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Journalist Discusses The Rise Of ISIS And Its Future In Syria And Iraq


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Russian warplanes began airstrikes in Syria today, supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in his battle with opposition forces and the militant Islamic group ISIS. American policymakers are increasingly concerned over the civil war raging in Syria, the expanding Russian presence and the resilience of ISIS, which controls significant areas of Iraq and Syria, despite more than a year of air attacks from the U.S. and other countries. Our guest, Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, has spent years covering conflicts in the Middle East and has a new book about the origins of ISIS called "Black Flags." The book explains that ISIS is partly the result of unintended consequences of U.S. actions. Warrick is a Pulitzer Prize winner. He was last on FRESH AIR to talk about his book "The Triple Agent." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Joby Warrick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, a lot of this book about ISIS is about a guy who was actually dead before most of us had ever heard of ISIS - that's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was the leader of the al-Qaida-related organization in Iraq during the American occupation. It's - and it's interesting you focus so much on him. Would we not have ISIS if not for Zarqawi's work?

JOBY WARRICK: Absolutely, I think that's the case. You can look at all the individuals that we know about today - the leaders of ISIS, the individuals that helped make ISIS happen. But this is the one transformational figure, or a true original - someone who had his own unique history and brought a charisma, a level of malevolence and just, you know, a spirit into this jihadist cell that developed first in Jordan and then spread into Iraq and Syria. And this is really the indispensable character that makes ISIS what it is today.

DAVIES: You tell an interesting story about when Zarqawi was imprisoned in Jordan. I mean, this was long before the American invasion, I guess the late 90s. He'd been arrested with a bunch of other jihadists and an imam in a plot. And you spoke to a physician who regularly visited Zarqawi and his mates. What did he observe about Zarqawi's leadership?

WARRICK: If I can set the scene a little bit. This is a terrible dungeon-like prison in Jordan. Jordan has a reputation - or it did in the '70s and later - as having awful places where men were warehoused because they were political prisoners. They were arrested for whatever reasons. But within this awful place, this character, Zarqawi, arises as a leader, someone who is - has these radical ideas and has a devoted cell of people around him. They were so dangerous. They were so - their ideology was so contagious that the Jordanian authorities decided to warehouse them together in this place that had been abandoned for years. It was out in the middle of the desert. It was somewhere that - where they were essentially going to be forgotten. And it was out of this place that this movement arose. And we have in the beginning of the book this young doctor who is assigned to be the medical officer for these jihadists. And the first thing he notices is this incredible discipline, the way these men all sit together, look the same way, follow instructions, eat the same way, dress the same way. And they're all taking orders from this interesting, powerful, charismatic young man named Zarqawi.

DAVIES: And you said he observed something about how he could command these men simply with his eyes.

WARRICK: Yes, there's this interesting moment when the doctor first meets Zarqawi for the first time. All the prisoners - there's 50 of them in this one cell - all the jihadists imprisoned together. And he sees inside this prison all these jihadists - 50 of them together - lined up, facing the front of the room. And they have their eyes fixed on this one figure, which is Zarqawi, the one who is essentially the leader, the one who's the enforcer, makes them all behave a certain way. And when it was time for medical checkups, no one said a word. No one looks at the doctor. They all look at Zarqawi to see what he would tell them to do. And with just a nod and just with a look, he would order men to get up from their beds and walk over to the doctor to get treatment. And the doctor is just mesmerized by the ability of this one very charismatic man to command only with his eyes. That speaks to the power and the charisma of this very dangerous figure.

DAVIES: And it's interesting that he wasn't a preacher. He wasn't an imam. He wasn't a religious leader. What was his background?

WARRICK: So he's probably the most unlikely person that you could imagine to take such a role. Here's someone who had no education. He was a high school dropout. He wasn't some great warrior or some great scholar. He was a thug. He was a man of the street. He was someone who had dabbled in drug use and been in fights and had tattoos and was really the least likely person to become the leader of a radical religious group. But because of his extreme ideas and because of the forcefulness of his personality, he propelled himself into this role.

DAVIES: He was released from prison in an amnesty after King Hussein died, makes his way to Afghanistan, meets with al-Qaida, ends up with a band of militants in Iraq at the time of the U.S. invasion. And we really got to know him when the U.S. occupation went poorly and insurgency arose. But before that, you write that there was a moment in which the United States actually kind of did him a favor, kind of made him a superstar.

