New York- I’ve known photographer Jason Florio for nearly a dozen years now. Our paths have had this dramatic before-and-after symmetry. Jason shot in northern Afghanistan just before 9/11, I just after. He shot in Baghdad just before it fell, I, again, just after. Jason was in Lebanon not long before the most recent Israeli invasion, me during it in summer 2006. Jason traversed Libya when Qadaffi’s rule was unwavering, I as it was falling to pieces.
Below is an except from Jason and his wife Helen’s most recent adventure along the River Gambia beginning in Afrique l’Ouest (Francophone West Africa) and ending in the Anglophone sliver that is Gambia where Jason has been traveling for many years now. Enjoy!
“The River Gambia is one of Africa’s last major free-flowing rivers, starting as a mere trickle from under a rock in the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea. It meanders through the gold-rich land of south east Senegal, and through the length of The Republic of The Gambia (the country is named after the river) and enters the Atlantic Ocean having coursed it’s way for over 1100km(approx. 685 miles) and broadened to 14km wide. Plans are afoot to build a hydroelectric dam on the river on the Senegal-Guinea border.
The dam would bring much needed power to a dark region, but would displace ancient villages, change the natural flow of the river, drastically effect the fragile eco system. The reduced flow would create greater salinity in the river further upstream, severely impacting the lives of villagers whose very survival is based on crop irrigation by the river. Documentary photographer Jason Florio, and his wife, writer/producer Helen Jones-Florio, accompanied by two Gambian fishermen followed the river for two months by canoe and motorcycle from source-to-sea.
Traveling in-part in the footsteps of 19th century explorers to the region including Mungo Park and Gaspard Mollien, their aim was to create a modern day account of the people and communities along the length of the river, before the dam stops its natural course forever.”
New York- I had a couple of long term projects published at the end of this past week. The first was an examination of the little known history conjoining Mali in West Africa with North Korea in Northeast Asia over at Asia Times Online. I discovered this newly built part of Bamako while riding around on my fixer’s motorcycle last year when we were trying to organize a semi-doomed trip toward the front line with MUAJO et co up in Mopti Region.
This spot I found (linked, left) in the Malian capital is called Carré des Armées (Army Square) and it was built by a North Korean state enterprise (not as if Pyongyang encourages private enterprise). As I begun to play with the idea of doing a full length article on the topic, it dawned on me that Mali and North Korea had a shared history dating all the way back to Mali’s independence from France in 1960.
Not exactly a topic for broad mass consumption, I know, but for those who it may interest, I think it’s a fascinating topic. It also speaks to a lesser understood phenomena of how ties forged in the heat of the Cold War still can very much exist in a post-Cold War world.
The ties between North Korea and Mali certainly may have lessened over the decades and have changed in their orientation (started out as political and military in the 1960s, now more transparently financial-the same goes for Mali’s relationship with China). One of the key differences between the relationships between North Korea and China with an inherently unstable state like Mali is that seemingly no circumstances would or will derail ‘business as usual.’
Just for argument’s sake, I honestly think that if Ansar Eddine and its Salafi allies had somehow managed to capture Bamako and miraculously gain some kind of political legitimacy that over time Beijing and Pyongyang would still send delegations back to Mali to get their business interests on track. After all in 1960, the government of Modibo Keita was deemed a righteous, radical enough anti-imperialist government by Kim Il-sung and co to forge ties on the other side of the world. Maybe the anti-imperial tenets preached in the context of Salafiyya-jihadiyya would be revolutionary enough for the Beijing’s politburo and the DPRK’s Workers’ Party of Korea to be able to keep infrastructure projects going uninterrupted. Who’s to say….
The second was a passion project nearly 14 years in the making about the history and symbology of all the war zone/quixotic regime currencies have managed to collect in my travels over the years featured in The Christian Science Monitor. It spans from an out-of-circulation Iranian rial I obtained in Tehran in 1999 to a Libyan 1 dinar note I saved from Benghazi in 2011.
Not a project that even the most ambitious young turk with a fancy master’s degree fresh out of Georgetown or Columbia could have done. It’s a bit of a blood, sweat and tears project in that sense and I was thrilled to have it come to fruition. I’ve dealt with countless fast talking money changers, sky rocketing wartime inflation, crossed borders only opened when regimes were in the process of being toppled and made all sorts of other absurd, laborious entreaties to obtain this collection.
