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Salafist Technologists: How I Discovered an Internal IS Map App

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A billboard in Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Bintang neighbourhood advertising consumer-grade unmanned aerial vehicles manufactured by the Shenzhen-based DJI corporation Though the adverts portray perfectly innocent tourism applications for these machines, they were adapted for deeply nefarious purposes such as makeshift bombers and creating maps of enemy positions for the world’s most technologically advanced non-state terrorist outfit. Chinese-made drones such as these were regularly smuggled into IS-controlled parts of Syria.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

New York- A couple of months ago I was riding in a van along a rough hewn piste in Deir ez-Zor governorate’s al-Jazeera region east of the Euphrates river when i was shown a map app that IS had used against its enemies be they an-Nizam (“regime” or “ruler” meaning the al-Assad government), the Quwaat Suria al-Dimuqratia (ie the SDF), Jabhat al-Nusra, or local tribes. From this almost chance technological encounter, I have a report for Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in the UK titled “Captured Islamic State map files underscore technological capabilities and priorities for state building.”

Though IS certainly did not architect the app itself, that was done by mysterious, apparently French developers calling themselves, they innovated well within its boundaries in order to crush their battlefield opponents and thus gain more territory befitting their expansionist worldview. Despite that I’ve been covering the IS beat since it was still ISI and largely confined to central and northern Iraq, this discovery made me more viscerally cognizant of the group’s tech capabilities in a first-hand sense.

My escort from the Deir ez-Zor Military Council was using the captured map files to help guide me safely back from their barracks in al-Kasrah near the river to a road leading up to al-Hasakah toward relative security. This was toward the end of the battle of al-Baghouz further south and IS guerrilla attacks were focused far more on busier, sealed roads than out in the bush. In essence we were doing our best to circumvent a possible insurgent attack by using the maps and routes of the insurgents themselves dating to their proto state-building efforts.

Heading from al-Kasrah toward frontline positions with an-Nizam in Deir ez-Zor governorate back in March. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Neither the SDF constituent militias nor an-Nizam have such savvy tech skills or hyper adaptability even in the wake of IS’s territorial collpase. Part of the war in Syria, and Iraq for that matter, is one armed actor constantly playing catchup with the next in terms of technological exploitation and capability. Much as I hate to admit, IS was seemingly light years ahead during the peak khilifah (caliphate) period than any other nearby armed actor. The SDF, Iraqi security forces and others had always been at least two steps behind on the tech front. But as the khilfah steadily shrank from late 2016 onward with concerted effort of external force air strikes, ground forces were able to vacuum up heaps of intelligence that lay in the wake of dead or retreating militants. Reading the work of colleagues or competitors on a topic like this isn’t quite the same as experiencing this phenomenon on one’s own. I had to confront how complex the workings were of an organisation I loathe immensely was. I then put immense effort into unpacking this utterly sophisticated intelligence for which there was a significant learning curve as someone who doesn’t work in tech and is often in war zones with gear that’s at least 3 years old. These globalist génocidaires really did have the upper hand in this region for a while and that is not an easy thing to accept on the most base ethnical level.

Local forces gathered information on how exactly IS governed. As they did, the picture became clearer on just how they enforced a writ that was simultaneously medievally brutal and hi-tech in the most 21st century sense. From Silicon Valley to Guangdong province, technology companies often market themselves as rather benign entities that either will help to further democratise societies (the former) or keep consumers entertained in undemocratic states that eschew the most basic freedoms (the latter). But as my work demonstrates, software and hardware is only as innocent as the intentions of its users. So this ostensibly French-developed app meant to guide hikers through, say, parts of the Pyrenees or the Rockies where mobile service is spotty or scant, was adapted to help guide suicide vehicle bombers toward their targets on either side of the Sykes-Picot line they sought to dissolve. It also says something about the potential for cruelty in our collective human psyche. Breakthroughs in coding and computing can enable a genocidal cult just as much as they could accelerate positive change in traditionally underserved, marginalised communities.

These are screen captures of customised IS maps of Deir ez-Zor governoate in eastern Syria where the city has been renamed “al-Kheir” (roughly “the good”) by the khilifah’s online cartographers. They renamed cities and whole regions to demonstrate their disdain for places names it considered insufficiently Islamic. Deir means ‘church’ in the Syrian context.

Just as there is no unified approach to combatting IS on either side of the Syria-Iraq border between the SDF and the ISF-Hashd al-Shaabi which have vastly different local geopolitical aims in their role as anti-IS war fighting groups, there is no commonly accepted agenda amongst the world’s inflated tech industry titans on how to balance free speech with the global spread of varying forms of political violence their platforms help inflame. I’m of course not suggesting technology is a cause but rather a conduit as violent acts become increasingly transnational from Syria to Iraq and from Australia to New Zealand.

