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An Historical Tour of Jihadi New York

September 12th, 2012 No comments

The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower anchors the southeastern end of what is left of Brooklyn’s historic Atlantic Avenue Arab strip. Rapid gentrification of the neighborhood in the last decade has transformed the area from a lively ethnic enclave into bland real estate developments. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Yesterday for the 11th anniversary of 9/11 I decided to do something a bit off the beaten path. Though New York City was the site of the attacks, no other part of the ‘planes operation’ timeline is known (to my knowledge) to have occurred in the city’s five boroughs. The closest thing would be when several of the hijackers led by Hani Hanjour moved into an apartment in Paterson and rented mailboxes at Mail Boxes Etc. in Fort Lee and Wayne, New Jersey nearby.

A Chinese man peers warily at my camera from the third floor office which once served as the Afghan Taliban’s makeshift UN mission. Before 9/11 I drove out to this place to try and get an Afghan tourist visa in person but the guys were never there. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

There are however a few tangential, yet important locales that fit into the larger picture. One quietly resides in a nondescript brown brick medical office complex at 55-16 Main Street in Flushing, Queens. This had been the site of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s ‘Mission’ to the UN (not a terribly convenient location for access to Turtle Bay?). I visited this dull building a couple of times in August of 2001 while trying to acquire a visa for Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The State Department ordered the two rather sullen ‘diplomats’ to close the office on February 13, 2001. But when I knocked on their door that summer there was still a sign on the front of the office door in English, Pashto, and Dari that listed it as their mission. And the phone still worked as either Abdul Hakeem Mujahid or Noorullah Zadran (most likely Zadran) would occasionally and very skeptically listen to my queries. I thought about titling this post a Salafi-jihadi tour of New York but of course the Taliban were hardcore Deobandis influenced more by radical Islam in British India than modern Saudi Arabia.

The door of the former Taliban UN mission office in Flushing, Queens. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

From Flushing I made the long subway trek to downtown Brooklyn in the footsteps of the now long dead Sheikh Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. Azzam was bin Laden before bin Laden was. The original transnational jihadi ideologue, Azzam was born near Jenin, British Mandate Palestine in 1941. He fled to Jordan after the 1967 war when the Israelis began to militarily occupy his homeland. During his radicalization, Azzam was an early adapter to the Salafi interpretation of Islam and preached accordingly. According to New Yorker writer George Packer, the building pictured below was the location of Azzam’s Afghan Services Bureau which was used to recruit volunteers to fight in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad as well as funnel funds there.

The former site of 1980’s era Brooklyn mujahideen front Maktab al-Khidamat (Afghan Services Bureau) at 566 Atlantic Avenue. The front door was plastered with building and construction code violations from the City of New York and nothing appeared to be doing there. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Next door to the perfume factory is the infamous al-Farooq mosque  (and former al-Kifah Refugee Center) at 552 Atlantic Avenue. It was here that, according to French scholar Giles Kepel, Azzam had kindly requested sympathizers to the jihad to send their donation checks made out simply to “Service Bureau.” Azzam had opened a checking account several blocks northwest of the office and mosque complex at the Independence Savings Bank on the corner of Court Street and Atlantic Avenue (which is now a Trader Joes supermarketin line with the area’s intense gentrification).

Site of the former Independence Savings Bank in Brooklyn (currently a Trader Joes supermarket) where Palestinian Salafi theologian Abdullah Azzam maintained a checking account to channel donations toward ‘Afghan-Arab’ groups fighting the Red Army and PDPA Afghan government forces in the 1980s. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

A 1995 New Yorker article describes how the CIA-linked Azzam as well as the currently imprisoned Omar Abdel Rahman preached at al-Farooq and a rustic masjid in Jersey City called al-Salam. Azzam is most often referenced as Osama bin Laden’s ‘mentor.’ After the conclusion of the Afghan jihad, Azzam and his sons were killed in a bombing in November 1989 while en route to salat al-juma (Friday prayers) at the “Mosque of the Martyrs” in Peshawar’s University Town district. The reasons for Azzam’s killing have never quite revealed themselves. Some believe it was factional infighting amongst the Arab jihadis in Peshawar who were adrift after the Red Army had withdrawn from Afghanistan earlier that year. It has even been speculated that bin Laden himself ordered his henchmen to carry out the bombing.