Many of these specimens were lost for years or so I thought, until I uncovered them last fall in a musty storage locker and began to examine them one by one. I then realized they merited an article treatment on their own.
Most of these notes (except the Qadaffi-era dinar which is still in circulation pending the release of new notes by Libya’s central bank) are long out of circulation. And more importantly, each banknote tells a story both in its iconography laden artistry and in the circumstances in which I obtained it. The 20th anniversary of the Shia Islamic revolution in Iran, the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and so forth.
New York- In the wake of the French military intervention in Mali late last week, I felt like it was time for TWD to kick into high gear. On Monday, I appeared on BBC Arabic’s News Hour programme from the beeb’s Manhattan studio (which was actually the NYC AP bureau). The show was hosted by Lebanon’s lovely Fida Basil and featured Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a one time Algerian ambassador to Libya-turned outspoken Algerian dissident in exile in the UK and Akli Shaka, the Leeds-based spokesman for the Imohag (alt. Imuhagh–the endonym of the Tuareg people) and myself. I also did a piece for CNN.com (pictured above) synthesizing recent developments with my work on the ground there in 2012.
Mohamed Larbi Zitout. left, and Akli Shaka, right.
One of the topics I fielded during the segment was whether or not there would be a Salafi blowback on the French metropole or in amongst any of Mali’s neighbors where security is already inherently sketchy and AQIM essentially has freedom of movement across several over the borders. As I was answering an email to colleague this morning, I cited the GIA’s hijacking of an Air France flight 8969 heading from Algiers to Paris’s Orly airport on Christmas Eve 1994 and the Paris metro bombings in 1995 (as with all terrorist related events related to Algeria’s bloody civil conflict there of course is an alternate theory that the DRS-Algeria’s all-knowing intelligence service-was behind some or all of these events). Not suggesting the GIA in the 1990s is a precise direct analogy but the experience offers some insight. Monday I thought it all but assured that Mali-based Salafi-jihadis would strike in a neighboring state in the very least. Whether they have the capability to strike on French soil remains to be seen I suppose. Let’s hope that is not the case.
In the immediate aftermath of the largely successful raid on the jet at Marseille’s airport in which the four GIA operatives were killed by French commandos, four Catholic priests were murdered in in the immediate aftermath in retribution in Tizi-Ouzou east of Algiers in the Kabylie region which has remained a locus of conflict in some degree or another until the present.
As soon as I hit send on said email, I then checked the news to see something that seemed like the logical next step: a massive raid was launched on a sprawling energy installation’s complex today in which an estimated 41 expatriate workers were taken hostage by men believed to be under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s (a.k.a. MBM, a.k.a. Belawar) AQIM faction “La katiba des Moulathamine” (or is it al-Mouwaqiin bi Dam-”Signatories in Blood battalion” a constituent of or breakaway from the “Masked Brigade”-it seems there is no agreement/too little information at the time of this writing) or AQIM itself depending on reports.
In what was likely a carefully planned assault, militants struck the Ain Amenas liquified natural gas field project being operated by BP, Norway’s Statoil, and Algeria’s state energy concern Sonatrach on Algeria’s eastern border with Libya due south of the triple border with Tunisia.Many believe that Belmokhtar was behind the audacious raid in Algeria’s Illizi Wilayat (province), bringing a flurry of attention to a character generally little known in Anglophone media circles.
There had been speculation last fall that Belmokhtar had been dismissed as commander of his men by AQIM’s overall Algeria-based emir, Abdekmalek Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud) which Droukdel reportedly later denied.
The biggest story suddenly surged from the war in Mali to one of the biggest terror attacks on Algerian soil in many years. Just like that, the news cycle had to catch up to speed on events to Mali’s north in the chaotic midst of learning about Mali itself. As with its captured diplomats in Gao, Algeria taking its characteristically hard line, claims it categorically will not negotiate-much less pay ransoms for-hostages, foreign or indigenous.
Just before the start of the Mali conflict in December 2011, I edited a report by Dario Cristiani entitled ”Mixing Ideological and Pragmatic Jihad: A Fresh Look at Mokhtar Belmokhtar.” If you are following me on Twitter, you can DM for a PDF if interested.
