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Degrees of Separation

April 16th, 2014 No comments
Spooky Gulch in the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, Utah. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Spooky Gulch in the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, Utah. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

New York- The Pulitzers were announced yesterday, catching me off guard as usual. I don’t follow the journalistic contest circuit as I once sort of did much earlier in my career. I read through the winners and finalists realizing I was a degree of separation or two from a couple of them. In the social media era, it is of course possible to be connected to greatness without actually being within reach of it. Part of the drawback in working behind tall paywalls or doing work for non-Anglophone outlets is that you might as well be hiding under a rock in terms of the possibilities of fame and collegial recognition.

I began my interest in photography  not with war and pestilence but with quiet landscapes. Otherwise I would have been in Kosovo when these images were taken rather than driving around the Southwest scouting once obscure locales. My goal was to be an independent explorer rather than a prize-winning journo undergirded by insider media gatekeepers operating under an opaque hiring code.

These are some transparencies from that pre-9/11 era.

Saguaro National Monument, Arizona. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Saguaro National Park under the night sky in Arizona’s Sonnoran Desert along the Mexican frontier. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

An arch inside Spooky Gulch being light up by reflected sunlight beaming down from the crevice above. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

An arch inside Spooky Gulch being light up by reflected sunlight beaming down from the crevice above. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

The sinews of Spooky Gulch with high contrast of light and dark. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

The sinews of Spooky Gulch with high contrast of light and dark. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Between Propaganda and Reality in the Caucasus

March 26th, 2014 No comments
An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya's Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya’s Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. I was struck by how incredibly hospitable these people relentlessly vilified by the FSB were. They told me of the horrors of Putin’s onslaught on their villages while offering endless cups of tea and bread me. I felt powerless, having nothing to givein return  but a sympathetic ear. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out in this month’s edition of the CTC Sentinel about the evolution over the last two decades of the fight for the North Caucasus which has morphed a great deal. In my view, Syria has been a game changer with regard to Chechens and other ethno-linguistic nationalities from that region fighting with abundant documentation outside their homeland. I first encountered members of the Chechen community in Georgia in 2002. The stories of their under reported struggle fascinated me.

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.20.21 PMPersonally, I was in an early career lull between 9/11 back here in NYC and covering the Afghan war yet before the Iraq would begin in 2003. I was roving around the Levant and the Caucasus in the summer of 2002 looking for original stories to cover on my own. Sure there were the mostly crude analogies to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan of a grass roots holy war being fought by righteous bearded guys against cruel, drunken Russian officers and their hapless young conscripts, but I wanted to meet ordinary people whose lives were gravely affected by the war that solidified Putin as the Russian Federation’s post-Yeltsin czar.

I’d wanted to meet Ruslan Gelayev (an infamous side-witching warlord present in northeastern Georgia at the time) and perhaps travel with his mujahideen unit onward to Ingushetia and Chechnya. I ultimately decided that the risk didn’t measure up to the reward, particularly in the case of being a freelancer with a story no one in the West much cared about anyway. I also wanted to make sure I was back in New York to document the one year anniversary of 9/11 which was of paramount importance at that time to me.

I settled for trekking around villages populated with refugees who had crossed from souther Chechnya in the autumn of 1999. I ended up staying in what I determined was basically a hostel for foreign volunteers heading northward through the ravines of the Greater Caucasus range to wage war against a dehumanized enemy.  Russian soldiers and officers from various federal organizations like the OMON were portrayed as soulless cannon fodder in muj propaganda videos produced in the GCC which were used to draw attention to the fight for Chechnya among Arab audiences. These videos–some of which I were shown by Chechens in Tbilisi–painted the conflict as a righteous cause. The whole situation was a mess and Georgia itself was in a state of contained chaos back then.

One of the major points I have tried to make in my new piece is that propaganda has–over time–become a kind of new reality. From the fantasies of the Lubyanka to the web forum hosts of the Gulf, Chechens are other North (and South) Caucasians are now really, undeniably fighting abroad. I remember being at a terrorism conference in Washington in the mid-2000s and a young Marine officer stood up during a Q & A session and spoke of his unit having fought ‘Chechens’ in Iraq. But when pressed, he had no method of verifying this. Of course there are Chechens who are semi-indigenous to Iraq from their expulsion to the Ottoman empire–though that nuance was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Then there were the stories of Chechens fighting ISAF troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Army encountering Chechens in various battles in the FATA. But not one of these assertions was ever proven with even a shred of evidence.

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. He was a young refugee living in limbo like thousands of others. Though there was condemnation of all-out war in Chechnya at the time, there was no real action to back it up. Or should I say nothing ‘actionable’ was ever done. Challenging so-called tin pot regimes in weak states was acceptable and even fashionable for a time among liberal internationalist and neoconservative circles for a time but challenging Russian neo-imperialism directly has never been on the table. One could even draw a continuity between inaction on the Caucasus then and Crimea now. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Now, however, Chechens (many coming from the EU or those who were already present in the Arab world), Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Georgian Kists, Tatars and all sorts of other guys are indeed fighting in Syria. It is as if the FSB and GRU’s dream has come true…albeit over a decade too late. This situation serves several interested parties but in my view does a great disservice to the Chechens themselves. As a colleague and friend messaged me earlier this year: “[It is] sad what has happened to my people.”

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A peace plan forth by ChRI’s Ilyas Akhmadov which went essentially nowhere. By 2003, it was far too late.

