The War Diaries

"We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

A Freudian Slip

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A quick walk around Vienna’s quiet city centre reveals a panoply of architectural styles from authentic Baroque to neo-Baroque and from modernism to post-modernism. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Vienna- I went through the former multi-imperial capital at the crossroads of central Europe as part of this gradual journey eastward toward the orchestrated chaos playing out in the Levant. Part of why I chose to visit the Austrian capital was simply that I had never been there. When I first began traveling in the EU over 20 years ago, the airline industry here had only been formally deregulated the previous year. Thus traveling overland across the continent in the late 1990s was still both the economic and cultural norm.

As a university student you would travel on Eurolines buses or via train on a summer Eurail pass. As such, I traveled all over western, northern, and central Europe in a largely contiguous fashion until reaching the politically disjointed post-colonial Middle East. With the advent of Ryanair, Easy Jet, and the like, by the mid-2000s I began flying from point to point on uncomfortable low cost carriers which did away with observable overland gradual cultural and linguistic shifts. By 2005, I was in Barcelona and suddenly I was in Athens. Yes, these were both urban centres southern Europe but how were they connected in terms of a historical grand narrative? Rarely ever in train stations and ports of call today, it becomes more challenging to intellectually discern-by way of visual and audible minutiae-the linkages between civilisational entrepôts. Travel had been a way to absorb knowledge by the nature of its comparative inefficiencies. Today, internet-driven hyper connectivity has brought vast new opportunities for the denizens of this vast economic bloc but at a cost to cultural nuance, a boon to aspirant autocrats and vilifying populists.

As the EU has become more of a cohesive supranational geopolitical entity, some qualities have fallen by the wayside in the name of some of globalisation’s uniformity principles. I’d visited or at least passed through all of the states surrounding Austria save for tiny Lichtenstein in my early travels but stopped moving about in a spontaneous just-for-fun manner as the era of the Terror Wars was hastily ushered in immediately after 9/11. Austria is of course the republic’s Latinised exonym for Österreich, ‘eastern realm.’ (Thus the Aust in Austria is a Latin phonetic of Öst ‘east’ and unrelated the naming of Australia which is purely Latin in origin derived from Terra Australis, ‘southern land’ after New Holland was renamed.) The name to me intimates that it is the gateway to the beyond. It largely signals the periphery of the Germanic and Latinic world (with the exception of Latin outliers Romania and Moldova) abutting the Finno-Urgic ethno-linguistic exclave of Hungary and the western reaches of the vast Slavic realm.

In essence I made myself pass by the city of Sigmund Freud and the one-time monarchic seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire just for the sake of going somewhere I hadn’t been. To be somewhere unfamiliar. To see the wide boulevards that felt more Budapest than Berlin to me. I only wish I’d allotted more time to such a spectacular urban space.

Written by derekhenryflood

February 14th, 2019 at 2:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Introducing Increments-An Analog Photography Story

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My ancient Olympus MJU-II with a fixed 35mm f/2.8 lens and some Kodak colour 200 speed film I picked up before going to the airport. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- Every so often at home in the West people will broach what can feel like an awkward topic of how I journey to Syria or other places that seem to be varying states of perpetual turmoil. I don’t generally have a boilerplate response as I often tailor my answer to my specific audience of one or perhaps three on a New York or Catalan street.

The answer that I travel in increments of change. It as not as if one takes an Uber to JFK and lands in Deir ez-Zor governorate the following morning. Everything for me happens in much smaller steps. So I had an idea to dust off this old compact point and shoot and bring it along toward a rugged reporting trip and document these human and geographic increments along the way from friends to militiamen and points in between. I last used this camera in Syria in 2002 and Iraq in 2003 and am curious to see how it’s held up over the years.

More so I’d like to be able to share my experiences in a more relatable way. I have no idea how these images will ultimately turn out but I’m betting on fun at the least. Perhaps I’ll make something of them in a modest story telling format. What I like is that it’s already adding another, albeit minor, dimension to my travels in the greater Mediterranean world.

This was shot in 2002 with the Olympus MJU-II in the courtyard of the famed Umayyad masjid at its western portico in Damascus by a friendly Syrian man I handed my low tech point and shoot to for posterity. This majestic complex dates at least as far back as the pre-Roman Aramean era. It then became repurposed for the Cult of  Jupiter followed by being  dedicated to John the Baptist during Byzantium. Its final and present incarnation is an exquisite Islamic holy site where the octagonal ablution fountain behind me was said to mark the middle point between Istanbul and Mecca.