Whether Azzam is as relevant today to those in the sway of Salafi rhetoric I can’t be sure but it is very likely that Mohammed Atta and other old school AQ core operatives were very much influenced by the writings and speeches of a man with cause who once dined in Brooklyn’s halal eateries and opened a checking account with great ease in an open society.

On a side note, it was on this street that in the fall of 2000 I purchased a shalwar kammez–Pakistan’s national dress–at an Arab store (ie not a Pakistani one) to work on my senior thesis in…Peshawar.

The entrance to the al-Farooq mosque in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood just after dusk. A muezzin made the azan (call) for salat al-maghrib (evening prayers) on loud speakers that echoed over the cacophonous traffic. I’d never heard the azan in the United States before. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

The new WTC tower, known as One World Trade Center, rises from ground zero eleven years after the original Twin Towers’ demolition by Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehi. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

 

Suicide Bombing at Kabul Mall-Does Anyone Even Care?

February 14th, 2011 No comments

New York- There was an under reported suicide attack at the entrance of the Kabul City Centre/Safi Landmark Hotel today where the attacker detonated at the semi-secure entrance killing himself and two guards. I used to frequent this mall complex mainly to use the ATM to pay for my room at the Park Palace guesthouse a few blocks down. I once spent one fairly pricey night (for Afghanistan anyway) at the Safi in 2008 when I missed my PIA flight back to Islamabad and decided to splurge for one night/was too embarrassed to check back into the Park Palace because I had already said my goodbyes to all the staff and would’ve felt silly going back there. I occasionally used to hit up the overpriced lunch buffet on the top floor of this place to take a break from eating street food once in a while during my Kabul 2009 era.

It appears the Afghan Taleban are making a concerted effort, considered the bombing of the Wazir Akbar Khan Finest supermarket the other week, to smash places where well-to-do Afghans and Westerners go to use ATMs and buy/eat non-street food. You can see the inside of this mall in my friend’s film, Silencing the Song, mentioned in a previous post, now airing on HBO when the film’s central character Setara goes to shop there. To anyone who has never been nor certainly now will ever go to Afghanistan, one more suicide bombing there, and a barely reported one at that, is just more noise in an overly crowded, un-distilled media-verse. The lives of a couple of as-yet nameless Afghan security guards may seem meaningless in a war who’s costs are talked about in the billions and about the larger-than-life personalities of American generals etc.

Pessimists may view the advent of the Herati Safi brothers business empire in the heart of Kabul as a blight in the quaint rustic ruins of a formerly destroyed city and their undoubtedly questionable business practices as proof of Afghanistan’s supposed propensity toward failure. But for many people, myself included, who do not want to see Kabul continue to resemble a James Nachtwey photo circa 1996, this place represented a certain level of hope. Afghanistan is place filled with so much unhappiness that sometimes a little glitz is needed. Naysayers will undoubtedly accuse me of naivete.

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May Issue of Militant Leadership Monitor Online

May 31st, 2010 No comments

Los Angeles- The May issue of MLM is out. Worked hard on this one. Enjoy! If you’re not already enjoying, subscribe! 

Ballots, Bombs, Bluster and Bullets

August 22nd, 2009 No comments

Afghanistan now sits in this awkward interim phase on this first day of Ramadan (Ramazan in Farsi) between the election and the official announcement of the preliminary results in about ten days. Allegations of fraud are being hurled back and forth between Karzai operatives and Abdullah’s campaigners and Carlotta Gall is claiming a few purple fingers actually were lopped off over in Nangarhar Province. Talk in Kabul is bubbling up that the was much more violence in the provinces than was originally thought while the capital was spared save for the Karte Nau incident. No one knows whether Karzai’s dreadful alliance of a who’s who of skeletons in Afghanistan’s closet will hold together beyond the next few weeks. Dr. Abdullah will not take a defeat lying down either  but the rumors of “Iranian-style” streets protests to come are being denied by those at his headquarters. For now, Afghanistan begins it’s lunar month of fasting and it’s politicians are just beginning to bicker. Where it will lead, no one here really has any idea.

