Archive for the ‘9/11’ Category
New York- Reading two very different books in the same day, I came across references to the college where I received my bachelors degree, San Diego State University. When far away from San Diego, like say in Brooklyn, SDSU remains in the long shadow of UCSD across town in gilded La Jolla. It is thought of as mostly a party school or a sports school–both of which are apt.
I’m perfectly happy of having gone there but it’s not exactly a place name of conversation topic in New York or Europe where I spend most of my time these days. When it is seldom referenced in popular culture, it is often in jest as when Bart Simpson says to Lisa, “Lis, you made the school worse than it already was. It wasn’t exactly San Diego State to begin with” in the 2003 episode The President Wore Pearls. (Fun fact: Julie Kavner, who plays the voice of Marge Simpson, graduated from SDSU’s drama program.)
In perusing the endnotes of Scott Shane’s Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone about the life and assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, I wanted to see what Shane had dug up on al-Awlaki’s time in San Diego where he preached at a mosque called Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami that is four blocks from my college apartment. The late Yemeni-American imam-turned-firebrand had enrolled in a masters program called Educational Leadership but it has never been precisely clear whether or not he completed the program with a degree.
Though al-Awlaki has been dead for over four years now, understanding his trajectory to militancy is critical. This is due in part to his posthumous influence via the Youtube hereafter on aspiring salafi-jihadis around the world from Paris to the IS’s illegitimate khilifah in centered on ar-Raqqah.
The fact that Anwar al-Awlaki was questioned for interacting with policewomen posing as hookers on a once notorious stretch of El Cajon Boulevard by the San Diego Police Department doesn’t seem to have tarnished his vaunted image among the self radicalized scanning through his videos online. Al-Awlaki was a philanderer, a deeply flawed man. This may have played a larger role than we realize in his own escalation into militancy upon leaving the US before being killed in a drone attack in al-Jawf Governorate bordering Saudi Arabia’s Najran Region on September 30, 2011. The execution of an American citizen without trial is a constitutional conundrum which simultaneously catapulted al-Awlaki into perpetual online martyrdom which is what he sought in his last years on the run.
Al-Awlaki’s irresponsible, self-destructive straying from his wife and children was dwarfed by his rage upon departing the US and reconnecting with his tribe as well as AQAP in Yemen. As he became angrier over time, he repeatedly portrayed the world in a stark, binary good vs. evil rhetoric not unlike George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, even using the quaint term “evildoers” in one of his video sermons minus the overemphasized Texan drawl.
Shane’s extensive endnote is inconclusive as far as al-Awlaki’s masters pursuit at SDSU is concerned but in being so, it sheds some light on the imperfections of information flow dynamics here in the West. George Washington University has in its online national security archive a slightly redacted document from someone at my alma mater highly recommending al-Awlaki for a doctoral program at…George Washington University.
Just as many things are still not fully understood about the precise timelines of lives of the 9/11 hijackers here in the US fifteen years later, three of whom met with al-Awlaki in San Diego and the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, something as straightforward as whether he graduated from SDSU continues to be a matter of speculation–though several accounts indicate that he never graduated.
As a graduate, that astounds me, or at least befuddles me that this is still not clear. The fact that my beloved SDSU has a faint connection to 9/11 in that al-Awlaki was a student and met the San Diego-based hijackers during that time has always left me unsettled.
Then in reading The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by David J. Morris, there are a couple of references to SDSU and even North Park, a neighborhood where I spent a lot of my time. The page pictured at left mentions an Iraq war veteran who is attending SDSU while grappling with PTSD at a Mission Valley clinic that deals with Cognitive Processing Therapy.
Both of these SDSU references are actually part of a unified larger continuum of the pre and post-9/11 era. Al-Awlaki was living in San Diego, the West Coast heart of the military-industrial complex, and met with al-Qaeda suicide attackers ostensibly well before he himself was radicalized. Now there are veterans of the terror wars attending the very same school where one of the world’s preeminent anglophone salafi-jihadi ideologues briefly went before ultimately leaving San Diego for greener pastures in northern Virginia. From there he ultimately joined the global jihad in Yemen, his ancestral homeland.