Written by derekhenryflood

February 12th, 2019 at 7:29 am

Posted in Syria

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Vice-A Tortured Review

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Barcelona- I’m certainly no film critic, but I came away from the star studded Vice starring Welsh-born Christian Bale as Wyoming’s Richard ‘Dick’ Bruce Cheney, ruthless veteran Republican operator and titan of industry with several thoughts. Firstly as someone who lived through many of the events depicted in the latter portion of the film (9/11, the bombing of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, etc), I know first-hand what the results of neoconservative (a no-longer-in-fashion term never employed in Vice for obvious reasons) policy were at home-collecting date on citizenry-and abroad-bombing and killing-and therefore felt compelled to see the film as it opened in wide release a month or so ago.

A Neoconservative World Order

Vice elevates Cheney from a little understood yet enormously powerful bureaucrat to show him for the shadow master writer-director Adam McKay conceives him to be. It also portrays–without naming them as such–the alumni of the somewhat ominously named Project for a New American Century (then referred to be insiders and critics alike as PNAC for short) that sought to establish a democratic government, ostensibly one friendly or at least not hostile to Israel, in Iraq through large-scale militarised violence. How transparently dubious to things titled “Iraqi Liberation Act” and the ” Committee for the Liberation of Iraq” sound? These themes were spoofed in the 2005 film Syriana with its “Committee for the Liberation of Iran” that played upon many of the geopolitical fears prevalent at the time.

The world Dick Cheney left behind. View from the top of the Baghdad telecom tower with a view of a massive unfinished mosque. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

The film made me a bit sentimental for that period of what seemed like comparatively binary politics on the world stage as compared to the ongoing chaos we see today where it isn’t quite clear who is in charge of global affairs. This was an awful, momentous period in world order and breaches to the U.S. Constitution-the bedrock of rule-of-law in the United States–but as an observer of events at home and abroad, one could at least feel they had a firm grasp of who the players were and what their dogmatic aims were meant to achieve, whether perceived as beneficent or nefarious depending on one’s perspective. Today, citing the presence of American Special Operators in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (formerly known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria) as an example, no one seems to know what the hell is going on. When principal players like James Mattis and Brett McGurk resign overnight, the era portrayed in Vice seems relatively quiescent in terms of state stability in Washington. Not to make light of it, for the former begat the latter to be sure, but the present is certainly exponentially more embarrassing if not outright dangerous.

Degrees of Separation

What really got me personally was that there was a John “torture memo” Yoo character-I suppose coincidentally played by actor Paul Yoo of no apparent relation. Yoo, a upwardly mobile South Korean immigrant, helped to legally articulate one of the darkest periods in the known conduct of state actors in the American federal system in recent memory. When I was in Thailand last year fruitlessly looking for the still secret locale of Detention Site Green, the site where ‘waterboarding’ was first thought to have occurred as an American torture method after 9/11 in the context of the Terror Wars. As in Vice where global warming became “climate change,” torture would be rebranded as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Years ago I was friends with someone who’s sister was married to Yoo. I was quite curious at the time what it was like to have a legal architect of the 9/12 world for an in-law. We didn’t delve terribly far into this awkward topic. By this point, Yoo was comfortably ensconced in northern California teaching law at UC Berkeley-a fact I found a bit confounding being that he seemed to be as antithetical to that particular campus or town’s ascribed ethos. At the time, said friend didn’t profess much of an opinion of Yoo other than he was polite at family gatherings. I wanted to know more being a few degrees of separation from such a controversial–to put it kindly–figure put pried not much further. Months before the film’s theatrical release, I remembered that vague connection when traipsing around Thailand to no avail.