When Chechen rebel officials were asking for the internationalization of the situation in their republic, they were ignored. When moderate Syrian rebels asked for a no-fly buffer zone along the Turkish border, they were ignored. Then when these places descend into nihilism, people condemn them devoid of context.

The Chechens were villains in poorly scripted Hollywood films and novels but the reality has always been they were mostly an embattled people consumed with the fight for their own homeland as a opposed to global salafi-jihad in general. A pillar of this sort of thing was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (ie the Taliban) recognizing the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (the rebels).

This move of non-state diplomacy served to benefit neither party. The Taliban wanted to be recognized worldwide well beyond the just littoral states of the Arabian Sea and when their efforts were rebuffed, they recognized the ChRI government. Moreover, the late Aslan Maskhadov, who was then president of the ChRI, was less than thrilled with the Taliban recognition and apparently believed it to be a play by Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Movladi Udugov to strengthen their position within a growing rebel schism.

The outside world’s contempt in the form of apathy for the horrors perpetrated in Chechnya with it relegated to an “internal affair” for Moscow to resolve struck me as simply sad. Interventionists patted themselves on the back for aleviating suffering the Balkans and lashed themselves (to a far lesser extent) for doing nothing in Rwanda,  while they let the internal affair in the Caucasus fester for years.

In other news, my CTC Sentinel article on Syria from 2012 was cited The War Report: 2012, edited by Stuart Casey-Maslen, published by Oxford University Press and an interview I did with a top former Afghan police official was cited in Policing Afghanistan: The Politics of the Lame Leviathan by Antonio Giustozzi and Mohammed Isaqzadeh by Columbia University Press.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian's foreign policy of protecting its external minorities.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian’s foreign policy of protecting its external minorities. I pointed out what I see as a staggering hypocrisy in Russian policy with regard to internal minorities within the Russian Federation and Moscow’s military adventures in the post-Soviet space.

The Novye War for Crimea

March 2nd, 2014 No comments
In order to not get their home burned in an anti-ethnic Uzbek pogrom in Osh, Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, a Crimean Tatar family spray painted "Tatar" on their gate as they evacuated their neighborhood while all the Uzbek-owned homes surrounding them were torched. Crimean Tatars were forcibly removed from the Crimean peninsula in what is now Ukraine. ©2010 Derek Henry Flood

In order to not get their home burned in an anti-ethnic Uzbek pogrom in Osh, Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, a Crimean Tatar family spray painted “Tatar” on their gate as they evacuated their neighborhood while all the Uzbek-owned homes surrounding them were torched by Kyrgyz supremacists. Crimean Tatars were forcibly removed from the Crimean peninsula in what is now Ukraine. Like the Chechens, the Tatars of Crimea were deported en masse to Central Asia as a form of collective punishment by Stalin in 1944. Ten years later, during the post-Stalinist reign of Nikita Khrushchev, Crimea would be formally attached to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Ever since the Soviet Union ceased to be a reality, many of the successor republics have been riven with ethnic and nationalist violence. ©2010 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I appeared on BBC Arabic’s Newnight programme last week with presenter Malak Jaafar and Elena Suponina of the Russian International Affairs Council. The debate kicked off with the framing of the tension in Ukraine as one of the pro-EU Ukrainian-speaking, Catholic west of the country versus the more Orthodox east dominated by native Russian-speakers bordering the Russian Federation. But as we know, it is far more complex than that. Take in Ukraine’s own localized geopolitical and historic place:

Within its own region, Ukraine is a veritable geographic hub surrounded by once Soviet or Eastern Bloc spokes. Western Ukraine borders more recent EU accession states like Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. But to the north western Ukraine abuts authoritarian Belarus, oft dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship” where President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for 20 years. On western Ukraine’s far southwestern frontier is the bizarrely anachronistic Soviet-esque ‘Republic of Trans-Dniester‘ a (also known as Transnistria) a sliver of land east of the Dniester River which broke away from Moldova after a brief 1991-1992 conflict shortly after the USSR’s dissolution. Northern Moldova proper borders Ukraine. And I suppose most notably, Ukraine borders the Russian Federation to its east which considers itself the hub and Ukraine one of its spokes.

Part of the spark for the EuroMaidan protest movement was now ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s backing out of entering the beginning of an EU Association Agreement before the November 2013 Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit under Kremlin pressure.

Georgia and Moldova, which both have Russian-protected secessionist regions, did initial the early stage of this framework which is meant to ease visa restrictions on citizens of the signatory states and encourage a broader free trade zone on the EU’s outskirts. But as the EuroMaidan crisis dragged on through December and January, the mood became increasing bitter.

After some 78 people were killed in Kiev’s now infamous square, a friend there messaged me to clarify: “now we don’t fight for Europe, we fight for our rights and democracy! We forgot about that association [agreement] with Europe.”

Alas, to say that the debate over Ukraine’s place in the geopolitical sphere can be neatly bisected into a compartimentalized east-and-west dynamic is not entirely useful as a starting point of argumentation. Though live television with its intensity and time constraints often doesn’t leave so much room for nuance.

I tried my best not to fall into the trap of passé geopolitical clichés in the debate with Ms. Suponina.

On the broadcast I stated that I felt the immediate struggle for the future of the country was not a binary east-west one but that the immediate trouble would be between Kiev and Simferopol, Crimea’s capital in addition to the obvious conundrum of the port of Sevastopol being the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. The following morning, my concerns became an apparent reality.

