12 AM | 09 Jan

Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad

Cover of Under the Black Flag

Author: Sami Moubayed

Publisher: I.B. Tauris & Co.

Date of Publication: December 2015

Date of Review: January 2016

Under the Black Flag” is as prescient as it is well written. It is thoroughly researched, and provides the reader with an incredible introductory to Islamic sects and geopolitics, in addition to the history of ISIS. 

Particularly well written for Westerners who are just learning about Islam and its many factions, Sami Moubayed’s “Under the Black Flag” rapidly provides the reader with context around ISIS. I genuinely appreciated the author’s perspective, especially given that he is Syrian, a Syrian scholar, and deeply understands the dearth of knowledge most Westerners have regarding the Middle East, Arabs, Islam, and the Islamic State.

Moubayed excels at remaining unbiased, or at least candidly stating his bias. I will say, I was worried I was going to read a book about how the West has destroyed the Middle East and the Islamic world, but the author avoided that dialogue without dismissing Western culpability. His sensitivities and his honesty only strengthened “Under the Black Flag” because it felt like a book I could trust.

Impressively, Moubayed carefully lays out a concise history of Islam starting from “the early years of Islam and the generation of the first Muslims” up to the present. Moubayed explains the “sacred dream” of a caliphate, the all-important origin of Salafi jihadis and modern Wahhabism, which is promulgated by the Saudi regime. Wahhabism, according to Moubayed, advances “spreading the faith by the sword, killing infidels and purifying the Islamic world from foreign ideas and lifestyles…It is the blueprint for all Sunni jihadi movements that have dominated world affairs over the last generation, namely, al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.” Moubayed boldly states, “Without Wahhabism, there would be no Saudi Arabia, no Islamic State in al-Raqqa today and no talk of al-Qaeda or ISIS.” The author doesn’t flinch from pointing a stern and authoritative finger at Saudi Arabia and King Fahd for fueling, finding, and funding Islamic terrorist cells. The author also ties in Boko Haram and the Muslim Brotherhood of North Africa. Al-Qaeda is thoroughly and relevantly discussed, from its U.S. backed founding to Abdullah Azzam and Bin Laden.

Of course, Syria and Iraq are the countries most notably affected by ISIS, and after establishing the history of the jihadi movement, Moubayed carefully takes the reader through the modern history of Syria. For example, the Syrian regime under President Assad, “was trying to undo what it had very willingly allowed to happen: creating an Islamic genie within Syria, which soon emerged in the form of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.” Moubayed highlights the U.S. policies and actions that strengthened the jihadi movement, from GTMO to U.S. inadequacies and contempt in Iraq. Moubayed notes, “the irony is that the consequences of the US war to bring [Saddam Hussein] down, actually produced Islamic terrorism in Iraq in the form of ISIS.”

Of particular interest is the U.S.’s reaction to al-Nusra, which Moubayed notes “legitimiz[ed] the Syrian regime’s bombardment of cities like Aleppo” and pushed many into the arms of the anti-Syrian-regime arms of al-Nusra. Why is al-Nusra important? “Over 70-percent of al-Nusra fighters defected to join ISIS in mid-2013.” Furthermore, the fighting between ISIS and al-Nusra may be overcome “if the United States wages an extended campaign against al-Nusra” pushing al-Nusra closer to ISIS.

So how widespread and organized is the Islamic State? “As of mid-2015 [ISIS] has somewhere between 35,000-50,000 fighters inside Syria and Iraq and controls approximately 35,000 square miles of territory.” For perspective, the U.S. intelligence community found that ISIS had “no more than 200 warriors in Syria as of August 2012.” The area covered is larger than Great Britain and has a greater population than Finland and Demark. Moubayed states, “ISIS’s rise is eclipsing the old al-Qaeda.” Interestingly, however, unlike al-Qaeda’s focus on “far enemies,” the “primary target of the Islamic State has not been the United States, but the ‘Shi’I regime in Baghdad and the Baathist/Alawite regime in Damascus.”

