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Islamic State Has 'Metastasized,' Says Pulitzer Prize-Winner Warrick

Grab from a video that shows militants loyal to the Islamic State (IS) blowing up bound and blindfolded Afghan prisoners with explosives. The victims were from Nangarhar province.
Grab from a video that shows militants loyal to the Islamic State (IS) blowing up bound and blindfolded Afghan prisoners with explosives. The victims were from Nangarhar province.

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.

RFE/RL: 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
Joby Warrick

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.

RFE/RL: 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?

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006.

Warrick: Here's someone who'd started out really as not a very impressive character. No leadership experience to speak of yet, not much money, not much of a following, not many weapons. The United States in a way gave him a boost by making him a higher profile...we made him actually kind of a case for the connection between Al-Qaeda and [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It turned out to be a false connection, there was no real link between the two. But we helped make him famous and set himself up and manage to unite a lot of Iraqis behind him.

RFE/RL: You write that Zarqawi’s own conversion to radical Islam came after his stint in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal [in 1989]. Zarqawi, a former petty criminal, came back to Jordan fully transformed into a religious zealot who admired the ways of the Afghan Taliban. Now IS is making some inroads into Afghanistan. Has it come full circle?

Warrick: In a way it has come full circle, because the begetting of the modern jihadist movement really is through Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda came out of the Afghan conflict after the war against the Soviets and Zarqawi did as well, and his offspring today, this Islamic State, has metastasized. So now you see cells in numerous places including in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it's interesting that wherever they pop up, they end up kind of making war with the local Islamist groups. So they're not very popular there, but they have definitely made a presence and it's a worrisome thing for U.S. officials.

RFE/RL: Lately, there have been signs of growing IS influence among Muslims in the Balkans, with hundreds of Albanians and Kosovars joining the group. You’ve recently investigated this trend in Albania, but there are signs of growing Islamist influence in Kosovo as well. What are the causes?

Warrick: Some of it was driven by Internet propaganda, some of it by a sort of a slow radicalization that's taken place in those regions over the last 10 to 15 years. These are areas that didn't really have an Islamist movement or a radical wing of Islam until the fighting and the civil wars started in the 1990s.

RFE/RL: Then what happened?

Warrick: There was this period of time in the mid- to late 1990s when Wahhabi missionaries came to Albania and Kosovo to set up a mosque, to set up madrasahs. They would recruit young students and bring them back to Saudi Arabia or in some cases to Turkey for religious training. Some of those individuals have gone back home and they've started their own mosques; and they have increased, radicalized congregations. And I've met with some of these people in prison in Albania, and they are very much in favor of doing away with democracy as we know it and setting up mini-Islamic states throughout the Balkans.

RFE/RL: Have they gained any grassroots support?

Warrick: I don't think their support is that widespread, but it's definitely a current there; and officials will have to deal with it.

RFE/RL: Hundreds of Central Asian and Russian nationals have reportedly joined the IS, and many say Russian is the second-most-common language spoken by IS fighters after Arabic, despite professed efforts by post-Soviet governments to stifle the spread of radical Islam among their youth.

Warrick: People do not realize generally the extent to which the former Soviet republics are involved in supporting ISIS. I think even [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has estimated that up to 7,000 individuals from the former Soviet republics have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS.

RFE/RL: What regions do they come from?

Warrick: Some of them have emerged as senior leaders, particularly Chechens, who have in some cases years of experience finding the insurgency there [in Chechnya]. So you have, I think, in some cases a repressed Muslim community. Some of them had been involved in fighting for more rights as Muslims in their own countries. So this is actually an ideal circumstance for the Islamic State, and they have been able to exploit it. I think we'll see more of that to come.

Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014
Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014

​RFE/RL: How many followers do you estimate IS has currently, and how many of them are actual foot soldiers?

Warrick: The numbers have actually gone down a little bit. We were looking at numbers in the mid- to upper 30,000 range, so 35,000, maybe even 40,000 fighters at the peak. But there has been some attrition. Some of these individuals have gone home, many of them have been killed in fighting, so the pipeline of new recruits coming into the region has essentially been, not completely stopped, but brought to a trickle. So estimates now are that there are perhaps 20,000 fighters proper in the Islamic State -- in the [IS-declared] caliphate [in Syria and Iraq].

RFE/RL: Some experts say there is little hope that the threat posed by a radical militant group such as Islamic State will diminish anytime soon. Authors Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan have even said, “The army of terror will be with us indefinitely.” Do you agree?

Warrick: I think that's unfortunately true, at least realistically in our lifetime. But I think the threat is going to change, it's not going to be the same. Just as we saw a big threat from Al-Qaeda 10 to 15 years ago, that threat changed. I think the same thing is going to happen with Islamic State; it's going to eventually lose its territory, that's inevitable. But they are going to be left with the idea, and with people who have been radicalized by IS and who have gone back to their home countries. The ideas aren't going away, so we're going to have to be involved in this conflict for a very long time.