The situation in Crimea has so far been a rather muted stalemate but the danger lies in Russian forces creating facts on the ground. while the international diplomatic community shuttles around. Ukraine’s acting president Oleksander Turchinov made an analogy with the Russian occupation of Abkhazia in a televised speech. A contact of mine in the Georgian diplomatic corps informed me that his colleagues in Tbilisi were watching events in Ukraine very closely and that such [predictable] Russian provocations were all the more reason for Georgian accession to NATO.

And while the comparisons between Crimea and Abkhazia are not perfectly precise in terms of local ethnic politics–no analogy is perfect–the overall Russian strategy may be read from the same playbook. Under the pretext of protecting a client population, Moscow may yet create another statelet while Kiev remains in disarray. Putin fears and loathes former Soviet states joining Western security and economic architectures, namely NATO and the EU in Brussels. He seeks to re-create a realm under his own control be it the Customs Union or the Eurasian Union. He had hoped to twist Kiev’s arm into joining the Customs Union but EuroMaidan did away with all that.

One clever thing Mr. Putin has done is that by keeping states once ruled by Moscow divided and with Russian troops on their territories, it has made Western decision makers tepid about full integration with these states. Ever fearful of an actual direct hot war confrontation with the standard bearers of the Kalashnikov–something that was avoided during the most arduous years of the Cold War, no Western military is at all eager to challenge Russian forces on land or at sea. Integrating Moldova into the EU or Georgia into NATO is tricky when leaders in Brussels must think through the ‘Russian troops factor’ the the breakaway territories of those two states.

Now Ukraine–which already had the Russian Navy more or less peacefully being hosted on its territory–may indeed be grappling with an incipient yet irreversible future frozen conflict if the crisis in Crimea is not immediately resolved. What happens in Ukraine today may well affect Georgia, Moldova and other vulnerable post-Soviet states with unresolved issues from the 1990s that the Kremlin can turn to its advantage opportunistically if need be.

I remember speaking to a Moldovan diplomat last year who described growing up outside Tiraspol and how she lamented the essentially lost idea of a truly united Moldova. Putin may not at all be an eloquent uniter, but he is an agile divider in the post-Soviet periphery.

An unfinished fence built by the FSB dividing agricultural land outside the village of Ditsi in Georgia's Shida-Kartli region. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An unfinished fence built by the FSB dividing agricultural land outside the village of Ditsi in Georgia’s Shida-Kartli region. Georgian security men told me the lights off in the distance were those of a Russian military base in clear violation of the 2008 six-point peace plan brokered by the EU. Some fear that that Moscow may use the model employed in Georgia in August 2008–a pretext of averting ‘genocide’–to cleave the Crimean peninsula off from mainland Ukraine. Though South Ossetia is nominally an independent nation-state as recognized by Russia, it is in essence an occupied adjunct of the Russian Federation. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Russia Tags: , , , , ,

Anbar-Insurgency Redux

February 25th, 2014 No comments
Once popularized by media outlets as the "Mother of All Battles" mosque ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Once popularized by media outlets as the “Mother of All Battles” mosque, the Umm al-Qura mosque complex sat in lush greenery save for the destroyed Soviet-era piece of armor that was likely hit in an airstrike in the “shock and awe days of mid-March a month before this image was taken. I remember trying to enter the mosque’s grounds with my Shia fixer and getting a less than warm reception from some men that I suppose were representing the Association of Muslim Scholars there. Umm a-Qura is situated in western Baghdad between the al-Adel and Ghazaliyah districts on the road to Fallujah. When the situation quickly became hostile, I put my camera down and we roared away in an old rattletrap of a car. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out now for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst on the eruption of violence in Iraq’s sprawling western al-Anbar Governorate that borders the relatively calm governorates of Ma’an, Amman, Mafraq, and the somewhat sketchier Zarqa in Jordan, the war ravaged governorates of Deir ez-Zor, and Homs in Syria and, lastly, Saudi Arabia’s Northern Border Region. Control of Anbar is a security issue for the entire region that surrounds it when considering the war in Syria that is attracting foreign fighters like moths to a flame and the transnational outlook of salafi-jihadi thought in a geographically contiguous KSA.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 4.14.49 PMAnbar became the symbol of anti-American resistance in Iraq so much so that the restive northern town of Hawija in Kirkuk Governorate was referred to as the “Anbar of the North” by the US military at one time. Anbar became almost a catchall term for a place that was difficult to pacify through traditional counterinsurgency doctrine much less purely by means of military hard power. Only through cooperation and co-opting was the Sunni Arab insurgency there quelled for a time with the raising of Sahwa militias.

In the now bloody aftermath of the American troop withdrawal that took place at the tail end of 2011 and was hailed by President Barack Obama as ‘ending’ the Iraq war, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Da’wa Party die-hard prime minister, has done nothing to tamp down the collective ire of Sunni activists from Fallujah north to Hawija. Maliki’s moves have merely moved the Iraq war into a much more indigenous phase.

From accusing notable Sunni politcos of being involved in terrorism, a crime punishable by death in Iraq’s draconian penal code, to doing nothing to assuage the concerns of angry protestors, Maliki at least partly set the stage for the arrival of ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah fi Iraq w’al Sham, know locally by its acronym DAASH, and by its English acronym ISIL, into Fallujah’s city centre and sections of Ramadi and several villages in the respective surrounding areas at the outset of 2014.