Written by derekhenryflood

May 30th, 2019 at 2:29 pm

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The Tearing Pearl

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Though Sri Lanka’s Christians make up only approximately 7% of the country’s population, Christian places of worship such as this Catholic cathedral in Jaffna are numerous and visually prominent with the island’s urban centres. @2019 Derek Henry Flood  

Fremantle- I have a report out this week for Jane’s Intelligence Review from my recent travels in troubled Sri Lanka. I spent a few weeks on the island finishing up work from Syria and simultaneously conducting some field work before the Easter bombings which killed 253 and injured some 500.

I traveled by bus through 5 of the country’s 9 provinces canvasing attitudes of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims who hold themselves to be a distinct ethnic group while overwhelmingly Tamil-speaking at home. To me, the polity seemed as fractious as it was when I lasted visited in March 2007 while the eastern offensive to take Batticaloa was underway (government forces ousted the LTTE from there that July). The country’s central government had not worked in the decade since the war ended to reconcile long-held animosity between communal groups that tend to identify with the armed actors in the conflict.

Sure, Sri Lanka is technically at peace as there is not presently an armed conflict but that should not be mistaken for any kind of healing between Sinhalese and Tamils. Neither side has worked in any significant manner for a post-war harmony. I left with the impression that people get along out of sheer pragmatism rather than any sort of newfound love between north and south. I some of the language people used to describe the other during my visit, it was clear that the Western concept of political correctness had yet to arrive in the pearl of the Indian Ocean.

Once I was in what became the relative safety of northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, terror struck Sri Lanka again. But this time around it was group of acutely radicalised local Sunnis which posthumously portrayed themselves as acting in league with, or in honour of, IS following its territorial demise in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governorate. Rather than attacking the government directly or its attendant security forces, a team of 9 suicide bombers attacked an array of Catholic sites which straddle the ethnic divide and upscale hotels. Neither of these target selections sync with traditional patterns of of either ethno-linguistic or religio-political violence in Sri Lanka. And that may have been just the point. The salafi-jihadis (often referred to as “Wahabbi” in the press though people rarely self identify with a term) struck out at targets where security was lax, were highly symbolic, would likely produce a high casualty rate necessary for a mass casualty attack, and perhaps most significantly fit neatly within the post-modern narrative arc of globalised Sunni radicalism that pits ‘the Muslims’ in an epic battle with ‘Rome’ ie Christendom. Sri Lanka had no significant history of communal violence between Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Catholics. There was, however, a long history of LTTE-Muslim violence before the LTTE’s demise precisely 10 years ago this week, overwhelmingly the former brutalising the latter during the 26-year-long war. And much more recently episodic bouts of of Sinhalese-Buddhist-Muslim confrontations in Kandy district etc.

Part of why commentators claim to have been shocked by Sri Lanka being the target for a complex, bi-coastal ‘martyrdom operation’ as suicide attacks are known among salafi’een, is because no one gave a damn about the South Asian island nation. With all eyes on current conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other similar theatres of formalised warfare as well as a deep analytic emphasis on attacks in Western cities (Barcelona, NYC, Nice, Paris), no one was paying much attention to a place once more romantically known as Ceylon. People generally don’t care about places where wars have ended, the flame of the news cycle has long been extinguished. But that was also Afghanistan. Then we had 9/11. People simply weren’t paying attention to that country aside from some Iranian clerics, Pakistani intelligence officers, and women’s rights campaigners in the West at the time.

The decades long war off the southern tip of India didn’t stoke much interest even at its height. Ten years ago this week I contacted an editor at Tina Brown’s Daily Beast just as the war was coming to a bloody conclusion and the LTTE were facing their ultimate defeat about writing an armchair piece from Los Angeles about the last battle and the significance of the death of Vellupilai Prabhkaran, the LTTE’s cult-like ‘supremo’ (leader). The editor, an effete British woman at the time, sent me a delayed reply that she was unsure that the fall of the world’s most technically sophisticated terror group that pioneered much of modern suicide bombing was timely or relevant to their audience. I recall reading the email and thinking to myself, “wow, nothing has changed in the media machine since 9/11. No lesson was learned. It’s still all about ascribed relevance in the myopic minds of gatekeepers.” Timely? The war was ending that week!

So here we are in 2019. Some lessons still not learned by governments, large media organisations, militaries, and so forth. We now live in a world of borderless terrorism. Daunting as it is to state, everything and everywhere must be paid attention to. Ignore at our peril.

A lesson that should be learned from Sri Lanka is that there are serious limitations to predictive terrorism analysis which has become quite the cottage industry for some in the past 18 years. Something about the genie not going back in the bottle, humpty dumpty not going back together, or Pottery Barn’s damaged product policy. Much of that thinking exists inside the box so to speak. But in the grand asymmetry of the phenomenon that is global terrorism, there is no a hard box. Attacks don’t need to recognise borders. We must accept that sometimes we will fail to explain push and pull factors before it’s far too late in a faraway society that seems mostly ok from a facile, removed analysis.