UPDATE: In keeping with Algiers’s stated no-negotiations position (despite the fact the government said talks were attempted), Algerian forces launched what could be called a disastrous ‘rescue’ mission. Reports right now are conflicting about whether the operation is still ongoing or whether it has already concluded. Whatever has happened, it has likely been quit bloody.
Myself and presenter Fida Basil. Uttering ‘Jamaat at-Tawhid w’al-Jihad fi Gharb Ifriqiyya’ is a hell of a lot more of a mouthful than MUJAO!
Before the current phase of the conflict kicked off, a photo from this blog was used in a report by the International Peace Institute, a UN-linked think-tank, in mid-December.
UPDATE: Friend and colleague, the Toronto-based analyst Andrew McGregor appeared on CBC News to talk about the history of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the impact of the Ain Amenas raid, its sophistication and beguiling logistical improbabilities. He also discussed the possible long term effects on Algeria’s energy industry, a key source of that country’s GDP. Click play below.
New York- Although interest in Mali has been partly piqued in the American polity from facile, puppet-like foreign policy comments by Mitt Romney in a recent debate with President Obama, for genuine students and scholars of foreign policy Mali has been of grave concern since late March with the fall of Gao if not mid-January when the MNLA launched an attack on Ménaka. For specialists in the Sahel region bridging north and west Africa, Mali has been of note since time immemorial. I’ve long had a general interest in Malian history and politics inasmuch as I devour everything I can on virtually all of the history and conflicts of present day ‘Afro-Euraisa.’
After working in the Libyan war during 2011 in both its east and west theatres of conflict–Cyrenaica and Jebel Nafusa–I had planned to focus some of my efforts in 2012 on the Sahel. I had been contemplating working in Niger this year (before the Mali crisis began in earnest) in part because of hysterical front line Libyan rebels telling me they were fighting against Nigerien, Chadian and other sub-Saharan African ‘mercenaries’ who were allegedly being airlifted in by the Antonov into Sebha in the Libyan Sahara. (See the story of Qaddafi’s Nigerien Tuareg confidant here)
I’d been wanting to go to George W. Bush’s “Africa” i.e. Niger for quite some time to investigate the French-led uranium extraction industry in that country’s Aïr Massif in the sprawling northern Agadez Region and exploring the rebellious political dynamics of the adjacent Ténéré Desert and the Tuareg-dominated Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice (MNJ).
‘Africa is a continent.’ T-shirt detail, Le Grand Marché, Bamako. @2012 Derek Henry Flood
But Niger was not meant to be, at least in terms of my own 2012 reporting priorities, so off to Bamako I went. I realized after I had already gone to some trouble to acquire my Malian visa that the only viable way to visit the short-lived Azawad state would to have actually queued up for a Nigérien or Mauritanian visa instead to visit either rebel-controlled Timbuktu or Gao respectively.
Plan A of interviewing the MNLA or Ansar Eddine was a pipe dream. I would quickly come to learn to my Plan B of hoping to somehow embed with the Malian army would not be doable either (although the BBC with its clout and/or connections managed to do so months later). The door would be then shut in my face upon attempting Plan C which was to visit the no-man’s land between the last government-held area of Mopti Region yet before the rebel or militia held areas of Douentza. Sometimes life is about Plan D I suppose was the take away from all this–accomplish whatever I could in the face of all these obstacles.
Mali is now undoubtedly going to face some form of military intervention to counter the Salafi-jihadi groups occupying its three northern regions and parts of northeast Mopti region. France currently has six hostages being held there beyond its more obvious political and economic interests in Mali. Three additional Western hostages plus the fear of blowback on the European heartland means that the EU views further consolidation of radical Salafi power in northern Mali as a threat to the EU itself.
France knows all too well that nihilistic terror wars in North Africa can reverberate back to the metropole with deadly effect evidenced by the Christmas Eve 1994 hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 and the 1995 Paris Metro bombings carried out by al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha-better known by known by its Francophone name, the Groupe Islamique Armé or GIA. The GIA–a precursor to today’s AQIM in Mali–was one of the principal non-state belligerents fighting the Algerian government and security apparatus during the worst of the civil war years in the mid-1990s.
We still don’t have an accurate picture of precisely how this roughly proposed intervention will take place and likely won’t until something is already underway. Whatever the outcome, it will continue to have humanitarian repercussions across the entire region perhaps well beyond the massive refugee and IDP outflow we have already witnessed. It all remains to be seen at this point.