Moubayed explains several unique features of the Islamic State. For example, Arab Christians are given three options: leave, pay a 20% religious levy (“jizya”), or “be put to the sword.” “Any homage, let alone mention of pre-Islamic State political personalities, such as Hafez al-Assad or Saddam Hussein, is a serious offense, punishable by arrest and whipping.” Similar to Saudi Arabia, ISIS uses a “moral vice squad” to keep it’s subjects inline, and again similar to Saudi Arabia, they behead and crucify wrongdoers, such as those accused of witchcraft and apostasy. Those accused of being gay are thrown from tall buildings.

How does ISIS make money? Moubayed notes two major sources of revenue: oil and relic sales. Who buys the oil? How about the central government in Damascus. Amazingly, what relics ISIS doesn’t blow up, they sell, generating “impressive revenue.” Moubayed notes, “this includes gold coins, bronze artifacts, and early Christian relics such as gold chalices and other valuables. Statues, crucifixes, Byzantine coins and iconography are however immediately destroyed no matter what their worth, since making money from them is ‘haram’ (prohibited by religion). The Islamic State even has a ministry of antiquities “tasked with streamlining the process of selling looted artifacts.”

Fighters, as we all know, continue to pour in from the West. Der Spiegel was first to report on Europeans fighting in Syria as early as mid-2012. Interestingly, the Islamic State is helping and recruiting from the Xingiang (Chinese Muslim) community. Furthermore, women have exceptionally important recruitment roles in the Islamic State. “Day and night, they manage ISIS-affiliated pages on Facebook, along with their accounts on Twitter and Instagram. [Women] are in charge of nearly all of ISIS’s online media.” Furthermore, “al-Baghdadi hates the term ‘jihadi brides’ and insists that ISIS women are ‘citizens of the Islamic State’.” He expects women to be engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and fighters.

In addition to providing historical and religious context, Moubayed uses “firsthand interviews with ISIS members and people living within ISIS-held territory, as well as presenting the observations of field reporters from within ISIS-held territory.” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is thoroughly covered, providing a greater understanding of the person at the helm of the Islamic State. I was surprised to learn that in 2004, the U.S. had captured al-Baghdadi

Moubayed is highly skeptical of the U.S. led strikes against ISIS, noting they “are not working.”

When we see pictures of starving children and men foaming at the mouth because of chemical weapons, it’s hard not to be moved to action. There are literally millions of valid reasons for wanting to help Syrians who are being killed, raped, and sold into slavery under ISIS and Assad. Syria and Iraq are in a deeply tragic state, and tens of millions are suffering.

But targeted bombings are not going to solve the problem. Boots on the ground are not going to solve the problem. Why? Because there isn’t just one problem. As Moubayed points out, the lead up to ISIS has literally been centuries in the making. It’s a gross simplification to believe that the Iraq War is to blame. Yet, it would be equally foolish to dismiss the ramifications of the Iraq war.

The West’s involvement in the Middle East, including our actions in Afghanistan in 2001, and our involvement with Pakistan before 2001, have done nothing but escalate regional and global unrest. I’m going to say something enormously unpopular among both conservatives and liberals: I want my country to leave the Middle East, much of Central Asia, and most of North Africa (billions of people) to its own devices. As Saddam and so many others have taught us, sending aid doesn’t help. As Operation Iraqi Freedom has proven, sending our military doesn’t help. As Saudi Arabia has proven, getting in bed with evil regimes doesn’t solve problems.

Thank you, Sami Moubayed, for inadvertently strengthening my position that there’s absolutely nothing the West can do to help, that any intervention will only lead to worsen the situation. I’m sorry your former country is lost to me. It was a beautiful place, the oldest “remaining” civilization, and it’s been losing ground for hundreds of years.

For those still wanting to go to war for humanitarian reasons, I’ll leave you with this poem:


“The War in the Air”


For a saving grace, we didn’t see our dead,

Who rarely bothered coming home to die

But simply stayed away out there

In the clean war, the war in the air.


Seldom the ghosts come back bearing their tales

Of hitting the earth, the incompressible sea,

But stayed up there in the relative wind,

Shades fading in the mind,


Who had no graves but only epitaphs

Where never so many spoke for never so few:

Per ardua, said the partisans of Mars,

Per aspera, to the stars.


That was the good war, the war we won

As if there was no death, for goodness’s sake.

With the help of the losers we left out there

In the air, in the empty air.