The Iraqi elections are approaching quickly on the country’s troubled political horizon on April 30th. How ‘free and fair’ voting will be carried out under such circumstances is entirely unclear.

I’m illustrating this post with the following images because I personally feel much of what is going on in Iraq today can be traced directly back to the elaborately expensive yet incredibly poorly planned Bush/neo-conservative regime decapitation initiative called Operation Iraqi Freedom. That moniker seemed to me to say that 99.9% of all Iraqis were equally oppressed by Hussein’s dreadful Ba’ath Party policies.

By and large, yes, Iraqis were treated terribly by an anti-egalitarian strongman in a nation-state rife with deep tribal, sect, and ethnic division. But the late dictator could not have ruled for decades without a degree of genuine support fostered by patronage networks and adroit imbuing of his own ideology among at least a cadre of willing followers.

An American Humvee gunner holds a makeshift sign that reads "Go" in English and then Arabic at the entrance to a bridge over that Tigris River that has been partially destroyed by American munitions. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

An American Humvee gunner holds a makeshift sign that reads “Go” in English and then Arabic at the entrance to a bridge over that Tigris River that has been partially destroyed by American munitions.Note the boy staring in wonderment out of the blue minibus on the left. These wars don’t happen in a vacuum and children often abound. Some of them undoubtedly would grow up in the following years to become militants attacking coalition forces and Iraqi federal forces. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

But it should be noted that not all the Sunnis fighting the state right now are doing so under the black banners of salafi-jihad. Though those banners make for exciting headlines, there is a viable retro or neo-Ba’athist strain of rebellion going on. Though it had been primarily focused more on the Kurds and territorial issues pertaining to the Green Line in terms of strategy and tactics, the Jaish Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN) and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq which has been described as a political front group for the JRTN–since gone operational, are kind of Ba’athist revivalist groups (or two parts of the same movement depending on perspective).These movements have sought to resuscitate Saddamist symbolism to garner the support of disaffected Iraqis tired of what they perceive as “Safavid” (Iranian)-influenced political primacy in Baghdad. Certainly DAASH/ISIL and JRTN have starkly different ideologies and objectives, but for now they have a common enemy in PM Maliki and those who defend and support him.

Forest of destruction. All that was left of the building after a "surgical strike" were its ornery pillars which refused to topple. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Forest of destruction. All that was left of this particular building after a “surgical strike” were its ornery pillars which refused to topple. Upon arrival in Baghdad, what immediately impressed upon me visually was how the American air campaign in Iraq differed from that I’d witnessed in Afghanistan after 9/11. American bombardments there struck mostly unremarkable hillsides as the Taliban had hardly any fixed concrete targets. Iraq was the polar opposite as swaths of brick and mortar cities were leveled in an instant as ignorant Fox television viewers looked on with a non-chalant curiosity. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Although the Americans wouldn't yet admit an insurrection against the US-led occupation was already underway from the war's inception, it was pretty obvious walking around Baghdad that things were going to get ugly. Here, I found the upside down chassis of a what appeared to be a car bomb. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Although the Americans wouldn’t yet admit an insurrection against the US-led occupation was already underway (we all remember Rumsfeld’s “dead enders”) from the war’s inception, it was pretty obvious walking around Baghdad that things were going to get ugly and fast. Here, I found the upside down chassis of a what appeared to be a car bomb. As I quietly photographed this wreckage atop a traffic median, there was an explosion off in the distance indicated by the rising black plume. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

I walked all over the Iraqi capital one day looking for a still intact mural of President Saddam Hussein that hadn't been trashed by the Americans or joyous opponents of his wing of the Ba'ath Party. I managed to find this one in a deserted lot littered with construction equipment. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

I walked all over the Iraqi capital one day looking for a still intact mural of President Saddam Hussein that hadn’t been trashed by the Americans or joyous opponents of his wing of the Ba’ath Party. I managed to find this one in a deserted lot littered with construction equipment. One thing that has always fascinated me about dictatorial regimes is the sheer level of ubiquitousness of ‘big man’ iconography. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Though at the time of this posting Fallujah remains under rebel control in a shaky truce mediated by the Anbar Provincial Council, in my view things aren’t likely to improve overnight in terms of Anbar’s overall security in the lead-up this spring’s election.

Categories: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Uncategorized Tags: ,

Libya- Looking Back on Revolution 2011

February 17th, 2014 No comments
As soon as I reached Benghazi on March 1, 2011, I walked around at dusk scrambling for photos to capture the mood of the revolution. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

As soon as I reached Benghazi on March 1, 2011, I walked around at dusk scrambling for photos to capture the mood of the revolution. I sat at the ouster of Mubarak in Cairo because there were already to many expat journos (and apparently a number of AUC grads lingering around) and I tend to prefer to cover to more logistically difficult stories where there are fewer Westerners. But the situation in Cairo fed into that in Benghazi. By the time I arrived in Tobruk on February 28, Cyrenaica was crawling with veteran correspondents I’d seen since Afghanistan and ambitious, yet totally inexperienced “millennials” alike. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Three years ago today a bloody revolution kicked off in earnest in Benghazi, Libya which ended the rule of Muammar Qaddafi, longest dictatorial regime in post-colonial Africa surpassing even that of Omar Bongo in Gabon who ruled that country for 41.5 years. The locals referred to the happening as the “February 17th revolution.” I’ll never forget the fortitude of the Libyan people in the face of immense, violent repression.

Here are a few selected images from that time.

