The War Diaries

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

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

Written by derekhenryflood

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

The Mystery of Detention Site Green

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Was the CIA’s torture prison in Thailand circa 2002 located here in Chiang Mai? ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Chiang Mai- Arriving in Thailand after a couple of months working in Iraq and Syria, I had what might seem like a fairly simple idea: to precisely locate the site of the 2002 CIA ‘black site’ where Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded. Here in Thailand was where so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” first began as the terror wars got underway.

The exact geolocation of the black site, once referred to as “Cat’s Eye” but later formally called “Detention Site Green” is still a matter of debate some 16 years on. The sites, often termed a ‘secret CIA prisons’ were colour coded once the system had been well established for forcibly migrating, interrogating and torturing HVDs (High Value Detainees). The heavily redacted report titled Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Techniques was released in in April 2014 with a declassified version published the US Senate that December.

This dated Thai mystery has reemerged with the nomination of agency deputy director Gina Haspel as CIA director. Haspel’s controversial nomination hearing is slated for 9 May. I thought it would be an opportune time to find the one-time torture site but such is far easier imagined than actually done. The Thai government, ruled as a military junta since 2014 and led by former army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha , still essentially denies the black site’s existence here in practical terms.

The location has been commonly thought to be in the northern province of Udon Thani at a Vietnam War-era Voice of America relay station in Ban Dung district southeast of the Laotian capital of Vientiane. The then governor of Udon Thani as well as the Prime Minister’s office strenuously denied the VoA station doubling as a prison as a baseless rumour back in November 2005.

An outline of Ban Dung district in Udon Thani province where a 2005 report alleged Detention Site Green was located. This has never been corroborated.

Detention Site Green was also once rumoured to be at Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport. This version of the location hasn’t been as common in speculation as of late but a recent inconclusive report by the Los Angeles Times still mentions it as a possible locale.

The commercial area of Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport. The Los Angeles Times speculates Cat’s Eye may have been in a part of the facility used by the Royal Thai Air Force. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Adding to the conjecture, in 2016, The New York Times published a global black site map indicating the 2002 prison was located in the northern metropolis of Chiang Mai. But the article provided no supporting information regarding a possible Chiang Mai locale. In fact the place name Thailand is only mentioned in passing in said piece while Chiang Mai is not mentioned at all beyond the infographic illustrating the article.

A New York Times black site map published in October 2016 indicates the prison was in or near the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai but did not explain where this assertion originated from.

So where was Cat’s Eye/Detention Site Green? Was it in Chiang Mai as the NYT map asserts but does not explain? Was it in Udon Thani province as many originally suspected. A December 2014 report by the Bangkok Post that came in the wake of declassified Senate report alludes to it being in Udon Thani province but in a different locale at the Ramasun military camp rather than the old VoA rumour. Junta leader General Prayut adamantly denied the findings implicating Thailand in the 2014 report stating Thai authorities has no specific information on what their American allies were doing with terror suspects on Thai soil.

A 2014 Washington Post report states that The New York Times received a leak of the location of Detention Site Green but suppressed the information although the article by Greg Miller and Adam Goldman does not articulate why. Did the CIA via Bush White House convince then  NYT executive editor Bill Keller or Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to refrain from publishing the site’s location based on a lesser of evils concept regarding national security interests conflated with patriotism owing the the post 9/11 environment? Did the map the NYT published in 2016 specifically listing “Chiang Mai” hark back to that suppressed leak either inadvertently or surreptitiously? Did the NYT being the recipient of a leak lead to the end of Cat’s Eye and its coordinates forever vanishing into history?

Screenshot of a 2014 WaPo report mentioning the NYT has information on Detention Site Green.

This week the Los Angeles Times piece on Detention Site Green mentions a leak but doesn’t specify the outlet as WaPo did in 2014 above.

In contrast to the WaPo article from 2014, the LAT’s piece from 2018 does not mention NYT by name, but simply “U.S. media” by which I presume they mean the NYT unless there were other outlets that WaPo failed to mention in the citation above.

This forgotten yet incredibly significant locale in the context of the terror wars seems to have been buried in history. Those who know won’t or can’t talk and Thailand is not a politically transparent society under military rule after years of corrupt prime ministerships and protests in Bangkok. Here in the land of smiles was once the CIA’s first black site, a veritable laboratory for torture that would be used in other such dark venues in the early years of the terror wars. The use of torture greatly harmed America’s image abroad and I’m not simply referring to the European left.The known use of torture techniques here in Thailand and onto Afghanistan, Poland and elsewhere was detrimental to American foreign policy objectives in places far more sensitive where allies were needed to build sturdy partnerships.