WARRICK: Exactly. This is someone that no one had really heard of before. Zarqawi was, you know, a third-rate terrorist wannabe living in obscurity in some corner of Iraq between Iraq and Iran. And until the Bush administration came up with an idea that Zarqawi was a connection between al-Qaida - between the 9/11 attacks - and Saddam Hussein, no one had heard of him. But this is exactly the claim that Colin Powell makes in his speech before the United Nations in 2003 when he's trying to make the case for invasion. They actually put Zarqawi's picture on the big screen and say here's a guy that's in Iraq. We think he has connections with the Saddam government. We know he's been in Afghanistan, in touch with bin Laden, so here's this nexus. Here's what, you know, this worst-case scenario of a combination of these two worlds. So they used Zarqawi to make the case for invasion, and it backfired because what it did was made Zarqawi famous. Overnight, he's one of the most famous terrorists in the world. He's receiving money. He's getting recruits. And it essentially creates the perfect platform for him to then, you know, move into Iraq and really take jihad seriously.

DAVIES: And the idea that Saddam Hussein was actually harboring this group in Iraq and protecting Zarqawi - what truth, if any, was there to that?

WARRICK: None at all. So as you recall, you know, back in the years after the first Gulf War, there was a division in Iraq, and there were areas in the Kurdish part of the North where Saddam Hussein and his army was off-limits. So it was a no-fly zone; it was an area where his troops couldn't really go. And this is where Zarqawi made his little hideout - in a rugged area where this - heavy mountains and it's just very inaccessible. And Zarqawi, just like most of these jihadists, hated Saddam Hussein, hated his government, were persecuted by him when the opportunity came, and they were sworn enemies. And to make the case that he was somehow a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida was just an absurd claim on its face. And in fact, our own intelligence experts at the time knew there was no truth to that connection and yet, we made it anyway.

DAVIES: So after the U.S. invasion and occupation goes badly, I mean, there were clearly mistakes made. The Iraqi army was disbanded. The Ba'ath Party was outlawed, and resistance to the occupation arose. There were a lot of people that could have been effective in fighting the United States. What distinguished Zarqawi and his followers?

WARRICK: Here's where Zarqawi's real genius emerged because absolutely, there would have been resistance to an American occupation. That was going to happen anyway. There were members of the Saddam - Saddam's Ba'athist Party who were on the streets, who weren't getting paid anymore. They were very unhappy. They were looking for ways to make things difficult for the Americans. But Zarqawi had a vision, and his vision was that he could create chaos in this country that was essentially lawless. It was between occupation and just a collapse. And he very skillfully manipulated that vacuum by making terrible things happen, by making these - you know, by going on the attack against Shia Muslims and trying to incite violence between Sunnis and Shia, by attacking United Nations outpost and trying to drive out NGOs and isolating the Americans so they have this problem all to themselves - so essentially put us in a corner, sent the rest of the world really running from Iraq and then ignited a civil war around us. And that's really what brought Iraq to this horrible state we saw by the middle of the 2000s.

DAVIES: And there was a level of brutality that we hadn't seen before.

WARRICK: Exactly. So the things that Zarqawi brought to jihad that we really hadn't witnessed before - we'd seen terrible acts of violence - we'd seen the 9/11 attacks; we'd seen, you know, embassies blown up and this sort of thing. But Zarqawi discovered the power of one, the Internet, and also the power of this very intimate cruelty, a brutality that really we hadn't seen except for maybe a handful of instances before. And I'm talking here about the execution of a single individual - in this case, an American captive who is beheaded on video tape, and then the video is circulated around the world of this young man getting his head cut off while wearing the orange jumpsuit, which is now so iconic as we think about ISIS. But this really came from Zarqawi first of all.

DAVIES: And was done repeatedly. Now, as he did this - and there were so many Sunnis angry at the U.S. occupation that they cooperated with a lot of Zarqawi's people and created, you know, a very effective insurgency - but the tactics themselves - in particular, the car bombings which killed other Muslims, Shia - I mean, Zarqawi seemed to hate Shia as much as almost the Americans. How did al-Qaida react to that?

WARRICK: An interesting split emerges, and we still see that split today. But it started back in Zarqawi’s time. Al-Qaida was interested and had a long-range vision of creating a caliphate someday in the future. They were going to topple Arab governments and try to build this state. But Zarqawi thought by maximizing chaos, by making things as violent as possible - he used the word repulsive; I want to be repulsive - he writes this to bin Laden in one letter. And so he went on the attack against Shia in their homes, in their mosques, in their marketplace and created such carnage that there was really no stopping this backlash that arose with Shia then fighting Sunni and, you know, battles in the street and corpses showing up, you know, in alleys and canals and just turning all of Iraq into a bloodbath, pushing it to the brink of civil war. And this was exactly his plan, and he was remarkably effective in pulling it off.