One of the near daily demonstrations outside the courthouse on the corniche in Benghazi. What interested was that much of the anger had not so much to do with the then ongoing civil war but was rooted in the 1996 Abu Slim prison massacre where families allege Qaddafi's goons killed some 1200 inmates. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

One of the near daily demonstrations outside the courthouse on the corniche in Benghazi. What interested was that much of the anger had not so much to do with the then ongoing civil war but was rooted in the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre where families allege Qaddafi’s goons killed some 1200 inmates. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

The Libyan revolution's key symbol was the tricolor flag of King Idris as-Senussi, himself from a Cyrenaican order. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

The Libyan revolution’s key symbol was the tricolor flag of King Idris as-Senussi, himself from a Cyrenaican order.  It was much more visually interesting than Qaddafi’s monochromatic green banner. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Faisal, my driver for two weeks of coverage. us outsiders couldn't do what we do without guys like him. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Faisal, my driver for two weeks of coverage. Us outsiders couldn’t do what we do without guys like him. He took me to the souq to get one of these awesome Tunisian hood jackets. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

The other hallmark of the Libyan conflict was the "technical," often a Toyota pickup truck mounted with a Soviet or other Eastern Bloc-origin heavy machine gun mounted in the flatbed. Here a fighter prays in the sand before veering off toward the front. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

The other hallmark of the Libyan conflict was the “technical,” often a Toyota pickup truck mounted with a Soviet or other Eastern Bloc-origin heavy machine gun mounted in the flatbed. Here a fighter prays in the sand before veering off toward the front. Use of the Toyota HiLux as a tactical fighting vehicle was pioneered in the Libyan-Chadian war during the 1980s, much to Chad’s advantage. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Conspiracies abounded over this 81mm mortar shell that it was a piece of Israeli ordinance being supplied to Qaddafi's forces. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Conspiracies abounded over this 81mm mortar shell that it was a piece of (incongruous?) Israeli ordinance being supplied to Qaddafi’s forces. War zones are often rife with unfounded conspiracy theories, particularly when a closed society has just broken open. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

An NTC fighter rushed into the hospital in Ajdabiya as Qaddafi's armor moved closer to Benghazi while internationalists were still hammering out the details of a military intervention from above. Tim Hetherington was next to me when I took this photo. He would be killed in Misrata five weeks later. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

An NTC fighter rushed into the hospital in Ajdabiya as Qaddafi’s armor moved closer to Benghazi while internationalists were still hammering out the details of a military intervention from above. Tim Hetherington was next to me when I took this photo. He would be killed in Misrata five weeks later. When I tried to get to the front that day, a rebel warned me in English that they didn’t want journos there anymore at all and access was denied. Behind him, a cleric was yelling on a megaphone in Arabic that some journos were spies aiding the regime and not to trust them any longer. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

After the eerie vibe in Ajdabiya the day before, I decided to bail on Libya for a while and headed back to Alexandria. When I got to Salloum, there were Chadian men making the maghrib salat. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

After the eerie vibe in Ajdabiya the day before, I decided to bail on Libya for a while and headed back to Alexandria. When I got to Salloum, there were Chadian men making the salat al-maghrib. Egypt, in the view of its own tumult didn’t want to let the fleeing sub-Saharan migrant workers in. They were living outdoors at the border in total limbo. When I crossed into Libya two weeks before, the border was swarmed with Bangladeshi migrants who terrible, irresponsible government said it was too broke to bring them home to South Asia ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Egypt, Libya Tags: , , ,

Occupy Sochi

February 12th, 2014 No comments
A Georgian refugee walks toward her home in a an IDP camp on the outskirts of South Ossetia on October 25, 2013. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A Georgian refugee from the August 2008 conflict walks toward her home in a an IDP camp on the outskirts of South Ossetia on October 25, 2013. Certainly no Olympic spirit here. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- The Sochi Olympics currently plod awkwardly ahead, the trendy stories have tended to be about the brand new, dilapidated hotels confounding journalists and athletes alike in this modern day “Potemkin village” and gay rights or lack thereof in the Russian Federation. These two themes have been largely dominating the spectrum of the ethical debate that has been surrounding the games for some time. Last week I decided to post my reportage on Buzzfeed (linked to screen grab I’ve posted below) along the “Administrative Boundary Line” that serves as the de facto border separating the ‘Republic’ of South Ossetia and the Republic of Georgia in the South Caucasus region.

In addition to all this mess, the games are also occurring under threat from Doku Umarov’s Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) which has ostensibly sought to garner world attention with a trio of bombings in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) which were automatically attributed to it by Russian security services. All in all, not an ideal location for a world sporting event meant to bring in prestige and hard currency.

Perhaps the most troubling ethical issue at present is that “Olympic Coastal Cluster,” transforming the village of Adler on the Black Sea is within walking distance to the banks of the Psou River. The Psou separates  Russia proper from Russian-occupied Abkhazia which is internationally recognized as Georgia territory despite decades of quasi independence after a civil war there in the early 1990s. In internationalist speak, ‘occupation’ has been a dirty word for quite some time and is employed ubiquitously when describing the West Bank today and Gaza before the Israeli withdrawal in 2005.

Evidenced by the recent controversy over the actress Scarlett Johansson promoting Soda Stream, an Israeli company that operates a manufacturing plant on an Isaraeli settlement in the West Bank, ‘occupied’ is most  often an electric term, at least when employed by activists decrying injustice in the post-war Levant. Within Georgia, Sochi-adjacent Abkhazia and South Ossetia that abuts the Russian-adminstered Republic of North Ossetia are commonly referred to as “occupied territories” to little effect outside the political spectrum of the immediate region.

