullah II of Jordan and his Mukhabarat, Jordan’s secrete police or FBI/CIA. Yes, the Mukhabarat, can you imagine that? The controlling bad guys are Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the alleged progenitor of ISIS and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its present leader/strongman. The buffoons being President George W. Busch, Vice President Dick Chaney and President Barack Obama. For example, Busch and Chaney had opportunity to take out Zarqawi and his then embryonic forces but past on the opportunity as it might have revealed their tenuous argument that Iraq was a threat to the West and in league with Al Qaida. That’s just a hint as to what the book revealed/claimed. Warrick is not very kind to Obama either. A worthwhile read, but beware as the stories of evil are difficult to hear and they do echo in one’s memories.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Wonderfully written and read.

If you could sum up Black Flags in three words, what would they be?

Clear, riveting, terrifying and eye-opening.

What other book might you compare Black Flags to and why?

Hard to compare this to anything I've read; it would be easier to compare it to a movie--an exciting political thriller that's also educational, insightful, and explored without bias.

What about Sunil Malhotra’s performance did you like?

Wonderful voice; even-toned, with just the right inflections. He does a terrific job with a wonderful (if very dense and detail-packed) text, delivering it with an easy, conversational tone that I could (and do) listen to for hours on end. He also pronounces all the names correctly, which is a rarity in the world of audiobooks.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

Black Flags: How the Menace Metastasized

Any additional comments?

I was hoping for a good book that would give me a preliminary education in the origins of ISIS. It exceeded my expectations tenfold.

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

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Misleading title and partisan history

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

This book subtitled "The rise of ISIS" spends less than a 1/3 of the text actually describing ISIS. Instead, the book details the rise and death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006, long before the Syrian crisis and the true rise of ISIS. Unfortunately, even given this attention, I gained little insight into Zarqawi's character from the text.

What was most disappointing about Joby Warrick’s story?

By focusing in on the rise of Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006, Warrick is able to blame the Bush administration for the rise of ISIS. The Bush policy shortsightedness and failures are well known and better documented elsewhere. However, the Obama administration, oppressive Arabic regimes, the Jordanian government and even Islamic radicalism are all let off the hook by Mr. Warrick. Why? The Jordanians foolishly released Zarqawi from prison, yet Warrick plays the role of Jordanian apologist. Why? The Obama administration failure to respect self imposed "red lines," abandonment of a leadership role in the Middle East and complete failure to see the oncoming extremist threat, despite real time warnings, is not even discussed by Mr. Warrick. Why not? Arab countries willingness and even active participation in anti-American and anti-semitic rhetoric is not discussed as a radicalizing force. Nor, is the oppressive Arabic regimes discussed as possible destabilizing threat. Why not? <br/>The only reason is that Mr. Warrick eschewed a complex etiology for the ISIS rise in favor of a partisan, everything-is-Bush's-fault, ideology. As such, this book fails in explaining anything other than the author's very own prejudices.

Who would you have cast as narrator instead of Sunil Malhotra?

Anyone who could properly pronounce Arabic names.

6 of 8 people found this review helpful