DAVIES: And as Zarqawi’s brutality began to get a lot of attention, I believe you tell us that al-Qaida leaders called him on it. They said that he's actually beginning to damage the al-Qaida brand.

WARRICK: Yes. And this is quite revealing when you look at the correspondence between Zarqawi and al-Qaida leaders of this period. They were ready to embrace Zarqawi to the extent that he was successful. He was killing Americans. He was creating, you know, serious problems for the West in Iraq. But then he began to do these things which they saw as extreme and alienating the Muslims they wanted to appeal to, such as blowing up mosques and bazaars and that kind of thing. And so they scolded him. They sent him letters saying look, this is hurtful to us. You have to calm down. You have to stop cutting people's heads off. You have to stop blowing up schools. And Zarqawi essentially ignored them and told them to mind their own business. I’m doing what I want to do. You’re not my boss, and this is my way of doing things. And he persisted at it.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, author of the new book “Back Flags: The Rise Of ISIS.” We’ll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, author of the new book, "Black Flags." It's about the rise of ISIS and the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, which developed into ISIS. He was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006.

DAVIES: The American forces clearly realized what a threat Zarqawi was and what a unique leader he was and, as you describe it in the book, put an awful lot of effort into tracking him down and killing him. There's one incredible moment where they've got a drone in position. And what happens?

WARRICK: So there's this moment in 2005 where they have really good intelligence on where Zarqawi's going to be at a certain time, so the drones are in place. The special forces officers are in place. And indeed, they happen to see this vehicle which they are almost sure is either Zarqawi or one of his top commanders. And so a chase ensues in which the drones are following by air. You've got a roadblock set up with Iraqi and American troops. And at the last moment, the drone camera resets itself. It essentially goes dark. And so the chase then goes on, you know, essentially blind, with Zarqawi careening off the highway, going into a palm grove, getting out of the car and running away. And they completely missed him. They did manage to recover a bunch of his belongings, including a laptop computer, which had all these sensitive records and even medical records for Zarqawi, operational plans and details, so it was quite a coup in terms of intelligence. But Zarqawi, once again, was able to get away.

DAVIES: And the camera went dark because the computer onboard - what, had to install updates?

WARRICK: Exactly. So there's this automated reset function on these drone cameras. And just as the chase was at its height, just as Zarqawi was running away from his pursuers, it chose that exact moment to go dark and to the great and unending frustration of all these Americans who are watching on video streams and literally screaming at the screen saying, my God, we're so close to him and we almost got him. And yet, he sneaks way.

DAVIES: It's interesting that among the things that the Americans did as they were trying to get Zarqawi was to try and reduce his influence. They found rough cuts of a propaganda video that Zarqawi's people were shooting of him, and they kind of made a blooper reel. What was this?

WARRICK: Zarqawi became very conscious of his public image as the Iraq conflict went along, and it - to the extent that he is the star in some of these beheading videos. He does the beheading himself and doesn't ask others to do it. But as time went on, he became a little bit overly obsessed with his own personality and his own personality cult. And so you see these videos being produced, showing him as an action figure with a machine gun, you know, around his neck and firing shots and just looking like a tough guy. And at one point, as just a real PR coup, the Americans discovered the unedited version of some of these tapes. And some of them are quite embarrassing, with him misfiring the weapon or not knowing how to handle it properly. He gives it to one of his aides, who burns himself with it and screams. And so the Americans deliberately aired some of those outtakes just to embarrass him. And they also, incidentally, dropped the reward offer for his capture just to kind of insult him and to make him think, oh, you're not so important. We're just going to - you know, we're going to lower the amount of money that we're asking for your capture. And it was just an insult to the man.

DAVIES: Do they know if it had any impact?

WARRICK: It did in the sense that he - toward the end, he began to see the mistakes that he had made. He began to see that, for example, as a Jordanian, as an outsider in Iraq, he was limited in his ability to control this movement, which really should be an Iraqi movement. He began to see that some of the mistakes, some of the oversteps, the extreme violence was starting to hurt him in some ways. And so he became a bit repentant in the final months before he was captured and killed. But it was - it was - by then, this movement had ignited, and there were many others who were ready to take his place and do even worse things, as it turned out.

DAVIES: And what broke his momentum? I mean, he had incredible success in Sunni areas of Iraq, capturing major cities. What undid him?