This has partly to do with the incredible complexity of the the ethno-lingustic patchwork of the broader Caucasus region when compared with the binary Israeli-Palestinian dispute that is known across the world. And it is partly due to ignorance of the so-called “frozen conflicts” of the South Caucasus (unlike the hot conflict to the north). Alas, there has been no great global outcry to boycott the Winter Olympics that has managed to gather steam. Although some Abkhaz may be grateful from Russia’s protection from a militarily weak Georgia, aside from the export of gravel for flimsy construction projects, Abkhazia has almost nothing to benefit from Putin’s $50 billion-plus extravaganza practically on their shores.

The other under-emphasized ethical issue with the games is that they are occurring on land that the global Circassian diaspora claims is the site of their genocide exactly 150 years ago in the winter of 1864 when it is alleged the czarist forces ethnically cleansed the Circassian people from what is now Russia’s Krasnodar Krai.

Despite the best efforts of Circassian advocacy groups such as “No Sochi 2014” to bring attention to the horrors their people faced during Russia’s violent conquest of the Caucasus, other than write ups from a cadre of sympathetic journalists and historians, No Sochi has sadly gained little actionable traction such as a mass boycott of the event by participant countries. Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in then Soviet Moscow in reaction to the Soviet invasion of independent Afghanistan is looked upon today as a bout of foolhardy diplomacy.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of people who hoped some sort of mass global outrage would suddenly materialize after a hard fought grass roots campaign and perhaps at least deter the mainstream media from glorifying Putin’s vanity project just by their presence on the Black Sea coast, even if they are poking fun at hotel oddities.

To their collective disappointment, this has not happened. It is often said that sport should remain free of politics, but should it remain free from the most basic humanistic ethos?Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 6.51.17 PM

In Darkness

January 24th, 2014 No comments
Murad Mazaev, right, in Birkiani, Georgia, August 2002. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Murad Mazaev, right, in on a dim , rainy evening in Birkiani, Georgia, August 2002. Murad died near Aleppo, Syria in late May of last year. I was shocked to learn someone I once knew perished apparently as a salafi shaheed in war not concerning his own people. Murad had been living in Sweden as a refugee but decided to leave his young family and seek martyrdom in the war against the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- While concluding a nearly month-long research trip to the Republic of Georgia in October, on my final night in Tbilisi I met with an analyst from Georgia’s MFA to discuss current trends in Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus and how those trends are currently tied to the civil war in Syria. As we concluded our dinner at a traditional restaurant on Rustaveli Avenue, my contact informed me that a Chechen filmmaker called Murad Mazaev I once knew back in 2002 had died months earlier in northern Syria. I was taken aback and disturbed by this bit of information and sought to dig deeper once I returned to the United States.

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 9.31.22 PMMy Georgian contact pondered that Murad may have died trying to work as a documentarian but it began to seem more and more like he died as a jihadi perhaps fighting for Jaish al-Muhajireen wa’l-Ansar, a constituent movement of ISIL or ISIL proper. Who knows? When I tried to contact his former filmmaking partner in Canada about the circumstances under which Murad died, he replied “why are you asking me about this?” (I think they had had a falling out years previously) When I tried to contact a Chechen friend of Murad’s in Stockholm looking for answers about what motivated him to leave the cold comforts of Sweden, no reply.

As I began working on an article on the topic for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, I decided to weave Murad’s tragic tale of refuge, asylum and ultimately doomed salafi jihad, into my work. Murad never struck me as the type to pick up arms. Sure he was a die hard Chechen nationalist and devout Muslim, but a jihadi abandoning his young family to seek martyrdom in Syria? That was hard for me to digest.

Murad and I had last been in touch in the autumn of 2010 via email. In his very broken English he informed me that he was living in Sweden but was not then currently still pursuing his dreams of becoming an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. He struck me as being enamored of the mujahideen when we first met, but still an erudite kid from Grozny who wouldn’t be very effective marching through a battlefield with a Kalashnikov rather than a camera,

When Murad snuck me into the Pankisi Gorge 12 years ago, the first photos he let me shoot were of kids playing basketball at the main school in Duisi. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

When Murad snuck me into the Pankisi Gorge 12 years ago, the first photos he let me shoot were of kids playing basketball at the main school in Duisi. He was nervous if the wrong people found out he had smuggled a Western journalist into the territory that was out of the hands of then President Eduard Shevardnadze. I’ll never forget Murad putting a traditional Chechen cap on my head as we boarded a bus from Akhmeta to Duisi. I did my best to blend in when a Georgian soldier boarded the bus asking “dokumenta!” ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Over eleven years on I revisited the school in Duisi which had become the Roddy Scott Foundation.

Over eleven years on I revisited this school in Duisi which was now the home of the the Roddy Scott Foundation. Roddy was an English journalist who had known Murad and later traversed the Greater Caucasus range with a unit of Ruslan Gelayev’s mujahideen with Murad’s knowledge. He was then killed by a Russian sniper in the town of Galashki in the Republic of Ingushetia.

