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Reporting all that’s stranger than fiction

OPAQUE ORGANISATION: Militant Islamist fighters parade on military vehicles along the streets of northern Raqqa province on June 30, 2014.   | Photo Credit: STRINGER

hat prompts men to blindly follow a leader? Is morality a necessary component of a leader’s charisma? Leadership is an interesting subject that continues to excite and exercise observers. How could the man who led Britain to its stunning World War II victory lose the very next general election? How could a “half-naked” man sweep away the world’s most powerful empire?

It is not surprising then that many leaders who impact lives of millions are often petty thugs, outright liars, and frauds. But for their followers the leaders are men and women of great charisma, on whose orders they wouldn’t hesitate to even give up their lives.

Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of Isis (Bantam Press), which has just won the Pulitzer Prize in the general non-fiction category, is a gripping biographical sketch of Ahmad Fadil, who is better known to the world as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS). Zarqawi was killed in 2006 by two bombs dropped from an F-16 fighter in a space of 96 seconds, over an isolated farmhouse in Hibhib, Iraq. However, what survived that attack, the Islamic State, continues to perpetuate violence in deadly ways in unexpected corners of the world — on a daily basis in Iraq-Syria, and in football stadiums, cafes, music halls and airports in Europe.

The Islamic State is truly the first globalised violent ideology of this century, and Warrick dramatically recreates the deadly challenge, allowing readers to easily slip into the mindspace and bloodied territories of the IS.

A school dropout and a street-side gangster in his home town of Zarqa in Jordan who sold drugs and consumed alcohol, Zarqawi was an unruly child. His mother sent him to a self-help class, but it didn’t help.

Black Flags is a gripping read of how a wayward man of no great religious pedigree went on to found the Islamic State, probably the deadliest and most dispersed of all violent ideologies of modern times. It is also in many ways a telling narrative of how the movement drew sustenance and direction from the utter failure of the world’s most powerful nations, especially the U.S.

When the greatest technologies and mightiest powers fail, from the powerlessness of people rise some of the greatest responses, often violent and twisted.

The narrative is set against the turbulent political realities of Jordan, and the larger Middle East, which helped Zarqawi create the IS. Abdullah II, who became the king of Jordan in 1999 when his father Hussein died a few days after he dramatically altered the succession plan, granted general amnesty to several prisoners, including Zarqawi, setting the wayward youngster on a course that has led to the death of thousands and disrupted normal life for millions. King Abdullah was just trying to buy peace in the strife-torn country — his father Hussein survived at least 18 assassination attempts and was accompanying his grandfather and Jordan’s first king Abdullah I when the latter was shot dead by a Palestinian gunman while they were visiting the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in 1951.

Black Flags also takes up the narrative of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who took over the IS leadership from Zarqawi and continues to inspire hundreds to adopt the warped ideology. Of all the recent literature on IS, the book stands out for the detailed reporting on the ground and the very gripping narrative.

Writings from the front line

Turmoil gives rise to a bit of art. So is it true about the modern-day conflicts that rage across continents, mostly in the name of religion. Black Flags is insightful writing from the miserable territories of our times, where other than death and armed men only reporters mostly roam. Warrick puts together the story of al-Zarqawi and the Islamic State by interviewing dozens of Jordanian and U.S. officials and other sources. Many of them are not identified with their official names, because the fear of retribution is real.

Dozens of reporters are writing from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan and other nations to produce a stunning repertoire of writing, especially non-fiction books. Many have paid with their lives.

While great reporting has always been part of battles from the very ancient times — the first field reporting probably was by Thucydides of the Peloponnesian Wars — what has been a challenge in recent decades is to report on conflicts between nation-states and armed groups. Unlike in a traditional battle, where reporters have been embedded with a uniformed military, there are no such protections or rules in many of the present-day conflict zones.

Over the last four decades, since Russia invaded Afghanistan, a new generation of non-fiction writer has taken conflict reporting to a new level.

One of my favourites to date remains The Bear Trap: Afghanistan’s Untold Story, co-authored by Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, the head of the Afghan Bureau of Pakistan’s ISI, and military historian Mark Adkin. Yousaf was the man who oversaw the birth of modern Islamist insurgency, creating the mujahideens of Afghanistan with U.S. and Saudi money. The book is chilling. In some ways, Yousaf is the Thucydides of our times, narrating without much bias how he helped create the violence that continues to torture Afghanistan and rest of the world.

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid introduced millions to the world of the Taliban starting with his 2000 book, and through a succession of them. What has followed since then, especially in exploring the world of al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks, has seen some great writing — from Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Both books stand out for their sweep, and great reporting, and are unputdownable.

Official histories

In recent times, many governments have also been at work to produce written responses to the many terrorist threats. Militaries are revising their war doctrines, many are producing new field manuals to reflect the Long War of our times.

Of all of them, a favourite remains the well-produced ‘9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.’ Rarely has an official report been elevated to such quality of non-fiction.

josy.joseph@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 9:50:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Reporting-all-that%E2%80%99s-stranger-than-fiction/article14253701.ece

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