Barcelona- I have a new article out today for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst (subscription only) based on my fieldwork in Mali in May and June and loads of armchair work in NYC and here in BCN. Though this shaky so-called unity government has been formed-which explicitly excludes northern salafi-jihadis from the outset-nothing on the ground has fundamentally changed in Mali.
Yes, Ganda Koy/Iso are busy having new flip-flop clad volunteers doing summersaults for the odd journo visiting Mopti (though of course kudos to anyone making the effort to do such) and internationalist speak of intervention has gained a modicum of traction, yet the retaking of the northern regions seems as far-fetched as ever before. Corpo media flirted briefly with Mali before returning to its fixation on dear Syria. Multitasking by both news outlets and politicos is needed here. Mali can neither be swept under the rug nor can it withstand a blunt poorly thought out military intervention as took place in Libya. Mali pleads for nuance from the shadows.
It took the smashing to bits of UNESCO monuments fabricated of wood and sand to gain the attention of the world rather than a desperate food crisis and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Malians. I too am keeping an eye keenly trained on Aleppo-which according to Syrians is much more integral to bringing down the regime than the fall of Damascus-but my thoughts keep wandering back to Mali. It’s rich red earth, hot desert nights lit by a Sahelian moon, and those smiling bon soir‘s from a lovely people in a now benighted land.
Barcelona- Partly out of boredom and partly out of the itch to simply create something new out of old, I threw together this photo montage over the weekend. In this era of digital photography where one shoots thousands of frames rather than analog hundreds, I was reflecting on how almost all of the images I make will never see the light of day in this regard. I put this video together in a largely random fashion with images that have been just sitting in my laptop for years. I put the photos in the order they came to me as I grabbed them one by one from various folders containing my view of many of the biggest news events of the last 10 years.
Interspersed with them are much more sublime moments of everyday life around the world. An elephant in Thailand, an aged priest in Ethiopia, a glitzy office tower in Manhattan. This has been my reality and is our collective reality. Globalization and social networking simultaneously accelerate worldwide travel and technological integration while hyper compartmentalizing our lives. We speak more so to only those who we want to and listen to those with whom we already agree.
No one knows just where any of this is going. Billionaire fraudsters suddenly imprisoned, social revolutions springing up from seemingly nowhere (though not quite), calcified dictatorships counted on for decades in the interests of “stability” suddenly crumbling to pieces, it seems as if the entire world order is in question.
Barcelona- I have a new article out today in the July issue of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point’s Sentinel publication. I am honored to have been awarded the cover story for the second time this year. The story is based on the two weeks I spent in Mali in May and June and a couple of months of armchair research here in Barcelona and New York. As last year when I was avidly and concomitantly following Libya and Bahrain in particular, this year my attention has largely turned to Syria and Mali.
The conflict in Mali is, yes, a result of the NATO-GCC backed war in Libya in part but Libya’s troubles are not the cause of Mali’s current crisis. The causes of Mali’s 2012 rebellion of messy irredentism and radical Islamism are rooted in local economic, ethnic, and ecological disparities. There are long-held grievances among several of northern Mali’s communities that have sat unresolved for many decades. These issues of emphasized racial and ethnic difference are discussed fairly in depth in Bruce S. Hall’s A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960.
Global warming (now marketed as climate change) is a causal factor. Coupled with climate issues are then food security and the survival of livestock-key for both the sedentary agriculturalist and semi-nomadic pastoralist populations competing for land and scare resources in the wider Sahel. In this light neighboring Niger is especially vulnerable with many of the same environmental and ethnic issues at stake.
So is the legacy of French divide et impera (divide and rule) during the colonial period. Up until Mali’s independence in 1960, French administrators favored certain groups over others in order to maintain their grip on power. The Salafi agenda of AQIM (and now MUJAO) has certainly exacerbated and accelerated things. The kidnapping for Westerners, most notably the brazen hostage taking in Timbuktu’s Centre Ville in late November 2011 in which a German national was shot dead when he tried to resist being hauled off into the unknowns of the Sahara, has utterly destroyed Mali’s relatively lucrative and quite vital (yet fragile) tourism industry.