The Rise of Al-Zarqawi

Interestingly what I didn’t not expect from McKay’s epic was how central the name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (né Ahmed Fadhil al-Khalayleh) would be to the plot line. Al-Zarqawi was oft described is an unsophisticated Jordanian street operator from the working class northern city of az-Zarqa who was radicalised in prison by the infamous salafi preacher Abu Muhammad al-Maqidisi there and went on to bounce around the miniverse that was global salafi-jihad at the time. Where I disagree with the film’s narrative is that it, perhaps for the sake of brevity, describes Zarqawi as the founder of “ISIS.” Firstly, I can’t stand the term ISIS because it simply is not factually correct in terms of Arabic to English transliteration. ISIL is far more correct despite there being no agreed upon standardised translation.  Secondly, even if it were correct, the group no longer calls itself ISIL It has been just “IS” for years now. Adherents even shorten that to just ad-Dawla, meaning “the State” which implies omnipotence and universality in their violently myopic thought-world.

Thirdly, Zarqawi died in a strike in June 2006 some seven years before ISIS/ISIL was declared. Zarqawi founded Jamaat al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad (Group for Monotheism and Holy War roughly). The Islamic State of Iraq–the organisation that would later become ISIS/ISIL/IS was formed several months after Zarqawi’s assassination by constituents of the Mujihideen Shura Council who sought to cohere a dominant salafi war-fighting group in the cacophonous theatre that was the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq at the time. Perhaps I’m being a bit too technical but I bristled at that line in the otherwise quite enjoyable film.

Written by derekhenryflood

February 6th, 2019 at 5:31 am

Posted in 9/11,Iraq,Thailand

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Into the Mountains-New Work on IS in the Troubled Governorates of Northern Iraq

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Al-Shorta al-Ittihadiyya (Federal Police) patrol Kirkuk’s comparatively secure city centre as the Disputed Territories become increasingly insecure beyond its urban periphery. I was caught at a Fed Po checkpoint later this day and forced to delete this image under duress. I was able to recover the deleted file after finding the appropriate Youtube tutorial combined with 2.5 hours of navigating the solution. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

New York-I have a new piece out in the September 2018 issue of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point’s monthly Sentinel journal on IS’s insurgent rear bases and operations in Iraq’s northern federally controlled governorates of Kirkuk, Salah ad-Din, and Diyala. (I excluded the dynamics in Mosul and wider Ninewa as that would’ve made the topic too broad and unwieldy) This project was a long time in the making as it first took shape when I returned to Kirkuk in February of this year and it was abundantly obvious how much the situation had changed since the federal and Shia militia takeover in October 2017 when the forces of the PUK, and less so KDP, were ousted.

After spending a month working in northern Syria I returned to Kirkuk to conduct interviews and do some more digging while speaking with civilians from Diyala and Salah ad-Din who told me in detail about the shaky security conditions along the Baghdad-Kirkuk road and what nightly life was like in the dangerous administrative seats that were and are suffering through nocturnal militant attacks as Fed Po largely kept in their barracks after sundown according to interviewees.

The city was by then plastered with campaign posters for the May parliamentary elections and the presence of Hashd militiamen seemed less overt. Baghdad was very keen to visibly assert control of Iraq’s arguably most tense major city (saying that without regard to the conditions down in Basra at present). In the interim while I’d been busy in al-Hasakah and Halab (Aleppo) governorates on the other side of the Euphrates, a few major security incidents occurred that the government of (still) PM al-Abadi could not ignore–particularly the ambush of 27 Hashd men in al-Hawija district later in February after I’d crossed into Syria. Returning in late March, Dibis and Kirkuk districts simply felt more tense. I attempted to interview the Baghdad-appointed governor Rakaan Saeed Ali al-Jubouri but was thrown out for being at his compound with a flimsy KRG visa after circumventing the security cordon somewhat by driving via the oil town of Taq Taq. Though not before I was able to gather plenty of nuanced detail on the security environment.

As a very visible symbol of the restoration of central authority over Kirkuk, the gigantic peshmerga statue at the city’s northern gate brandishes a republican flag after its formerly trademark Kurdistani flag was torn down. It can be argued without a hefty amount of vigor that security has worsened there since Iraqi security forces and Hashd militia brigades took control last fall. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

It was becoming undeniable the IS ease of use of the Hamrin and Makhoul mountains and Lake Hamrin basin area coupled with the nature of the area’s physical geography have enabled a rather permissive environment for insurgent activity. I had been on the edge of the Hamrin in September of last year when visiting PUK frontline positions in Daquq and Tooz districts before the KRG’s territorial project collapsed in the Disputed Territories. These places are far more difficult–and dangerous in my opinion–to visit a year 0n. At the time Erbil and Baghdad were, albeit in a temporary realpolitik mode, on the same side in a somewhat conventional war against IS. Now they have returned to the pre-2014 status quo as military peer competitors.

