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How the Islamic State rose from prison to be a global group

Where did the Islamic State come from? Joby Warrick, author of "Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS," joins Jeffrey Brown to define the militant group’s origins and its transformation into an international organization.

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  • Gwen Ifill:, “Black Flags:

    Finally tonight, we return to the challenge of ISIS, but this time to a look at its beginnings.

    The story is told in a new book The Rise of ISIS.”

    Author Joby Warrick has covered national security and the Middle East for The Washington Post. He talked with Jeffrey Brown at this weekend’s Miami Book Fair.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Welcome to you.

  • Joby Warrick, Author, “Black Flags:

    The Rise of ISIS”: Thank you, Jeffrey.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Could not be more current, of course.

    We will get to current events, but you are, in this book, looking at the backstory of what led to today.

  • Joby Warrick:

    Yes.

    I think a lot of people — to a lot of people, that ISIS seemed to come out of nowhere last year. And the truth is, there is a very long and complicated story behind this organization. It’s quite different from al-Qaida. It’s always been a different stripe, but its story goes back into prisons in Jordan in the 1990s and with individuals who became radicalized and became very different from this message of al-Qaida about sort of driving out their Western powers from the Middle East.

    But they wanted to create a caliphate, this powerful idea.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    From the beginning?

  • Joby Warrick:

    From the beginning. It was kind of something that morphed as they went along, but the idea was to do something here and now, not worry about far enemies, not worry about the Western powers, but try to create this holy state, this holy empire.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    As with al-Qaida, it began, though, in jails, in prisons, right, with a small core?

  • Joby Warrick:

    Yes. That is interesting, because a lot of the founders of al-Qaida, as you say, Zawahri and others, came out of Egyptian prisons.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Egyptian prisons, right?

  • Joby Warrick:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, also Jordan.

  • Joby Warrick:

    The same pedigree and some of the same sort of beliefs and sort of radicalization process was fairly similar.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A lot of confusion and uncertainty about its history. A lot of confusion about what just it is. How do you define ISIS?

  • Joby Warrick:

    Well, ISIS, you know, it’s interesting, in that it’s a group that sort of latches on to a few central themes that identify it.

    One is this idea of creating the caliphate as sort of the immediate and also long-term goal. This is something they want to do. And there is also this embracing of violence for its own sake. This is not strategic violence sometimes, but it’s just to shock and awe or to horrify.

    And they use violence and they use media very deliberately to intimidate to enemies and also to excite their base to get other radicals to join their movement and to help them.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So when we see the beheadings, of course, we see the destroying ancient sites, those are for effect?

  • Joby Warrick:

    Yes, there is a message there.

    They’re not trying to win hearts and minds of people around the world and not even the Muslim community. They’re looking at provoking. And that’s what they’re very good at doing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How did they get from — the story you’re telling is how they got from Jordan prisons to an international organization.

  • Joby Warrick:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Was there a key moment along the way when — that you can now look back and say, OK, now this is the real beginning of this group?

  • Joby Warrick:

    There’s a key individual. And there’s a terrorist whose name was Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was a Jordanian terrorist, a fairly minor figure, but he ends up becoming important for two reasons.

    One was because the United States, the Bush administration in particular, decided to make him kind of a poster child for this connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. They picked on some very flimsy evidence that suggested a connection. And they actually put his picture in front of the United Nations in 2003 arguing for invasion of Iraq.

    Turns out the evidence was wrong, he had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. He had nothing to do really with al-Qaida, but it was — it made him famous. It gave him a platform. Suddenly, he became an international hero in the jihadist community.

    And then immediately after that, the invasion takes place. Zarqawi moves into Iraq and starts this insurgency, which really becomes the force that almost drove the U.S. to defeat in Iraq.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This is part of — a big part of the stories, the actions or misactions of the U.S. and other Western governments. Were those — that kind of thing an act of omission or commission, or how do you see it?

  • Joby Warrick:

    Yes.

    There’s multiple acts of commission I think in the early days, and it was not just the invasion itself, which gives people like Zarqawi a platform and a reason to call others like him around the world to help out. But also there was a security vacuum that emerged in Iraq in the early days, where the Baathists are disbanded, the army is sent home.

    And so Zarqawi, this fanatic, has sort of a willing army of Iraqis ready to help him. And, together, they sort of blend the fanaticism and the military and bureaucrat professionals ends up becoming this force called al-Qaida in Iraq, and that is the core of what is now ISIS. It’s the same group today.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And then stir in the Syrian civil war.

  • Joby Warrick:

    Absolutely.

    So, actually, toward the late 2000s, Zarqawi’s movement was on its heels. Zarqawi himself was killed. They were kind of driven underground. There was no real sense that they had any future. Then Arab spring happens. Then the Syrian civil war takes place. And suddenly there’s a whole new opportunity. They essentially get their rebirth in the ashes of the Syrian state.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One of the key questions now, of course, is how organized is ISIS? Who is — is it centrally run or are these cells out there?

  • Joby Warrick:

    Well, they do have this powerful central organization. It’s remarkable to me to see how good they are at things like logistics, how good they are at getting supplies and moving recruits to various places, getting suicide bombers to take on these incredible missions.

    But, also, they are very good at inspiring people in other parts of the world to kind of take up the same mantle. And we don’t always know how well-connected some of the local groups are to ISIS central. There is clearly at least some messaging through propaganda and some actual coordination as well.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Messaging through propaganda?

  • Joby Warrick:

    Yes.

    So, ISIS — for example, this recent Paris attack, so this individual Abdelhamid Abaaoud in Paris, who is the ringleader of the attack, he gets sort of chided publicly by ISIS’ propaganda ministers in Syria, saying, do something in Paris, these Westerners have to pay for the things they’re doing do us.

    And so that becomes, we think, part of what drove him to commit this crime.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You used the word chided. That’s an interesting…

  • Joby Warrick:

    Yes. There was this…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It’s not order. It’s not like could you — why don’t you — chiding?

  • Joby Warrick:

    Yes. There may be some of that too.

    But it feels like there is almost some shaming that goes on, and you see this repeatedly by ISIS central in their propaganda messages. They used their videos which they put out publicly to call upon jihadis in Paris, do something. You know, do anything.

    And they make the same message for like-minded people in America and Russia and other places like that, kind of egging or goading local affiliates to take action.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Did anything about Paris surprise you?

  • Joby Warrick:

    You know what? We weren’t totally surprised that they would lash out outside the region. Their focus has mostly been Syria and Iraq, because they have their hands full right now.

    They’re being attacked from multiple sides. Everybody is bombing them. You have the Syrians and the Kurds — Syrian Arabs and Kurds coming after them on the ground.

  • Jeffrey Brown:, the book is “Black Flags:

    All right The Rise of ISIS.”

    Joby Warrick, thanks so much.

  • Joby Warrick:

    Thank you, Jeff.

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