Waterboarding undermined and betrayed American values at their core no matter who the suspects were. Men were snatched in Pakistan and other places and detained–and many still are detained–without due process of law, a fundamental American value. In the minds of captured suspects and their remaining fellow travelers still at large, this confirmed for them that the great power across the Atlantic was no better than Iraqi or Syrian Ba’athist mukhabarat, the Shah’s feared SAVAK or Communist Afghanistan’s ruthless KHAD  in is callous disregard for fundamental human rights.

Although Zubaydah’s interrogations in Thailand had supposedly ended by the time Haspel arrived here, she did oversee a couple of waterboardings of Saudi detainee Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri who Washington considers to be the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing that killed 17 sailors in Yemen’s Aden harbour in October 2000. In 2005 according the Associated Press, Haspel then facilitated the destruction of 92 videotapes that documented what occurred at Detention Site Green on her watch and that of her predecessor.

Yet we still have no reliable information on where this took place which is relevant to the historical record of the terror wars the world has been enduring for close to 17 years. Well, according to WaPo the NYT does…

Syria after the caliphate: Manbij poised between conflicts

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Fighters from the US-backed (at least for now) Manbij Military Council at the al-Arimah front southwest of Manbij town where they face Russian-backed regime forces.

Manbij-I have a new piece out for Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor (subscription required) regarding the ongoing strategic deadlock over this modest city in northern Syria’s Aleppo governorate.

Manbij has been in the news as of late as the Turkish government has repeatedly threatened to invade it unless its American NATO partners/foes enforce Ankara’s bidding to have the YPG retreat east of the Euphrates. There’s one problem with this AKP logic: the YPG does not control or administer Manbij. Manbij is secured by the Manbij Military Council, a constituent force of the SDF in which the YPG and YPJ are fellow constituents that are theoretically, if no way in practice, equal armed components in the SDF’s egalitarian outline. Politically it is run by the Manbij Civil Council which, although operating under the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s TEV-DEM norms, is not simply a PYD outpost under a different name. The local administration does not count itself part of Rojava and many council members speak zero Kurdish.

Turkish claims are ultimately expressions of vague bellicosity. When that country’s president and his foreign minister reference Manbij, these statements have no bearing on ground realities in this mostly Arab urban centre.

Manbij’s Asayish gendarmerie is almost entirely Arab for example. What the AKP bigs may have been conflating however was that during the battle for olive-rich Afrin (if I’m to give them the benefit of the doubt), the YPG and YPJ were transiting via Manbij on what seemed to be like a nightly basis both to and fro embattled Afrin. So in that sense, yes, the Turkish leadership was correct that was a YPG presence there but the key nuance is that it was on the move to defend the PYD’s northwestern enclave from the Turkish military and the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (rebranded salafi-jihadis mostly).

Scrawled on the wall of what had been an Islamic State torture prison in Manbij, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet. Stay in the Islamic State.” ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

The people of Manbij who were not able to flee north to Turkey and perhaps onward to the EU during the two year and seven month rule of IS there suffered immensely. After a siege in the spring and summer of 2016 in which the city was ultimately liberated, the place has been making a vibrant, remarkable comeback with seemingly no outside help unless you count Aleppan financiers as outsiders. Exploring the remnants of IS’s brutality there was utterly haunting. Some of the torture techniques that were described to me seemed as if they were straight out of a CIA playbook circa 2002.

Today, this town is thriving on the relative stability and freedom it provides IDPs, returnees, and those who never left, even as it faces a multitude of emerging threats with IS seemingly least among them.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 10th, 2018 at 2:56 am

A Never Ending Catastrophe

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A young Iraqi girl returns to school in Karbala after the American invasion of her country. Behind her is a mural of Muhammed al-Durah, a young boy killed by the Israeli defence forces in Gaza during the second intifada in Palestine. The Ba’athist regime sought to co-opt Palestine’s national liberation struggle with its own brutal security state to conflate them as part of a broader Arab nationalist agenda. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Pai- Fifteen years ago today the Ba’athist government of Iraq was wholly overthrown by the United States military along with its United Kingdom partners and a minute cabal of disconnected, diaspora Iraqis looking to implement various unrealistic political agendas in their home country. Today I have only images and memories left of that chaotic, strategic disaster that forever upended the Middle East’s calcified post-colonial nation-state order with little to no forethought of the dire consequences.

We as a world community would not be where we are today were it not for the invasion of Iraq.

I look back on this solemn image and wondered what happened to this girl. She was nervous returning to her primary school and froze in front of a mural of Muhammal-Durrah.  She would be in her twenties by now if she has managed to survive years and years of mechanized and suicidal violence. I can’t ever know I suppose.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 9th, 2018 at 5:57 am