Murad’s proudest achievement was making the world’s first Chechen-language film…and with genuine mujahideen from Ruslan ‘Hamzat’ Gelayev’s Pankisi-based unit as extras no less. It was partly through meeting Murad in Tbilisi nearly a dozen years ago that I became fascinated by the struggle for Chechnya and the oppressed people of the Caucasus who suffered wildly under the Czars, Stalin all the way to Yeltsin and Putin. Murad acted as my fixer in meeting the Chechen refugees inhabiting the Pankisi Gorge when it was making headlines around the world but few journalists were actually venturing there.

At the school building in Duisi, then being run by a Norwegian NGO, a Chechen refugee boy stands beneath a Turkish-made poster of Aslan Maskhadov, the emblematic leader of Chechen national liberation movement. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

At the school building in Duisi, then being run by a Norwegian NGO, a Chechen refugee boy stands beneath a Turkish-made poster of Aslan Maskhadov, the emblematic leader of Chechnya’s national liberation movement. Maskhadov was killed by Russian federal forces in March 2005.  At the time, the Guardian labeled Maskhadov “Chechnya’s Arafat.”As nationalism waned, salafism became the dominant ideology ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

But in Chechnya as the war there has mercilessly ground on since it first began in the mid-1990s, the ideology powering the fight has transitioned from Sufi-inflected Chechen nationalism to destructive transnational salafism. No longer was merely an independent Chechen republic the goal, but the proclamation of an Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) spanning from the shores of the Caspian to the rocky beaches of the Black Sea.

Murad took me to meet this Kist woman in Duisi who was baking bread for the Chechen refugees that had sought safety there. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Murad took me to meet this Kist woman in Duisi who was baking flat bread for the Chechen refugees that had sought shelter there from relentless Russian aggression and the ensuing guerrilla warfare that attempted to counter it. He wanted the world to know of the suffering of his people. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Rustam Gelayev's aunt holds up a smartphone image of her late nephew who, like Murad, died in northern Syria in August 2012. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

When I revisited Pankisi again in 2013, it was not to learn about foreign militants traveling north to wage jihad in Chechnya, but to learn about who the next generation of Chechens were going in the opposite direction to fight and die in Syria. Rustam Gelayev’s aunt holds up a smartphone image of her late nephew who, like Murad, died in northern Syria at the age of 24 in August 2012. Above is a very different image of a slightly younger Rustam than the one that circulated on twitter of him holding a rifle presumably in Aleppo Governorate. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

When I was back in Pankisi in October to meet with members of the Gelayev family to find out their version of events surrounding the death of Ruslan’s son, Rustam in Syria in mid-August 2012, no one admitted to remembering Murad but when I mentioned Roddy their eyes lit up. Roddy’s parents, Robin and Stina Scott set up the Roddy Scott Foundation to teach English to the youth of Pankisi in their effusive son’s memory. Sadly, Murad sought to put Chechnya on the map in terms of global conscience but he was killed in Syria in what remain murky circumstances. From my canvassing of residents in Duisi, Jokolo and Birkiani, no one seemed to remember his contribution to collective Chechen culture.

What the deaths of Murad and Rustam do indicate is the significant fact that Chechens are now participants in a war outside the North Caucasus. For those of us who covered the wars on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq and war theaters elsewhere after 9/11 where Chechens were never proven to have fought, this feels like a sea change.

On another very grim note, I belatedly found out that someone whose work I really admired died in the Taverna du Liban attack in Kabul.

 Alexandros Petersen who was a colleague of my colleague Rafaello Pantucci was murdered in the recent attack on the Lebanese restaurant in Wazir Akbar Khan. Petersen was an analyst of big-think Eurasian geopolitics in the style of Sir Halford Mackinder and authored The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West which I’ve had in my Amazon queue for some time now and been meaning to read. Now I must. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting him, we wrote for the same D.C. think-tank where I once served as an editor and analyst a few years ago. We are now less one brilliant person who went to great lengths to understand and explain the geopolitical trends shaping today’s world. For shame.

When I first heard about the Taliban operation in the Afghan capital, I recalled spending a fun evening at the Levantine hangout with journalist Jason Motlagh and another guy based in Bangkok who talked about his mission of interviewing Viktor Bout multiple time in a Thai cell before Bout was extradited to the U.S. for prosecution. The latter guy-whose name I don’t remember five years later-and another journo and I walked from WAK all the way back to Shar-e-Nau at about 2 a.m. and I, in a sort of gallows humor, half joked, “we couldn’t do this in Baghdad” (i.e. walk home in the middle of the night). That was back in 2009. Things got worse as that year went on with the attack on the UN compound that September and suicide bomb walls going up around the Indian embassy and so forth.

Are things arguably worse now in 2014? It’s tough to say from sitting here in the West. But I can say this much-I may go back to the old school routine of donning a shalwar kameez and beard when I go back to Afghanistan. Kabul has often been considered a world apart from the rest of Afghanistan in terms of its comparative cosmopolitanism in relation to life in the provinces but it is still Afghanistan. The Taliban want to let the world know that they retain the ability to strike at will anytime, anywhere in the country.

In other news, I have a photo contribution in the new issue of The Washingtonian in the article titled This Is Danny Pearl’s Final Story by Asra Q. Nomani. My image is that of Nomani and Pearl’s home in Karachi’s tony Defence Housing Authority (DHA).