Met this effusive taxi driver from Riyadh subdistrict who described the deleterious conditions after central authority was restored to the Hawija pocket but never fully asserted 24 hours a day. He seemed happy about the relative safety of Kirkuk city and to give random Westerner  a ride to Governor al-Jubouri’s compound on the southern bank of the Khassa river. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Today federal authorities have their hands full. With the eyes looking down at the protest movement in Basra and other southern cities and the tussle over political power as a new government has yet to be formed months after the controversial May vote. The attacks emanating from the Hamrin range are ongoing while the COIN campaign being implemented does not have the feel of an overarching strategy. It’s a proverbial game of cat and mouse in those rocky hills.

PUK fighters in the southern part of Daquq district near the Hamrin mountains this time last year. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

September 10th, 2018 at 2:35 pm

The Coming Battle for Idlib

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A fighter in what was then known as the Free Syrian Army in Idlib governorate early on in the war. Thing have only steadily deteriorated since those early days. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Some six and half years ago I trekked from Hatay province in southern Turkey to a small rebel-controlled town in Idlib governorate in northeastern Syria. The fighters I met at the time were local Sunni Arabs and indigenous Sunni/Sufi Caucasians who were strictly interested in fighting the Ba’athist regime and proclaimed their desire for Western support as had happened in Libya the previous year. I spoke with CNN at the time after I returned to Turkey about what the FSA desired and how a Libya-NATO scenario was highly unlikely.

When an affable FSA commander asked me why the West hadn’t rushed to their aid, put on the spot I replied, “Libya borders Chad to its south, your country borders Israel. The calculus for the Obama administration is entirely different as the geopolitical stakes here [Syria] are considered far higher.”

So here we are in 2018: the regime with its Russian patrons and Iranian partners each with their own agenda seeks to purge the governorate of ‘terrorists’ meaning Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra, Tanzim Hurras al-Deen, the Turkestan Islamic Party, and other salafi war-fighting groups. But Idlib along with nearby slices of Hama, Latakia, and Halab (Aleppo) governorates are home to millions of Syrian civilians–both local and displaced– who have had to interact with these fighters for many years now.

Idlib represents a great failure where a stark lack of diplomacy, social media-enhanced radicalisation, and the evolving agenda of illiberal powers converge to create an impending crisis. The governorate has already been shelled by regime artillery and Russian airstrikes but a ground offensive to dislodge said irhab’een (terrorists) has yet to begin in any serious measure. There are many more elements to be factored in. The TSK-Turkish army-is also present in the form of its ‘observation posts’ as well as the rebel fighters it backs. It all looks to be quite a mess.

Written by derekhenryflood

September 9th, 2018 at 3:20 pm

Posted in Syria

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Living at the Highest Level of Life

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A young YPJ fighter imagines soaring over the Euphrates River. A fleeting moment of serenity in a place unknown to the outside world. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Aleppo Governorate- I spent a month working in northern Syria earlier this year. It was at once immensely trying and thrilling. Frustrating lack of access followed by huge breakthroughs. Working in such a fluid, semi-governed place runs an entire gamut of emotions. The Syrian conflict, whether one wants to categorise it as “civil” or “transnational” in nature, is a theatre of war and despair populated by real people, both ordinary and extraordinary.

Editors don’t seem to understand. Friends at home simply cannot. To be there and breathe in the smoke filled hotels is to exist within the thrust of history while firmly within its margins as a Western journo who needn’t actually be experiencing it at all. Simply getting in and then getting out is an accomplishment in and of itself. But no one appreciates that.

After the fire and brimstone from all the suicide car bombs and air strikes clears, there are vast fields of rubble. Ideas of martyrdom, virtue, sacrifice and glory are just decaying corpses and broken cement. Strewn about with plush children’s toys or vanquished caches of Armenian or Russian cigarettes quashed by a store’s collapsed ceiling. And yet life begins again. Those who’ve perished are buried by the living. The living reopen shops in the still intact first floor of a shopping arcade leveled courtesy of the American taxpayer.