I was in Dubai after leaving Iraq and Syria and made a spontaneous decision to revisit Sri Lanka 12 years on to see what had changed, if anything, beyond the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity. When I left I had a vague, sinking feeling something nasty was going to happen, particularly after a specific, foreboding warning from a contact I’d made in Unawatuna that militant Islam had gained a small but indelible footprint on the island since the war ended. Then Easter morning happened.

Written by derekhenryflood

May 12th, 2019 at 12:50 am

Book Review: War On Peace

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The UK paperback edition I purchased in Dubai after leaving Iraq.

Pai- I’ve recently finished reading Ronan Farrow’s death of American diplomacy narrative War On Peace. I picked up the UK paperback edition at Kunokiniya Books at the Dubai Mall–meaning it had finally passed the UAE’s thought censors to be able to be sold. This process can take many months I’ve been told. I needed something to read while traveling across Sri Lanka and this looked like a good companion.

It is sort of two books in one volume. The first an homage of sorts with necessary criticism of the late Richard Holbrooke. The second half is a series of vignettes of high risk foreign policy successes and blunders through the prism of the Department of State. Having once worked as an editor in Washington, I read reflexively with a critical eye perhaps more than is necessary. I was put off within minutes when on the first page Abdoun is described as a neighborhood of Jordan rather than its capital Amman. Countries don’t have neighbourhoods, cities do, in geographic semantics. I put that aside an delved in to what is overall a quite enjoyable read about what is in reality a depressing subject-the decline of American influence in the world and the militarisation of US foreign policy.

Part of why I found Farrow’s work entertaining was quite personal. I’d intersected with nearly every character in the book in some circumstantial way. The time I encountered Holbrooke, along with Madeline Albright, while working a temp job at the Council on Foreign Relations over a decade ago. The time Stan McChrystal’s Italian carbinieri bodyguards nearly knocked me of while trying to photograph him. The time I waited at Abdul Rashid Dostum’s house in Kabul when he returned from an exile episode. When I went to dinner with General Michael Hayden at a posh midtown Manhattan university club where tipping the staff was forbidden. When I drove through Jowjan province on the way to Turkmenistan exactly as the massacre of Taliban prisoners was taking place in Dasht-i-Leili. This book appealed to me in part because of all the memories it brought back. At the very end one of the last people mentioned in the acknowledgments, a former Obama era foreign policy wunderkind, is the sister of someone who follows me on Instagram. It’s a string of degrees of separation.

ISAF Commander General Stanley McChyrstal hurries past reporters to asses the damage and casualties in front of his office after this morning suicide attack believed to be carried out by the Afghan Taliban.©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Much of what is described in the book is a litany of lost or squandered opportunities where good ideas were put forth that were undercut by a lack of political will or foresight or in the case of Holbrooke, death. There’s one really glaring error where in page 61 he describes Moqtada al-Sadr as an al-Qaeda lader, which could not be more wrong. Al-Sadr was the leader of the eschatological Shia sectarian Jaish al-Mahdi, about as opposite ideologically as AQ as you can get. How that made it through fact checking I’ll never understand. There were some other minor editing issues but this was the only really egregious factual error that I can recall.

Overall, I found War On Peace thoroughly relatable and entertaining, a good travel read. I’ll be leaving it behind in the used book pile at my hotel here in Thailand hoping someone else will pick it up and enjoy it equally.

Written by derekhenryflood

May 2nd, 2019 at 4:28 am

A Death in Raqqa

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SDF fighter and my guide through the ruins, Ismail Khalil photographed in Raqqa on 19 September 2017. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Pai- Recently, I discovered via Twitter that a man I briefly knew in Syria some two years ago was killed, and killed quite some time ago. I was doing frontline analysis for Jane’s Intelligence Review that resulted in my piece entitled CBC reporter Adrienne Arsenault did a story about Ismail’s death in August 2018-though he was killed by an IED in January but perhaps the dots weren’t connected until much later. For some algorithmic reason I only saw this Twitter thread earlier in 2019. Indicative, I suppose, of the nature of social media and how our world works today.

His name was Ismail Khalil, a Raqqawi who had joined the SDF and desperately wanted IS pushed out of his city. According to my friend Mahmoud, he was the victim of a booby trap left behind by IS as they rigged the city with explosives knowing their state-building effort was doomed. Ismail was assigned to me by Mustafa Bali, the SDF spokesman who you may have read quoted on a daily basis during the recent Baghouz operation that ended in March with a decisive SDF victory.

After sleeping at what was then sort of the media base in Ayn Issa and waking up a dawn at the very end of a hot, violent Levantine summer, Bali explained that an SDF fighter who knew the streets of Raqqa intimately had to ride along in my dusty Korean-built van as my driver and fixer were Kurds from Amuda along the Turkish border not terribly familiar with central Syria. The day was hot and hellish as you might imagine.