WARRICK: Eventually, people really got tired of living in places where Zarqawi's men were controlling local government. And it's a bit like Syria today, except that in Syria and parts of Iraq, there's complete control by ISIS. In Iraq back in the middle of the 2000s, it was a de facto control. There were cities like Fallujah and parts of Ramadi where Zarqawi's men really controlled the streets in certain areas. But people didn't really like living under them. They were too extreme with their restrictions on what you could wear, on what you could do, how you could act. They even told the supermarket vendors they couldn't put certain vegetables next to each other in booths because they resembled human sex organs, so that was taboo to the Islamists. So, you know, people, after a while, just rose up and decided this guy is worse than Saddam; we want to get rid of him. And so they united and formed this thing called the Sons of Iraq to try to push them out.

DAVIES: And cooperated with the U.S., which was getting more sophisticated in its efforts.

WARRICK: Exactly. This is really the turning point between this surge that happened in 2007 and this eventual resistance by Sunni Iraqis to this man and his methods that really spelled the beginning of the end for al-Qaida in Iraq.

DAVIES: So how was Zarqawi finally killed?

WARRICK: As we get into 2006, Zarqawi is developing quite a long list of enemies. There are people - the Sunnis in Iraq that have been resisting his domination of their communities. There's the Jordanians, who are angry about these attacks on their country. They're providing useful intelligence. And so, by early 2006, you've got this accumulation of better and better intelligence coming out about his location, about his movements. And at the same time, you've got a U.S. special forces operation that is finally honed and is becoming extremely effective in going after these terrorist cells day after day after day. They're using intelligence they get on the ground. They're knocking down doors, arresting, sometimes killing, members of Zarqawi's network, using that intelligence they gather to go after a cell the next day. And so the U.S. special forces, in particular, were getting closer and closer to Zarqawi by 2006. And eventually, they got a really big break. They were able to find a - through an informant, a spiritual advisor that Zarqawi was using and was visiting with occasionally to - you know, for guidance and for spiritual messages. And they were able to track this one individual straight to Zarqawi's hideout. So in June 2006, they were able to follow the spiritual advisor from Baghdad to this place called Baqubah, where Zarqawi was hiding. And they used an F-16 to drop a bomb on his house, and he was killed. An interesting story about the end of Zarqawi - he actually survived the bombing, but U.S. troops arrived just in time to see him being pulled out of the rubble of the building. And he was conscious for long enough to look into the eyes of the Americans that had been hunting him for so long.

DAVIES: Did he die of his injuries?

WARRICK: So he survived for long enough to look in the eyes of these Americans. And then, just a few moments later, he died of these injuries from the effects of the explosion of the house. His body was taken to an airbase where the Americans could look at him and look - and gather DNA to confirm who it was. And then the information was relayed back to Washington, where there was jubilation, you know, a belief that, finally, this sort of - the big, bad wolf had been killed, that the end of the insurgency was in sight and they had eliminated this problem for all of time. But as we saw just a few years later, that the remnant of Zarqawi's cell was able to regroup, was able to remain in place in Iraq for a number of years. And then when the Syrian uprising began, they found a whole new opportunity and moved there to start a whole new campaign.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, author of the new book, "Black Flags." After we take a short break, they'll talk more about the rise of ISIS and about the news today that Russia has begun airstrikes in Syria against ISIS in support of the Assad regime, a regime the U.S. opposes. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, author of the new book, "Black Flags: The Rise Of ISIS."

DAVIES: We've been talking about Zarqawi, the Jordanian who was so effective in building an insurgent movement in Iraq. He was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. And the movement was really kind of isolated and ineffective for many years. But eventually, the organization - or its remnants - were taken over by a guy who would eventually declare the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Tell us about him. Where did he come from?

WARRICK: Al-Baghdadi was someone who was part of the Zarqawi network early on. But he's an interesting figure. He's not the typical, you know, warrior insurgent. He wasn't known for bravery on the battlefield. He was an Islamic scholar. And I say in the book that if it hadn't been for the invasion of Iraq, he probably would have spent his career as a college professor teaching Islamic law. He was kind of a, as a kid, a religious nerd, someone who spent lots of time studying the Quran, studying the Hadith, the sayings of the profits, and understanding every detail and every legal nuance. And this was his bailiwick. So when al-Qaida in Iraq came along, when Zarqawi came along, he was looking for religious scholars who could give him cover, who could bless the kinds of things that he did and assure his followers that they were being good Muslims in killing people. And he - that was his specialty. And he ended up rising through the ranks for a number of years, until 2010, when other leaders of the Islamic State were killed. He suddenly is catapulted to the top of the organization.