Select, Elect,….but Protect?

August 21st, 2009 No comments
Fatima, a Hazara from Ghazni Province, said she voted for Karzai based on his promises to the Hazara leadership before the election cycle began. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Fatima, a Hazara from Ghazni Province, said she voted for Karzai based on his promises to the Hazara leadership before the election cycle began. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Yesterday’s elections in Kabul went off with  a few hitches but at least they went. People, mostly men, turned out in numbers that were substantial considering the threat this society is under. Within Kabul’s city limits, there was only one militant assault that I am aware of and it didn’t add up to much. There were plenty of attacks leading up to election day including a bizarre siege in a bank building the day before which left three men, likely Taleban members, dead and two Afghan National Police injured. Like Pakistan’s elections last year after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, there was an immense amount of anxiety leading up to the 20, August date. And like Pakistan, not nearly as much happened as insurgent leaders would have liked. There were disparate attacks carried out across the country but the Taleban could not build enough momentum to halt the election besides the districts the central government and the Independent Election Commission had already deemed unsafe and under control of “Anti-government elements.” I crossed the capital from north and south and east to west in what was an extraordinarily long, tense day. But Tajik, Hazara, Pashtun and Sunni and Shia and men and women came out to vote. The only group I couldn’t find were the illusive Uzbeks who had, according to my driver, all set off for points north in the Turkic heartland to vote and to begin the month of Ramadan which starts tomorrow morning.

According to an email I just received from a UNDP contact at the election commission, the preliminary results will definitely be announced on 3, September though the BBC site claims they will be called in the next few days. Sorry Beeb, I have to stick with official sources on this one. The donkeys have to come over the hill from Nuristan, I don’t know who’s telling the Beeb that the results will be called in the next two days.

The security around Kabul looks to have eased up today, either that or the police are as exhausted as everyone else. The security services touted how few people they lost on election day but the security shortfall was massive everyday leading up to the election. Kabul hasn’t seen this kind of violence in a very long time. The Halcyon days here are long over.

Kabul:Where the Green Zone is the Red Zone

August 18th, 2009 No comments

I was relaxing at breakfast this morning until the Sky News anchor quoted a Reuters report off the wire that two rockets had just struck the presidential palace deep inside Kabul’s green zone. Looked like I wasn’t going to relax at the hotel and write as planned. I called the taxi service and told them to swing by in exactly twenty minutes. I got dropped off near General McChrystal’s office, the site of Saturday’s early morning suicide bombing, and asked “Kujost arg-e-Karzai? (“Which way to the palace?”) Karzai’s American-trained guards first lied saying the rockets did not strike the palace at all and then sent me on my way. About 100 feet away, I talked to one of the private security guards I’d met on Saturday and he duly told me the rockets did indeed strike the palace, one in the kitchen and the other in some part of Karzai’s living quarters. For two hours, I tried to talk my way through the palace’s four different entry points eventually circumambulating the entire green zone. It was a total no go. Ironically, the only other people that showed up were the Kabul bureau of Sky News to confirm their own Reuters-quoted reporting and they had equally as difficult a time. In this instance, big budget, bureau journalism did not have an edge over my own shoe leather travails.