To produce stories such as these, I take enormous risks from time to time in places experience spectacular violence. But the people who help me along the way take far greater risks because they cannot or do not simply cross an international border to safety once a narrow goal has been accomplished. They are living in wartime. Inhabiting a geography of terror. The work I do isn’t created in a vacuum. It is the product of a thousand human interactions. Discerning linguistic nuance, observing local cultural norms, tight focus on survival.

Ismail taking advantage of the wifi while I interview a YPG commander called Heval Kane. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

I often think about fixers, drivers, or friendly guys with guns who’ve helped me in wars past. Wars where Twitter wasn’t a thing or at least I hadn’t joined the online echo chamber yet. I think about Sadeq in Karbala, Kamal in South Governorate, Faisal in Benghazi. All I have is an old photo, a faded business card, a number that no longer works. Are they still alive? When conflicts reignite in certain places, I sometimes contemplate the fate of these guys. Today with the interconnectedness of our rapidly decentralising world, we have the ability to find out things we may wish to have never been updated on. I would much prefer to still wonder if Ismail was rebuilding his business in Raqqa rather than know with certainty he only lived for a few more months after the city’s liberation from IS.

As I tracked Ismail through the shattered warrens of Raqqa, we encountered SDF fighters doing all sorts of tasks that sound mundane like delivering bottled water or jerry rigging radios with makeshift batteries except, well, Raqqa. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

In the case of this man, the story has a horrific ending. The kind of closure your imagination never desires when mulling over the past.

Ismail riding in the back of the van next to all my stuff. He would only live for four more months. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

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May 1st, 2019 at 11:22 am

Bloody Easter Sunday

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A woman prays at a Catholic shrine in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Pai- Seeing the news about the coordinated attacks in southwestern and eastern Sri Lanka has me back to thinking about the weeks I’ve just spent traveling the whole length of the once war-torn Indian Ocean island nation. It’s been a long decade since the 26-year long civil war ended between the SLAF and the LTTE. I got the feeling that this gorgeous country, while at peace, was a ticking time bomb of unresolved issues. Communal strains are barely beneath surface. After decades of war and terror, people I spoke with didn’t try terribly hard to mask their contempt for the other. Conflicting for me was how incredibly welcoming people were to me personally. From Unawatuna to Kandy to Jaffna, people were and are absolutely lovely to a curious outsider in their midst.

At the time of this brief posting, the death toll is reportedly 138 killed and hundreds injured. I can speculate on what group may have been behind this monstrous act of religious violence but need to hold off until more facts come in. Christians, and Catholics in particular, are a visible minority in Sri Lanka with plenty of churches dotting the landscape from south to north amidst dagobas (Buddhist temples), mosques, and Shaiva and Shakti Hindu temples. That a trio of churches and a trio of hotels were attacked on the holy day suggests a fairly intricate level of coordination across a sizable geography coupled with a relgio-political motive. Tragically, this is nothing we haven’t seen before in an era where for a highly motivated, radicalised fringe, the whole world is a battlefield. Nothing is sacred. At the time of this posting, there has not been a claim of responsibility.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 21st, 2019 at 2:09 am

At It Again: Haftar Redux in Libya

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Rebels outside the town of Gharyan-where fighting between the LNA and pro-GNA forces is ongoing at the time of this posting-photographed on 26 July 2011. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Jaffna- In Libya, the 75-year-old General Khalifa Haftar who leads the Libyan National Army (LNA) is back in the news cycle this week in a big way. Reportedly backed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in terms of war materiel, his forces are advancing close to Tripoli in what the nominally UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by  Head of the Presidential Council Fayez al-Sarraj is characterising as a coup attempt.

I thought it a good time to dredge up my deeply researched bio of Haftar I published with the Jamestown Foundation almost exactly eight years ago after he had initially returned to Benghazi from many years of exile in Virginia.

The following article was the subject of a Reuters story on 1 April 2011: Rebel army chief is veteran Gaddafi foe: think-tank and was mentioned in The Telegraph:Libya: rebels send trained forces to the front, telling youth to stay back

Taking Charge of Libya’s Rebels: An In-Depth Portrait of Colonel Khalifa Haftar

By Derek Henry Flood


On March 14, 2011, Khalifa Haftar, a dissidentLibyan Army colonel and long time foe of Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, reappeared in Benghazi, the opposition’s supposedly temporary de facto administrative center, to lead Libya’ s chaotic rebellion (al-Jazeera, March 14). For many years Haftar has been the commander-in-exile of the Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA is the armed wing of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), a significant Libyan exile entity operating mostly outside of Libya’s borders for several decades. A rebel spokesman in Benghazi told a pan-Arab daily that Colonel Haftar’s arrival from the West on the ground in Libya’s Cyrenaica region was a significant boost to a movement that desperately needed a jolt of energy. “Col. Haftar has in fact returned and is now in eastern Libya. His return has boosted the morale of the young revolutionaries. Haftar has returned and we believe that this officers and soldiers have returned with him. All of them were training during the past six years. They rom Libya’s 1969 coup, he may stand asthe best liaison for the United States and allied NATO forces in dealing with Libya’s unruly rebels.