The Levant in Flames

January 11th, 2014 No comments
Portraits of Ba'athist leader Bashar al-Assad gazing off in different directions at a market in Damascus two years after he succeeded his father. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Portraits of Ba’athist leader Bashar al-Assad gazing off in different directions at a market in Damascus two years after he succeeded his father. Despite some neoconservative sabre rattling toward Assad after the American invasion of Baghdad, it was otherwise unthinkable that his minoritarian Alawi regime would be genuinely threatened by an uprising-Salafist or otherwise-after the “Hama solution” precent set by his father in 1982. Now the inter-insurgency war pitting secular nationalists, salafi nationalists, Kurdish ethno-nationalists and salafi-jihadis against one another may give Assad a chance at partially saving his enfeebled Russian and Iranian-backed regime. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- There two major interconnected stories in the Levant this week: the internecine fighting between the salafist rebel factions vying for dominance in the northern Syrian war theatre and the Anbari uprising-cum-chaos in Ramadi, Fallujah and smaller villages west of Baghdad. I appeared in a live discussion on the Syrian issue with Samir Nashar of the Syrian National Council in Istanbul and Ahmad Abazed, an analyst on Syrian affairs in Amman. We talked about the battle between Ahrar al-Sham and its allies and ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyya fi Iraq w’al-Sham (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-ISIL) mostly in Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqah governorates.

I appeared on BBC Arabic's Newnight present by Fidah Bassil with Ahmad Abazed (l) Samir Nashar (r) on the January 8th broadcast.

I appeared on BBC Arabic’s Newnight present by Fidah Bassil with Ahmad Abazed (l) Samir Nashar (r) on the January 8th broadcast.

As Syria’s conflict becomes ever more confounding, peer competition among insurgent movements appears steadily on the rise. The confounding bit is that while at war with one another in some governorates, Ahrar al-Sham, ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra are reportedly still working together against the Kurdish PYD’s YPG militias in al-Hassakah Governorate and the relationship between those two groups is murky. The fact that so many journalists have disappeared in Syria certainly doesn’t help matters.

I stated that I believe this battle is partly a Darwinian battle for primacy that we have seen in many civil wars and revolutionary movements from 1979 Iran to Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. Often one group needs to push its one-time allies aside, often violently, so that its ideological strain becomes the dominant, and then sole one in the war theater. In doing so, the regimes these movements are fighting can no longer say they are fighting small bands of revolutionaries they can then divide and co-opt. A singular voice is more adept at creating a revolutionary or separatist state.

Part of why things in Syria have evolved in such a way is because the world failed to label the crisis there as a revolution. Instead, it was repeatedly labeled a “crackdown” against protestors like the failed Shia uprising in Bahrain. When external powers finally did decide to act in Syria, they did so without harmony and according to each’s self interest by aiding the rebel groups of their choice. This only heightened peer competition among rebel factions vying for influence. With no unified policy on how to aid Syria’s rebel movements, the pendulum will continue to swing between ISIL and its adversaries in cities like Aleppo and Raqqa. 

I’ve been closely following the uprising in Anbar, with federal forces being pushed out of Fallujah and the governorate’s capital Ramadi. I’m interested in how this Anbar situation relates to Syria and also how it relates to the events of 2003-2004. ISIL has been strengthened by the war in Syria undoubtedly but the events in Anbar are also part of the larger atmosphere of Sunni discontent in Maliki’s Iraq.

I don’t think ISIL’s agenda has broad-based popular support by any means, but it couldn’t exist with zero sympathy for at least some of its sectarian aims either.  ISIL will not be welcomed in the larger population centers for long as locals will not have forgotten the group’s brutal legacy of takfiri hellfire. And though the tribal militia’s certainly have a tense relationship with federal forces in the post-American era, the two may have more in common in the meantime in fighting to eject ISIL in villages outside Ramadi. At the time of this post fighting in Ramadi proper is still ongoing with tribal fighters and Iraqi state forces reportedly working together against ISIL.

So now we see ISIL fighting on two disparate fronts in Anbar and Raqqa et al both of which now appear just as much aimed at fighting fellow Sunnis as well as the largely non-Sunni regimes in Baghdad and Damascus that, for each’s respective strategic interests, are in league with Tehran.

What level of coordination–if any–exists between these wings of ISIL is not really concretely known to my knowledge. What is known is that the longer the relevant external actors don’t have a cohesive foreign policy toward Syria, the longer the Levant will continue to burn unabated.

An American military intelligence officer photographs a sticker of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim near Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, April 2003. As a "unilateral" (non-embedded) journalist I guess I did not have the required permission to take such a photo. ©2003 Derek henry Flood

An American military intelligence officer photographs a sticker of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim near Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, April 2003. Hakim was the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). As a “unilateral” (non-embedded) journalist I guess I did not have the required permission to take such a photo. Hakim was assassinated by a massive car bomb in Najaf a few short months later on August 29, 2003 outside the shrine of Imam Ali. It seemed as if the American military higher ups couldn’t quite decide who their enemies were. After shooting this photo, my fixer an I drove onto the campus of the university nearby and two young GIs pointed M-16s at our heads. When I told them in loud American English I was a journalist, they told me they couldn’t be sure my hilarious fixer wasn’t a secretive suicide bomber.  ©2003 Derek henry Flood 

The ripple effects of the Pentagon's aggressive de-Ba'athification agenda can be felt in Iraq today, well over a decade after the invasion/intervention/occupation/quagmire. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

The ripple effects of the Pentagon’s aggressive de-Ba’athification agenda can be felt in Iraq today, well over a decade after the invasion/intervention/occupation/quagmire. De-Ba’athification for many was code for Sunni Arab marginalization that partly underlies the Sunni protest camps from Hawija to Ramadi. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

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