A shop selling Turkish and Iranian foodstuffs reopened beneath a bombed out upper floor from the battle between the Manbij Military Council and YPG vs IS in the summer of 2016. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

To fluidly move between these worlds of wildly varying degrees of stability takes a great deal of mental agility. Particularly as someone with zero corporate backing of any kind. Corporate reporters have no idea nor firm recollection of what it is like to be a pure freelancer in a war zone much like married people who underwent a lengthy courtship period can no longer recall what life is like for single people. Taking public buses, doing interviews without a fixer. Someone you interviewed who fixed for you for free being shot twice in the chest by a sniper after he urged you to leave town. A US and UK soldier being assassinated by a mobile phone trigged mine at a roundabout you walked by for weeks.

American special operators on the ground deep into Syrian territory with YPG fighters and Asayîş members. Looked like an AKP conspiracy theory painted on canvas. But it was a moment I experienced. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

There is nothing remotely normal nor mainstream about my existence. No 9-5 job with its attendant vacations and 3-day weekends a few times a year, not attending extravagant out-of-town weddings some place, nor taking offspring on playdates with others in my socio-economic cohort. There is no doting woman planning my future, no dog to walk at the same time every evening, no family greeting me at the airport. Just war all the time. The routine is orchestrated chaos.

Written by derekhenryflood

August 31st, 2018 at 1:26 pm

Posted in Syria

The Devastation of the Air War Upon Syria

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An IDP family existing in the only habitable part of a bombed out building in Manbij, Syria. This structure was ostensibly hit by an American air strike during the siege of Manbij in the spring and summer of 2016.  To destroy a society is relatively easy, to build or rebuild one is a long, labourious task.                                        ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

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May 30th, 2018 at 1:35 pm

War by Another Name: Insurgency in Northern Iraq

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While Baghdad is keen to visibly display its control over Kirkuk governorate following the liberation of Hawija coupled with the ouster of the peshmerga in October 2017, the city has seen an increase in militant incidents since the upending of the security status quo that preceded the return of central authority. This trend is not likely to be stalled nor reversed in the near term. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Kirkuk- I have a featured report in London at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (subscription required) this week about ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya’s (IS’s) return to almost purely asymmetric tactics after the forcible collapse of its all too modern, social media-fueled state-building project in Iraq and Syria. To put it mildly, things in southern swaths of Kirkuk governorate are bad, really bad. As are conditions in northern Salah ad-Din governorate and much of federally controlled (as opposed to PUK controlled areas) Diyala. This is not to mention situations in al-Anbar and Ninewa. It is not so much that these places are deteriorating from relatively secure to insecure but that their security at the village level was never entirely consolidated even after PM al-Abadi declared the republic entirely liberated last December.

The al-Abadi government made great strides–depending on one’s personal outlook–in restoring much of Iraq’s incredibly frayed territorial integrity. First from armed practitioners of al-salafiyya al-jihadiyya in a grinding, year-plus long offensive that largely centred upon the taking of Mosul. Before this massive operation was even completed, signified by the capture of al-Qaim and Rawa towns  in al-Anbar, Iraqi security forces and Shia militias-cum-paramilitaries known in Iraq parlance as Hashd al-Shaabi launched a swift operation to retake Kirkuk city and much of the surrounding disputed territories from KDP and PUK peshmerga. The Kurds were immediately routed in a mix of leadership betrayal and massive lack of force and armour parity.

Iraqi Kurds often refer to this as the ’16 October crisis’ whereby through dealmaking between the late Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s widow and one of his sons with Iran, the PUK forces withdrew from what president Talabani had called the “Kurdish Jerusalem” in a 2011 speech. Now in 2018, there exists an ungoverned space between ISF and Hashd-held territory and KDP and PUK-held lands where IS has been exploiting this gap to launch attacks on security forces, killing tribal leaders and their families they deem collaborators, and slaughtering uncooperative civilians.

Some have termed these developments as a return of IS though a more accurate depiction is that the IS presence was never entirely eradicated. After the disastrous liberation of Mosul in which scores of civilians were killed, when Tal Afar and Hawija and several other smaller towns were encircled by advancing ISF and Hashd forces, deals were made where militants fled via an uncontrolled corridor. This then indicates that those who were not later captured would live to regroup and fight another day. We are now living in that proverbial other day.

Written by derekhenryflood

May 22nd, 2018 at 4:00 pm