Though it is not clear at the time of this writing (back in 2011) how much actual control Haftar has over rebel soldiers and volunteers on the frontline, after his appointment as “Commander in Chief” of opposition forces callingthemselves the “Army of Free Libya,” he stated that he has entered the fight to avenge the injustices committed against the Libyan people by Qaddafi. Haftar stated thathe does not view the present fight against Tripoli as an opportunistic moment to settle a nearly quarter century old grudge against Qaddafi (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 19). Before Haftar’s return to Benghazi, the Interim National Transitional Council announced that former General Omar al-Hariri, who tried to overthrow al-Qaddafi in 1975, would be the head of military affairs for the rebel forces. General al-Hariri was imprisoned until 1990. He was then put under closely monitored house arrest, in place until the February 17 revolution commenced. Al-Hariri is listed on the Interim National Transitional Council’s website as being responsible for the opposition’s “military affairs.” The Council has not issued a similar press release in regard to Haftar’s status, and many frontline rebels are not clear on which of the two men is currently in charge. Colonel Haftar hails from the Farjani tribe (alternately known as Farjan) in the central coastal city of Sirte. He had been committed to Colonel al-Qaddafi when he seized power in the One September Revolution of 1969 which overthrew King Idris and the royal Sanussi order. Haftar was subsequently rewarded by being made a member of Qaddafi’s Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). [1]

Interpersonal Struggles

Haftar was the overall leading commander of Libyan troops in the 1980-1987 Libyan-Chadian conflict until he was captured by then Chadian President Hissène Habré’s forces. Upon his capture by the Habré regime, he betrayed Qaddafi and then set his sights on deposing his former comrades in the Free Unionist Officers movement ruling in Tripoli. Haftar set up the LNA on June 21, 1988 [2] with strong backing from the Central Intelligence Agency and according to some sources also received Saudi funding and Israeli training. The Libyan Army defectors comprising the LNA, sometimes referred to as the “Haftar Force,” were termed “Contras” in the Cold War parlance of the era denoting their outlook as counter-revolutionaries struggling against al-Qaddafi’s eternal revolutionary state. Haftar dismissed the Contra label as “meaningless,” stating that the LNA is a “Libyanorganization with Libyan interests and Libyan goals”(al-Hayat, December 19, 1991). He said that while the LNA was temporarily basing itself in the United States, with 400 members dispersed across 25 states, he stressed that most of his outfit’s original support was indeed Libyan and Arab (al-Hayat, December 18, 1991).

While Haftar and between 600-700 fellow defectings oldiers were bolstered and equipped by U.S. intelligence after the formation of LNA in late 1988, history was not on Haftar’s side until 2011. General Idriss Déby, former commander-in-chief of the Chadian Armed Forces for several years during the war with the legitimate LibyanArmy led by Haftar and Libyan-backed Chadian rebels in Chad’s troubled northern BET Region, turned on the Habré government. Déby was backed by Tripoli in this scenario which ultimately resulted in the American plans for Khalifa Haftar to infiltrate Libya to be shelved.

Colonel Haftar was no longer welcome in Chad following the December 1990 military coup by Idriss Déby that deposed President Habré. Relations between Habré and Déby soured irrevocably with Habré accusing Déby of conspiring against him. Déby ousted his former mentor with Sudanese backing (IRIN, April 19, 2006). Following Habré’s overthrow, a brief warming of relations between N’Djamena and Tripoli occurred as Déby pragmatically flirted with the Libyan regime in order to consolidate his rule over Chad’s vast territory. Haftar’s rebels were ejected from Chad in the process, dispersing them throughout Africa. Those that chose not to return to Libya under an amnesty offered by Qaddafi were eventually resettled in the United Stateswhen their security in Africa was in doubt. [3]

Many questions have arisen among Western analysts in regard to the precise ideological nature and religious leanings of Libya’s rebel Shabaab movement since the outbreak of internecine hostilities there on February 17, 2011. The movement, now led at least partly by Colonel Haftar, is an ad hoc revolutionary one that is not monolithic in terms of either long term strategy or ideology. Libyan opposition movements like the NFSL/LNA have existed for decades before the current war and have been led by men like Khalifa Haftar weaned on the Arab nationalism of the mid-twentieth century. Libya’s exiled opposition groups tended to mixmodernist secularism with traditional Arab and Bedouin Islamism partly in reaction to al-Qaddafi’s assault on Libyan Muslim identity. [4] The challenge before Colonel Haftar is whether he can graft his experience and know-how from wars and ideologies past onto a young movement already in disarray.