DAVIES: So this guy, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, headed the remnants of this insurgent organization. And, as you describe it in the book, they were pretty isolated and ineffective. And it was the Syrian civil war that really changed all of this. I mean, after the Arab Spring, there was a protest movement that arose in Syria, initially peaceful and broad-based. But the Assad government really brought down the hammer. And the opposition became more polarized. How did that present new opportunities for the jihadists who'd been so marginalized before?

WARRICK: This is a very interesting moment in the history of what we now know as ISIS because, as you said, ISIS - or what it was called at the time, the Islamic State of Iraq - had become marginalized. It was irrelevant. It has continued to do minor attacks, kill people in banks and did minor crimes, but no one really paid attention to it. And then comes Arab Spring, which is this wonderful opportunity, as they see it. And they're thinking that Muslims around the world will rally now and overthrow corrupt governments, and they'll be in power. But instead what happens is you have these peaceful demonstrations, largely, in the beginning in Egypt and in other countries. And people are not calling for, you know, Islamic government. They want democracy. They want economic liberty. And so this is how the Arab Spring really started out. But between the mishandling of the demonstrations in Syria by the Assad government and the seizing of opportunity by the jihadists in Iraq and elsewhere, this becomes a perfect storm where convergence of very bad forces could come together and create the situation that we're seeing now.

DAVIES: So essentially, the jihadists moved into Syria and began fighting the Assad government and getting some traction. And one of the interesting things you write here is that - I guess this was around 2012 - they got a lot of money from sheiks in various parts of the Arab world, even government officials in Kuwait and Qatar, sending large amounts of money to these jihadist militants in Syria. Why?

WARRICK: This is really a repeat of the pattern we saw earlier in the Afghan conflict and also in Iraq, where you have devout, very conservative Wahhabi Muslims in countries in the Gulf, particularly in Kuwait and Qatar and some of the other Gulf states, who see an obligation to try to help these brother Sunnis who are fighting oppression, who are fighting, you know, foreign intervention or fighting Shia governments that are repressive. And so, you know, in 2012, this mass out-flowing of money and volunteers and weapons and even jewelry, cars, starts flowing from these wealthy Gulf states into Syria , going into the coffers of organizations like the al-Nusra Front, which is an al-Qaida offshoot, going eventually into the hands of ISIS. And so there's an amazing mobilization of resources that takes place around 2012 that allows these jihadists not only to move into Syria but to become very well-equipped, to be able to pay their fighters very well, to be able to use top-of-the-line weapons and to make them much more effective than they ever would have been on their own.

DAVIES: Did they get popular support?

WARRICK: They did get popular support in many of the areas that they took over, partly because walking into a civil war in which, you know, the local population is being attacked by chemical weapons and then later on barrel bombs... ISIS is the group that's fighting for the salvation of the Sunnis. And so many people rallied around them. And that same message appealed to, you know, Western Islamists and others throughout the world. Here's a chance to come in and really do something on behalf of these oppressed Sunni populations. And so the call was answered.

DAVIES: And, of course, U.S. policymakers confronted a dilemma here. I mean, I think their anticipation was that the Assad government itself would fall, and a new order would prevail. But when it didn't happen and they saw the jihadists gaining ground, there was a debate. And some within the CIA and other intelligence parts of the government wanted President Obama to arm - you know, arm and train a moderate band of Syrian rebels. You want to just talk a bit about that debate in the White House and how Obama considered it?

WARRICK: You know, this was a very difficult moment. And it turned out to be much more important in hindsight than it was viewed at the time. But you do have this recognition at senior levels of government that Syria is falling apart. Assad is no longer controlling much of the country. And into this vacuum, into these lawless areas that are beyond government writ, you have some very unsavory characters, some people that were well known from the past, al-Qaida operatives, now this group ISIS moving in. And it was a frightening moment because the stability - the more it continued - would encourage more of these people to come. They'd have more resources. They'd have the freedom of a sanctuary, a place to plan, to regroup, to collect their material, to go on the attack. And so it was seen by, you know, members of the administration like Leon Panetta and David Petraeus and some of the other individuals, in making decisions at the time, that we had to take a much more aggressive effort to prevent this vacuum from occurring. And so there was discussions about arming friendly, moderate Syrian fighters, supporting neighbor governments to see if they could try to help create a force that could counterbalance these Islamists. And in the end, the administration, which is - you know, essentially came into office trying to get out of Middle Eastern wars, saw that as a bad option, that it was not going to produce the kind of result they wanted. And so they decided not to do it.

