The man behind ISIS

'Black Flags' by Joby Warrick
'Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS' by Joby Warrick
Courtesy of Doubleday

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the U.S. will begin "direct action on the ground" against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria.

In just a few short years, ISIS has gone from an unknown group of radicals to the dominant threat in the Middle East. Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick's new book looks at how that happened.

"Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS" traces the group's roots back to a Jordanian prison, where the now-deceased Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was once held.

"He's the least likely person you can imagine as being the leader of an Islamic extremist organization," Warrick told MPR News' Kerri Miller. Al-Zarqawi never finished high school. He had no military experience. His past was filled with vices: street fights, hard-drinking, and tattoos.

But in prison, he became devout. So devout that Warrick recounts how al-Zarqawi later removed one of his tattoos with a razor blade and no anesthesia.

"He feels he's been touched by God in some way," Warrick said. "He's trying to imagine himself as this great Muslim warrior, in the tradition of the early warriors of 1,000 years ago. He sought very deliberately to follow their example and do what they did."

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Once released, he tried to join al-Qaida, but, Warrick notes, "he was rejected by al-Qaida for being too extreme."

That didn't stop him. Al-Zarqawi, Warrick said, saw an opportunity in the uproar of the Iraq invasion and the confusion that followed.

He "seizes on this opportunity to create chaos, to create war between the Sunnis and Shia, and then to build within this chaos a kernel of an Islamic caliphate. That's the model that ISIS follows even today."

Warrick's book traces the rise of al-Zarqawi's idea into the international terrorist organization that ISIS has become. Al-Zarqawi himself was killed in 2006 when the U.S. Air Force bombed his safe house in Iraq — but his legacy continues in the extreme violence displayed by ISIS fighters today.

To hear Joby Warrick's complete interview with MPR News' Kerri Miller, use the audio player above.