Khalifa Haftar has been on the run from the al-Qaddafi regime since his capture in Chad in March 1987 following Libya’s disastrous defeat at the battle of Ouadi Doum in northern Chad’s Borkou-Ennedi-Tibesti (BET) Region. Qaddafi, whom Haftar had considered a closeconfidant, was said to deny Haftar’s very existence while he languished in a Chadian POW camp for seven months. In reaction, an infuriated Haftar joined the LNSF at Habré’s behest and declared war against the Libyan state. [5] Hissène Habré, a staunch American ally in Africa in the context of the Cold War who Human Rights Watch now terms an “African Pinochet,” released Haftar from detention after the two pragmatically put aside their differences. The Reagan administration planned to utilize Khalifa Haftar to oust al-Qaddafi during his time in Chad. Haftar spent the next three years (1988-1991) in encampments surrounding N’Djamena training his soldiers for an eventual operation to overthrow al- Qaddafi. This plan was not to be as the geopolitical realities shifted in the Sahel/Sahara region before Haftar could be deployed into Libya proper. The entire covert project would be abruptly aborted.

Idriss Déby Moves In, Khalifa Haftar Moves On

As Idriss Déby’s Sudan-backed rebel movement gainedmomentum, Haftar knew his position in Chad would be jeopardized when Hissène Habré would inevitably fall. He devised a plan to mount an assault on French troops stationed outside the capital deployed as part of Opération Épervier. Épervier was a force dispatched by French President François Mitterrand to contain Libyan aggression in Chad. Haftar felt that France favoured Idriss Déby at the expense of the LNA and that he was threatened by Déby’s rebel advance toward the capital. Though France had been a long time supporter of Habré, he ultimately fell victim to the cooling of Franco-Chadian relations. The French remained, at least officially, neutral as Habré was quickly deposed. Colonel al-Qaddafi, sensing an opportunity with the changing of the guard in N’Djamena, relayed to Déby that he wanted the renegade Haftar repatriated to Tripoli, an act that might have meant certain death for Haftar.

Though General Déby did not comply with the Libyan request for the extradition of the dissident soldiers, Déby informed the United States that the Libyan rebels, many of whom he had personally fought, were no longer welcome in N’Djamena either and allowed them to be quietly shuttled out of the country. Déby’s unsympathetic position toward Haftar may be why Chad has yet to make any noise about aiding the rebels in the current war, as remaining bitterness between the two men is certainly not out of the question.

Déby tried to keep Habré at bay in Cameroon where he had fled after the coup d’état (AP, December 2, 1990). Chad’s new leader accurately sensed his people’s fatigue after years of unending conflict. He astutely opted out of fomenting further tension with al-Qaddafi at the time publicizing the American-supported LNA being evacuated from N’Djamena (Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1990) Déby was also much less interested in being an American proxy in Africa than his predecessor. The ascent of Idriss Déby greatly altered the trajectory of Haftar’s life. [6]


In a 1997 memoir by the late Smith Hempstone, the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya during the administration of George H.W. Bush, Hempstone describes what was unofficially referred to as “Operation Magic Carpet”, a clandestine effort to spirit Haftar’s followers out of Mobuto Sese Seko’s Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo) where they were potentially vulnerable to al-Qaddafi’s far reaching hit teams and possible entente between al-Qaddafi and Mobuto at the time. [7]

Haftar later fled N’Djamena following the Déby takeover and was flown on an American Hercules to Nigeria with much of the LNA. Circumstances in Nigeria did not permit them to stay in the country longer than 24 hours. American facilitators forwarded them to Zaire. Between 300-400 of Haftar’s roving, CIA-connected rebels had to flee Zaire after the U.S. Congress quashed a plan to funnel $5,000,000 to Mobutu’s regime to let the Libyans exist in his kleptocracy where they could regroup and plot against al-Qaddafi for another day. When the American plan to essentially pay off Mobutu was scrapped, Colonel a-Qaddafi funneled an undisclosed amount of money to Mobutu. For his part, al-Qaddafi demanded the return of the Zaire-based LNA fighters, particularly the leadership. Colonel Haftar called on his American connections to be brought directly to the U.S. from Zaire. The U.S. quickly obliged Haftar but the arrangement still left several hundred rebels behind in limbo. Haftar’s Libyan fighters then landed in President Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya where American officials hoped the Libyans would be welcomed, after a generous offer of cash to arap Moi’s debt burdened regime. [8] Though initially agreeing to receive funding from the U.S. ina quid pro quo for housing the Libyans, a month onNairobi had a change of heart after President arap Moi