DAVIES: King Abdullah of Jordan was active here. I mean, they were - and they share a border with Syria. What was he telling the Americans?

WARRICK: This is a government in a country that is really on the front lines of this struggle, perhaps more than any other in the region. It shares a border with Syria. It shares a border with Iraq. And now it has ISIS armies on two sides. And as it sees this mobilization of radical Islamists taking root inside Syria, becoming the most powerful military force inside Syria, this becomes a direct threat to them because after Assad is gone, who's going to be the next target? And so you have the Jordanians appealing to the United States, appealing to some of the other Gulf Arab allies to try to help them counterbalance these radical forces that are forming on their border. And it ended up being a cry that was not heeded.

DAVIES: When there was this debate in the White House, you recount a moment when President Obama heard all of these arguments and then asked a question. Could anybody cite an instance when U.S. aid for an insurgency resulted in a foreign policy success? What did people say?

WARRICK: Right, and it turned out to be a very good question. And there's not a good answer to that. And it stopped the meeting cold because the president's argument was, OK, yes, we can get involved here. And we can try to prop up an insurgency. But show me in history where that's been a useful thing in the long term. Look at our intervention in places like Iraq, where our good intentions ended up producing some very bad results and very unanticipated results. And he was afraid that the same situation was arising inside Syria. And that's why he was so opposed to it.

DAVIES: Joby Warrick is a national reporter for The Washington Post. His new book is "Black Flags: The Rise Of ISIS." We'll talk some more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Joby Warrick. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning national reporter for the Washington Post. He has a new book about the origins of ISIS; it's called "Black Flags." So ISIS is getting foreign fighters coming in in Syria. It's getting financial help from throughout the Arab world. How did they get into Iraq?

WARRICK: There was always the ambition that once a quorum was established inside Syria, once they had a base from which they could mobilize, the next target was the Sunni territories of Iraq. They had a support base there already. There's a great, very dissatisfied Sunni population angry at the Shia-led government in Baghdad. And so it was kind of right for plucking. And so in the latter months of 2013 and into 2014, the ISIS leaders began looking over the border and began making plans and began mobilizing for an invasion. And this is what we saw unfold in the summer of 2014 when suddenly, it seemed out of nowhere to us, huge caravans of ISIS fighters began pouring across the border and were very quickly able to overcome divisions of Iraqi troops that we had helped train and equip. And you have great cities like Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, falling to the Islamists in just a couple of days. And it - I think it was the biggest surprise to people on this side that the Iraqi army could just fall apart so quickly, but that's what happened. That's what they did.

DAVIES: And during the U.S. occupation, when the insurgents led by Zarqawi had success, a lot of that was because the Sunni Sheikhs and leaders and population in areas there helped them because they felt oppressed by the U.S. occupation forces. Did they assist ISIS when they came in?

WARRICK: They certainly did. A number of them did. Some of the major tribes in Iraq were so unhappy with the status quo inside Iraq, so unhappy with the Maliki government in Baghdad, that they were very willing to let ISIS come in as this military organization that would help them defeat these Iraqi forces that they so despised. So in the beginning at least, you saw not just willing acceptance of ISIS, but encouragement and sometimes, you know, Iraqi Sunni tribes working directly with some of these ISIS forces to try to take over parts of Iraq.

DAVIES: You know, Zarqawi was known for shocking and widely-publicized brutality. What about ISIS?

WARRICK: ISIS took that same playbook and they expanded it because they saw an opportunity with not just the Internet, but with this social media that had not been present during Zarqawi's time. So now you not just have a beheading video that you could load to the Internet and people can try to find it on a website. You could tweet these out over Twitter, you could post them on Facebook, you could put them on Instagram. And these become recruiting tools, and they also become a way of intimidating potential adversaries. This is what happens when you're, you know, when you go to war against ISIS. We're very, very violent. We'll destroy you and here's proof. And so the idea was to frighten people and ISIS became very, very effective at using the Internet and using social media to convey these messages.

GROSS: So the United States eventually began airstrikes against ISIS and began to make some efforts to arm moderate forces in Syria. But today, ISIS still holds three big cities in Iraq, still operates in Syria. How potent a force is it? Is it still strong? Is it still flush with cash?

WARRICK: It is remarkably strong despite the months and months of attacks against them. They're more confined in their movement, but they're still managing to get recruits on a regular basis, hundreds of volunteers streaming into Syria every month because that border is essentially uncontrollable. But more worrisome is the fact that they now control the infrastructure, the apparatus of a state government of, you know, the ability to - they have army bases, they've got equipment, they've got banks, they've got, you know, the whole apparatus of a state at their disposal now, and that's really unique in the history of modern terrorism. There's never been a terrorist organization that is a de facto state. And that's what ISIS is.