After such an enormous waste of time, I went to interview a higher up at one of candidate’s offices and realized I really needed a day off from the breaking news beat to focus on what’s truly important:Afghan domestic politics. Arriving back at the hotel, I flip on my laptop to see on the BBC site that there’s just been a suicide bombing on a convoy, on what I figured was Jalalabad Road. I’ll pass. The American’s bringing their Baghdad blast wall culture to Kabul is an unequivocal disaster and Kabul’s green zone is the most dangerous part of the city. As the Canadian Brigadier General said to me a Saturday, “It’s very difficult to stop a determined suicide bomber”. Peter Bergen said at a conference I attended “There will never be a Tet offensive on Kabul” regarding the Taleban’s lack of strategic ambition. I hope Mr. Bergen is right. Kabul is certainly not under siege from the NVA and Viet Cong but it is well within the Taleban’s sights. Blast walls work against President Obama’s hoped change of course in Afghanistan, for they entrench a war mindset on an already gravely embattled society. Blast walls can be made thicker and green zones can be enlarged and further militarized but unless they can reach the sky, they cannot solve Afghanistan’s Taleban problem.

Suicide Attack at NATO’s ISAF Headquarters in Kabul

August 15th, 2009 No comments
British and Afghan security forces hold the line after suicide attack rocked ISAF Headquarters in Kabul. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood.

British and Afghan security forces hold the line after suicide attack rocked ISAF Headquarters in Kabul. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood.

Kabul awoke to a good size suicide attack this morning at 8:30 a.m. Kabul-time killing several civilians and injuring five NATO ISAF troops. Twelve Afghan security forces were injured as well as six Afghan civilians. ISAF Commander General Stanley A. McChrystal blazed through to assess the situation escorted by Italian Carabinieri. McChrystal only said “I am concerned about anyone who is trying to kill innocent Afghans” before he and his guards barged through to the crime scene leaving the media in their wake.  Canadian Brig. Gen. Eric Trembley briefed the press about 50 metres from the site of the attack. A lone bomber worked his way through various checkpoints and detonated a VBIED in front of the main gate. A coup for insurgent intelligence gathering and an embarrassment for NATO  just five days before the presidential election. “It tells a lot about the Taleban code of conduct” Trembley told those assembled, referring to the tete-a-tete NATO and Mullah Muhammed Omar have been having this summer over the limiting of civilian casualties. I asked Trembley whether the bomber was working along or with another operative guiding him to the target. He stated that it was too early to get into anything that specific until the ANA finished conducting its forensic investigation. Italian, French, American, British and Canadian soldiers milled about while the local fire department dealt with the smoking debris. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack very close to the fortified blast walls of the American embassy in Kabul’s Orwellian diplomatic quarter.

I disconnected with my driver and was waiting around for a taxi when two educated local boys approached me in perfect English saying the such suicide attacks, the de rigueur method of the post-modern jihadist, are forbidden within the ideological confines of Islam.  One of them presciently  asked “Why do you think we muslims are doing this to each other?” Not wanting to get into a debate, I replied that there was a sickness that had permeated very deeply in the political core of the ummah, the global Muslim community, and things like literacy  and opportunity were the only weapons against such narrow barbarism. “What is your religion?” the other asked. “I’m a (Catholic) Christian” I replied.

“Ahh you Christians have big hearts. You are here trying to help us. Who is your bishop?”

I tried to explain that I’m an avid secularist which is unfathomable in such a pious, poor country where belief in God is the only thing millions have to cling to.

Bird’s Eye View of FOB Ghazni

August 14th, 2009 No comments
Looking at a Blackhawk about to take off out of window of an MI-8. World's colliding in the realm of military hardware. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Looking at a Blackhawk about to take off out of window of an MI-8. World's colliding in the realm of military hardware. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

We weren’t told we’d be refueling at an 82nd Airborne Forward Operating Base. Even seeing a base like this without an ISAF accreditation or being “embedded” (a concept I loathe) is highly unusual. The American soldiers who refueled us didn’t even look inside to see a chopper full of journo’s from coalition member states. They only interacted with the ANA. Ghazni is the place to be if one desires to be in or around “Obama’s Viet Nam” as the press unoriginally and condescendingly labels the fight for Afghanistan.