All Was Not Quiet In the Interim

Haftar’s time in sub-Saharan African limbo at the outset of the 1990s was not his last gasp in wantingto overthrow al-Qaddafi. After the LNA and NFSL apparently drifted apart for several years, the Libyan exiles interest converged once again when, in the spring of 1996, Haftar reportedly instigated an insurrection in Cyrenaica’s historically defiant al-Jebel al-Akhdar region near the eastern city of Derna that raged at Haftar’s direction but was swiftly crushed (Reuters, March 26, 1996). [9] Reports at the time suggested that some of rebels in the al-Jebel al-Akhdar incident werethose fostered in Chad by the CIA prior to the 1990coup. [10] Nearly a decade after his defection, Haftar was linked to a failed coup attempt against al-Qaddafi (al-Majid [Amman], August 5, 1996) [11] Somewhat incongruously, a report citing unnamed Arab sources in Tripoli surfaced four years after the 1996 incidents that Haftar was considering returning to his nativeland. Haftar, through a spokesman, flatly refuted the speculation, suggesting it may have been disinformation spread by the Libyan intelligence services and noted: “We also have heard the reports of his intention toreturn. I spoke to him a short time ago and I can assureyou that Col. Haftar is in the United States and is notthinking about returning” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 16, 2000).


In a sense, Colonel Khalifa Haftar’s personal odyssey strings together a policy continuum of overt hostility between Washington and Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi. At the time of the United States’ most direct confrontation withColonel al-Qaddafi on April 15, 1986 with airstrikes onmilitary installations in Benghazi and Tripoli, Colonel Haftar was in good standing as one of the founding members of the RCC and was loyally commanding al-Qaddafi’s forces in the Libyan quagmire in Chad.Twenty-five years on, the American military alongside its NATO partners, is intervening in the 2011 Libyan civil war where Haftar has suddenly reemerged to build force structure amongst Libya’s chaotic rebels. It must be noted that in stark difference to the largely civil society led revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the war in Libya, as the odyssey of Khalifa Haftar’s life demonstrates, is as much, if not more tied to the African world as the Arab one. The Kalashnikov-powered revolution now being commanded on the front by Haftar has a very deep African dimension to it, owing to Libya’s modern military history and inescapable political geography. While Tunisia and Egyptian foreign policies correspond largely to the greater Mediterranean-Levant regions, Colonel al-Qaddafi’s efforts since 1969 have dragged Libya southward into sub-Saharan Africa.

While lawmakers and policy analysts in the West are repeatedly stating that they do not know just who Libya rebels are and to what degree they may be influenced by the transnational jihadism espoused by al-Qaeda, atthe helm of this movement is Colonel Khalifa Haftar, anold school secular Nasserist who has lived in the United States for twenty years. In a 1991 interview conducted in an LNA camp in rural Virginia, Haftar stated that he mostly closely identified himself with Omar al-Mukhtar, the legendary anti-colonial resistance leader hanged by Italian administrators in Libya in 1931. As al-Mukhtar challenged Benito Mussolini, an external tyrant, Haftar sees himself along a similar historical path in his lifelong battle with Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, the quintessential tyrant. Haftar, the former CIA confidant in Africa and now a veteran, hardline anti-Qaddafi activist, may prove to be the most apt conduit for the U.S./NATO and their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners.


1. Colin Legum, Africa Research Ltd., AfricaContemporary Record: Annual Survey and Documents, Volume 26, (Teaneck, New Jersey: Holmes & Meier, 2002), p. B-543.

2. John Ruedy, Islamism and Secularism in NorthAfrica, (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996), p.195.

3. Ronald Bruce St John, Historical Dictionary of Libya,(Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2006), p.149.

4. Ruedy, op. cit.

5. J. Millard Burr, Robert O. Collins, Darfur: The LongRoad to Disaster, (Princeton, New Jersey: Markus Wiener Publishers 2008) pp. 274; J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, Africa’s Thirty Years’ War: Libya, Chad and the Sudan 1963-1993, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), p.300.

6. Smith Hempstone, Rogue Ambassador: An African Memoir, (Sewanee, Tennessee: University of the South Press, 1997), pp.136-139.

7. Michael Clough, Free at Last?: U.S. Policy Toward Africa and the End of the Cold War, (New York: New York University Press, 1992), p.100.

8. Lucy Dean, The Middle East and North Africa 2004, Volume 50, (London: Europa Publications, 2003), p.788.

9. Clyde R. Mark, CRS Issue Brief for Congress-Libya, (Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 1996).

10. Clyde R. Mark, CRS Issue Brief for Congress-Libya, (Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2002), p.9.

11. Legum, op. cit.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 7th, 2019 at 6:08 am

Bodhisattva Vow

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Theravada monks look on as devotees place floral alms in Kandy’s sacred tooth relic complex. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Kandy- For years I’ve wanted to visit this city in central Sri Lanka and its nearly mythical Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic) where one of Siddhartha Gautama’s four canine teeth is stored for veneration by Buddhists here and those the world over. Buddhism here is very different than much of what was once popularised in the West by the Beastie Boys and other pop culture elites in the heyday of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. There is no idolatry of the Dalai Lama here to be certain in the mode of Vajrayana . Like that in Thailand, Sri Lankans follow the ancient Theravada school of Buddhism.