DAVIES: You know, people have studied insurgencies for years. And I think the general view is that insurgencies are successful when they win the hearts and minds of the population they operate among. Has ISIS done that? I mean, what kind of rulers have they been in the areas they control?

WARRICK: They have a very aggressive PR campaign that asserts they're very good rulers, they're very good administrators. And so we see all the time, you know, videos that they put out about how they're cleaning streets and they're reopening schools, you know, delivering essential government services. The story from inside these areas is difficult to get, you know, very accurate information. But it's quite a different picture because it's - we're looking at local populations that are indeed dependent on ISIS now because ISIS does control the food supplies and the oil and the gas and hospitals and that sort of thing. But there's quite a level of intimidation that goes on to make sure that people stay in line. Public executions are common, amputations, floggings, all kinds of brutal treatment of local populations, and so there is no real resistance. There's no ability to organize any opposition against ISIS because they not only control the government, but they also are - have a monopoly on physical force. And so there's, you know, they're quiet, some of these areas. But it's absolute control by ISIS and no one really questions their rule.

DAVIES: So the pattern that spelled doom for Zarqawi and the insurgents in Iraq, which was that the Sunnis got sick of them and rose up and cooperated with the American forces and threw them out. Is that not likely to be a repeated here if - you know, if their brutality is angering the people that they're ruling?

WARRICK: I think it's harder in this case because you do have a sense that there aren't many options for local people, that ISIS's control is so extreme and their punishments are so severe that you really do have cowed local populations that are afraid to do anything except for follow the instructions, so for any kind of rebellion or any kind of insurgency to arise from these communities looks very unlikely. And eventually, they're going to have to be dislodged from the outside.

DAVIES: And are they still getting foreign recruits?

WARRICK: It's remarkable given the fact that there's been quite a death toll among ISIS fighters in the last few months. The airstrikes have certainly had an effect. They haven't had the kind of effect we'd like to see, and that's mostly because ISIS has become very smart about how they're located in these areas. They don't have barracks to speak of. They, you know, the ISIS fighters go off into local villages into the towns with their wives and families, and it's harder to destroy large numbers of them. And in that sense, they're much more entrenched. It's a situation that appears relatively stable in some areas. And experts that I talked to that look at the situation everyday say that this is at best a containment problem that we're going to have for many years to come. It's going to be very, very difficult to push ISIS out of some of these occupied areas.

DAVIES: Joby Warrick, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

WARRICK: Really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me, Dave.

GROSS: FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, author of the new book "Black Flags: The Rise Of ISIS." That interview was recorded yesterday. After a break, we'll hear the update they recorded this morning after Russia started bombing Syria targeting ISIS at the request of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Today, Russia started bombing Syria, targeting ISIS at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime the U.S. opposes. This morning, FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies called Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick to update their conversation about ISIS, the subject of Warrick's new book, "Black Flags."

DAVIES: Well, Joby Warrick, since we spoke, there have been new developments. Russia, which was expanding its role in the region, has begun airstrikes in Syria. So help us understand this. This follows, of course, meetings in the United Nations on Monday between President Obama and Vladimir Putin, as well as speeches by both leaders. And they clearly have different perspectives on what to do in Syria and with respect to ISIS. Help us understand this dispute.

WARRICK: Well, Russia is clearly seeking to increase its influence. And it's doing so in a very dramatic fashion, as we're seeing today with these airstrikes. And its goal all along it says is to help crush ISIS, which has emerged really as a threat to Russia as much as it is to the rest of the West because we're seeing many Russian citizens, notably, you know, people from Chechnya and other provinces, coming to Syria to take senior leadership positions within ISIS. And so there's no doubt that there's a long-term threat for Russia from this drawn-out conflict. But the question now is how Russia's involvement affects the conflict in the long run because one reason that ISIS has become such a beacon to Islam is just because Bashar al-Assad is such a powerful symbol of oppression to Sunni Muslims and a way to rally support from Muslims around the world. And now here we see Putin really trying to do everything to go all-in to prop up Assad and make sure he stays in power.

DAVIES: So Putin is telling the Americans and everyone else we'll have an effective coalition to crush ISIS, but we have to keep the Assad regime in power because they're the strongest bulwark against these militant Islamists.

WARRICK: That's exactly...

DAVIES: What's the - what's the American position..?

WARRICK: And here's where the division...