On top of all this I am still trying to keep up with events in Syria. It appears from the outside looking in that the war has to have been amplified by the audacious assassinations of National Security Chief General Hisham Ikhtiyar, Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Assef Shawkat and former Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani. This has brought a sea change in the level of political violence across the country not most notably in the formerly quiet Aleppo Governorate. It seems that the al-Jaish as-Suri al-Hurra (the endonym of the Free Syrian Army) has certainly achieved increased momentum in recent days in what has been essentially an unabated war of attrition.
Before the year is out I may return to one or both of these troubled nation-states. Hard to fathom what the fall of Damascus will mean, particularly for Syria’s Alawite community as well as its numerous Christians. Add to that Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. I remember in Baghdad and environs in the spring of 2003 when there was an immediate backlash against Palestinians hosted by the Hussein regime who were resented at best and deemed collaborators at worst by furious Iraqis.
Damascus will be a tremendous tinderbox once the tipping point against Assad is finally reached. It won’t likely happen overnight (unless there were to be a spectacular and ingeniously successful assassination plot) but history is definitely against such a calcified, minoritarian regime in the Middle East today.
Another issue which managed to grab my attention today is the violence erupting in Khorog, the regional capital of Tajikistan’s difficult to access Kohistan Badakhshan (a.k.a. Gorno-Badakhshan in Russian). At least 42 people have been reported killed so far in clashes after the local intelligence chief was savagely beaten (some reports say stabbed) to death by assailants linked to a local warlord hailing from the 1992-1997 civil war.
This means something to me because I have a friend from Khorog and I’d imagined visiting the place one day. We chatted on skype today and she is terribly fretful because all phone service has been cut to the city and she cannot reach family members still residing there (she lives outside Tajikistan). The needless mayhem may have been the result of the hard sought after cigarette smuggling trade along the Afghan border. Though the region is infamous for its Russia-bound heroin trade, like all borders in the global Balkans, it’s a hub for Marlboros as well. Hopefully more information will come to light soon. Tajikistan is an incredibly brittle place that has never properly reconciled the wounds from its horrific post-Soviet civil war.
Barcelona- We awake today to more news that Ansar Eddine is bashing more Sufi Islamic sites in Timbuktu, this time the mosque of Sidi Yahia. Sanda Ould Bamana, Ansar Eddine’s ‘spokesman,’ has pledged that his Salafi-jihadi militia will smash every last historical site to bits. This will undoubtedly bring comparisons to the March 2001 demolition of the majestic Bamian buddhas in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan as we see in today’s Guardian. There are a couple of inevitable reactions to a crisis such as this some of which I have already seen percolating up on twitter. One is that human lives are of course intrinsically more valuable that ‘old piles of rocks’ and that in such a scenario its callous to cry out regarding the destruction of monuments when hundreds of thousands of Malians (or millions of Afghans in 2001) are living as refugees in neighboring countries.
Another one of the memes is that by UNESCO making bland statements about their historic value, that will only encourage militants to attack them further in order to gain attention/thumb their nose at the international community. This is the damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-dont quandary. By trying to bring attention to an otherwise obscure issue, you are not only informing the world but helping to shape the militants’ agenda. To say nothing would be a travesty, but is saying something helping to accelerate militant action? The Islamists themselves may indicate that outside opinion is entirely irrelevant in terms of their priorities. In fact, it is just simply extremely difficult for outsiders to discern the minutiae in these decision making processes.
Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, stated “there is no justification for such a wanton destruction.” A relatively passionate sounding sentiment, sure, but this does not address the Salafi grievance of ridding Islam of impure practices. Groups like Ansar Eddine are steeped in theological justifications for acts like these. The world at large may not understand them but rigid Sunni jurisprudence revolves around justifying ideas and subsequent actions.
The last such theme that quickly comes to mind is the argument that destroying Sufi (or Shia or anything non-orthodox Sunni) monuments is a natural facet of Salafi reformist political culture which should be expected when hardline groups manage to come to power. These movements seek to rid Islamic lands of what they call shirk-the slippery slope to polytheism that Salafis and Wahabis (a Saudi religious reformist movement responsible for destroying plenty of sites from Islam’s early history in the Kingdom) fear the most. Fundamentalists feel it is their god-given duty to uphold tawhid-monotheism in its most undiluted form. Tawhid is the centerpiece of core salafi thought and many Islamist militant movements fighting in the world today believe it is their responsibility to maintain strict religious values to where no prophet, companion, or any other human form may be found alongside god. Unfortunately for many Malians, the salafis have come to their cherished Timbuktu. And they are well-armed.