The Sri Dalada Maligawa with its moat is a quiescent centre of calm in an otherwise bustling city. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Having grown up in a principally Irish Catholic milieu and having spent much of my adult life immersed in the political currents of Sunni and Shia Islam, my knowledge of the Buddhist world isn’t perhaps what it should be. My knowledge of Sri Lanka is, or was I should say, through the prism of the 26-year war between the state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE was made up of ethnic Tamils from the county’s north and east, were pioneers of suicide bombing and proto-terror state building. On 25 January, 1998 the LTTE’s ‘elite’ Black Tigers detonated a massive truck bomb in the temple complex that killed 17. The importance of this place in Sri Lanka’s history and politics cannot be overstated. It is thought that whoever controls the home of the tooth relic is who governs the state. So the 1998 LTTE attack was not just aimed at the Sinhala-speaking Buddhist identity of the Sri Lankan government and military, it was to symbolise that the nation-state’s grip on power was tenuous if it could not adequately secure this ancient syncretic material symbol melding spirituality and power.

As to how far Sri Lanka has come in terms of increasing state stability. nine years before the LTTE attack, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was waging a deadly insurgency and bombed the temple complex on 8 February 1989. This incident could not be attributed to religious difference or a bitter linguistic schism underwritten by the country’s 1972 constitution where upon Sinhala was enshrined as the official language as the country was transitioning from the Dominion of Ceylon to the Republic of Sri Lanka. No, the JYP insurrection was based along the overwhelmingly ethnic-Sinhala southern coast where I’ve just spent a week. It began in 1987 (with a history of political violence in a failed 1971 uprising) as a Marxist-Leninist militant outfit that sought the violent overthrow of the government in Colombo and was concomitant with the humiliating arrival of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in 1987. The posture of the IPKF stoked and angry form of nationalism among Sinhalese leftists who felt Colombo had forfeited the security integrity of the country by inviting a foreign military presence. Thus the Sri Lankan Armed Forces then had to deal with the LTTE and JVP insurgencies in deadly simultaneity. The Indian state was seen as at least somewhat complicit with the LTTE insurgency owing to its safe haven in Tamil Nadu and the vastly unpopular IPKF departed here by March 1990.

Buddhism has been a central tenet of Sri Lanka’s post-colonial identity with a clause in the constitution stating, “Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana.”
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

So this place of tranquility, of immense history, of the Buddha that so many admire, has seen serious turmoil. We are now (as of mid-May) ten years out from the end of the war with the LTTE and 30 years on from the JVP attack and Sri Lanka is certainly at peace aside from small, contained bouts of inter-communal violence. Society needs time to heal from the deep wound of decades-long polarising ethnic fragmentation.

Written by derekhenryflood

March 31st, 2019 at 12:07 pm

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Syria After the Khilifah: Now Comes the Hard Part

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The canary SDF banner with accompanying YPG and YPJ flags in Hasakeh.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Unawatuna- Today the SDF finally declared the total clearing of Baghouz and with it the last patch of formal IS territorial control anywhere in Syria and Iraq. So today signifies the conclusion of the al-Jazeera Storm campaign which was launched September 2017 to clear Deir ez-Zor, Mayadeen, and Albu Kamal districts of IS control east of the Euphrates.

It was a grinding fight that was put on hold while the TSK (Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri-Turkish armed forces) invaded the then PYD-controlled Efrin region to tear apart an oasis of calm within Syria and crush Kurdish identity politics there and in the rest of what had been known as Rojava. So now that the SDF-controlled part of Deir ez-Zor governorate has been fully liberated, many questions immediately present themselves, such as: what will be the present and future purpose of the SDF without the khilifah (‘caliphate’) to fight against? How will the coalition’s presence and continued engagement in Syria be militarily & monetarily justified?

And those are just two of what could be a hundred critical questions about the future of the SDF and its relationship to its American partners as well as interactions amongst different factions inside the SDF that have different aims. In light of the Manbij restaurant bombing, US engagement may continue if IS insurgent attacks ramp up morphing into an all-out guerrilla war in quick fashion. Perhaps looks at Diyala governorate next door in Iraq…

While the end of the Khilifah is certainly a massive victory for the SDF in which it suffered a high casualty rate fighting a fearsome death/sex cult organisation, we don’t know what their next move will be vis-a-vis negotiating with the dreaded Syrian regime or with the Kremlin’s opaque interlocutors. Of course, it seems the regime doesn’t itself know its next move either. So many moving parts, a none of us knows in which direction this eight year-old war machine is moving.

Written by derekhenryflood

March 23rd, 2019 at 3:32 am

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