WARRICK: We're seeing the division between the U.S. government, the - some of our Arab partners and Russia because Assad is a symbol. There's no question about it. He has helped ignite this conflict in the beginning. He's the force that really brought so many of these radical Islamists into Syria in the first place. And they're arguing - and not entirely, you know, without merit - that without Assad, without a strong central Syrian government, then you have a vacuum. You have a collapse of central power and perhaps an even greater problem. And the United States argues that you can't go back to the status quo as it existed before the Syrian conflict because there's no way that moderate Syrians or, you know, Shia - you know, all these various groups can live together under an Assad regime. He has to go as kind of a starting point for anything to get better in Syria. And here's where we are - we're stuck in this conflict that's really existed now since 2011 - does Assad stay or does he go?

DAVIES: Do we have any idea what kinds of targets the Russians have attacked? I mean, are they ISIS? Are they other opponents of Assad? Do we know yet?

WARRICK: There's not much bomb damage assessment that really gives us exact information about who he's attacking. We know a lot of the attacks today have been in the city of Homs, which is in central Syria. It's been a place where ISIS has been active. Whether these attacks are really being effective in driving back ISIS troops as opposed to some of the moderates that might be more aligned with our interests - not clear yet. But it's - it is very clear that this is going to be an accelerant. This is going to be - you know, is going to expand the conflict. Whether or not it's successful in driving back ISIS is unclear. But it certainly is going to make Syria more of an attraction to people that want to fight jihad because here again, you have this once-great superpower in - in Syria - not as ground troops, but the forces inside the country - and many - many Arabs may want to come and fight this threatening invading force just as they did in Afghanistan years earlier.

DAVIES: Right. And it was in the 1980s that the Russians occupied Afghanistan. And that was a huge conflict and people fought against them, the Russian - the Islamic militants fought against them.

WARRICK: Yeah. It kind of brings us back full circle with the early days, when Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi and many others went to Afghanistan to fight the great Communist superpower. And this is what ignited the modern jihadist movement as we know it now. What's interesting is it goes - also goes back to some of the apocalyptic themes that Zarqawi preached during his own lifetime. He argued that he was lighting a spark in Iraq. And one day, it was going to lead into a great battle against crusader armies - you know, the West and others. And he said specifically it would happen in Syria around a town called Dabiq that's in southern Syria. And to this day, ISIS - you know, in their propaganda, they refer to this apocalyptic battle in Syria and - with all these great forces amassing against them. And it's - in a way, it's Zarqawi's prophecy coming true.

DAVIES: What dangers or problems do the Russian airstrikes themselves present for American forces? I mean, could you have circumstances in which Americans or their allies come in conflict with the Russian military?

WARRICK: I think it's absolutely possible because Putin has not really differentiated between the various groups fighting Assad. He sees them all as opponents of Assad, and it's not at all clear at this point that he's going to limit his attacks against ISIS per se or whether he'll expand it to groups that the United States is actually helping to arm and equip and train these days. And if that happens, things get very complicated very quickly. To this moment, we've - we've sent signals to the Russians. We've talked to them about making sure we're de-conflicting on our own airstrikes, making sure that Russian aircraft and U.S. sort of coalition aircraft are not conflicting in the region. But there's all kinds of opportunities here for some bad situations to emerge.

DAVIES: The other development here is that the Russians recently announced an agreement with Iraq and Iran to share intelligence about ISIS. They didn't let the Americans know about this, right? I mean, what are we to make of that?

WARRICK: It's clearly a slap in the face of the Obama administration because, you know, the Iraqis are supposedly our allies. The Iranians certainly aren't, but we've tried to work with them in finding ways - you know, common interest - in going against ISIS. But here, you know, Russia is asserting its own role without telling the United States and essentially giving the signal or the message that the U.S. has been ineffective and been powerless. As Putin said in his speech at the U.N., it's made the situation much worse, so Russia is moving in, again, in a very dramatic fashion to say we're going to take charge here. We're going to help bring a solution to the region. If eventually it leads to a more cooperative effort between the U.S. and Russia and others in doing something against ISIS, that'll be great. I think it's way, way too early to say if that's - if we can have that kind of a hopeful outcome.

GROSS: Joby Warrick spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Warrick is a reporter for The Washington Post and is the author of the new book "Black Flags: The Rise Of ISIS."


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with D. Watkins about how he beat the streets. He grew up during the crack and semi-automatic weapon era in East Baltimore. He escaped getting killed several times. He sold crack. But he went on to get three college degrees, teach English and become a writer. He has a new collection of personal essays called "The Beast Side: Living And Dying While Black In America." I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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