Territorial gains made by the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Iraq and Syria have come as a surprise for many observers, as has its ability to attract Muslim youths to its brand of radical Islam or drive them to perpetrate terrorist acts in its name. But some argue that, far from appearing out of nowhere, the radical group in its current form is the result of a transformation rooted in the Sunni insurgency that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
One of them is Joby Warrick, whose book, Black Flags — The Rise Of ISIS, has won the Pulitzer Prize, America’s top journalism award. He talked to RFE/RL about IS’s origins and their ramifications.
You describe in your book how Islamic State had different incarnations before becoming what it is now. Ultraviolent from the outset in 2004, when the Al-Qaeda in Iraq group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi aimed to trigger a sectarian conflict between Iraq’s minority Sunni and majority Shi’a groups — then incurring successive deadly blows which, by 2010, had turned it into a fringe structure called the Islamic State of Iraq. Then it resurfaced, deadlier than ever, once the Syrian civil conflict started. How was that possible?
Joby Warrick: It was a long time coming and people even now sometimes lose sight of the roots of this organization (Islamic State). This is something that didn’t just happen in 2014 when we all kind of focused on the Islamic State, but the seeds were planted more than a decade earlier with mistakes that were made when the U.S. went into Iraq unprepared for how to manage a country and unprepared to deal with ethnic conflicts, and really opening a door for some really bad characters to come in and start something that we’ve now come to know as ISIS.
You single out Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born mastermind of the sectarian campaign against Shi’a between 2003 and 2006, as the…founder of what years later would become the Islamic State group. But Zarqawi had been a rather minor terrorist figure until the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which turned him into a central player in the anti-U.S. insurgency and elevated him to the position of chief of the Al-Qaeda in Iraq group. How could that happen?