The pivot point that pairs these two phenomena is the strategically horrendous blunder of invading Iraq. Al-Awlaki had initially been sympathetic to the victims of the 9/11 attacks–at least publicly– particularly in the context that a widespread domestic backlash to mass casualty salafist terrorism on the American homeland would have on the American Muslim community writ large. Nor did he loudly decry the American-led military response against the Afghan Taliban immediately thereafter. From his redoubt in Yemen many years later, al-Awlaki stated, “with the invasion of Iraq and continued US aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the US and being a Muslim” with no mention of the intervention in the Afghan civil war in which al-Qaeda thrived.
The size of the American military footprint in urbanized Iraq with its rather highly concentrated population centers in comparison to that in Afghanistan was vastly greater, thus resulting in a far higher casualty rate on both sides. With San Diego County’s network of military installations including Camp Pendleton, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Naval Base San Diego and so forth, San Diego would transform into a hub for returning veterans of the terror wars. So my one-time hometown, the city and university where I lived my happiest days, is deeply connected to both the before and after of 9/11 unlike perhaps any other place in the country.
SDSU is not brand name, haughty ivy league institution that connotes automatic success accompanied by lifetime bona fides. It is a large, inexpensive, egalitarian school where you have to make your own way, where there is no guarantee of even graduating between the sun and the party lifestyle that are entwined with enrollment and the natural geography of the campus. SDSU is not Harvard to be sure, and that’s part of what I’m proud of about having been a student there. A unique place where skateboarders, soldiers and a future salafist have all mixed at one time or another. I don’t know any other place like it.
Paros- Four years ago today I finished this decade-long documentary project about what was then called ground Zero in lower Manhattan. When 9/11 took place in my city, I told myself I would follow the story wherever I could for as long as I could. It took me to Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Hamburg, the Republic of Georgia, Jordan, Iraq, Bangkok, Malaysia, and countless other locales as the “War on Terror” unfolded. I then kept returning to New York City, my home, for each subsequent anniversary.
Ground Zero is now the site of One World Trade Center, a hub for New York City’s tourism industry. The city has been rebuilt where it was thrashed by the largest suicide attack in history. Ground Zero buzzes with curious visitors posting the requisite photos to social media but the memory lays there, heaving with silent grief underneath flowing water and cool black stone.
9/11 unequivocally changed our world. We are living in a less safe, less just world today in my judgement. Freedoms have been curtailed as the United States has evolved into a low key surveillance state in response. Afghanistan is still in a state of war. Iraq has been broken likely irreparably. Then the ‘Arab Spring’ happened. It resulted not in a well spring of democratic growth as many initially hoped but inadvertently acted as an enabling factor for the spread of cancerous salafi-jihadi ideology to the point of holding territory by the most vile of non-state actors.
9/11 must be remembered with calm dignity, not be opportunistically exploited with jingoism or crass populism. A vigil of the spirit.
New York- Milling around the the 9/11 memorial the other day, I looked at one random, small cluster of names engraved above on of the two massive cascading fountains where the roots of the twin towers once intertwined with the earth. Though 9/11 is described as an attack on the United States or an attack on the West as a whole. reading over this small list made it feel as if the mass casualty event in New York was an attack on globalization itself for lack of a better term.
In this sample of victims it jumped out at me that one of them–Ehtesham Raja–was Pakistani. Then scanning across, I read Karamo Baba Trerra which appeared to be a West African Muslim name. Indeed he was Gambian. Then there is Jie Yao Justin Zhao from Guangzhou, China. Then Joyce Rose Cummings. a Trinidadian. The sole American in the frame of my photo is Donald Joseph Tuzio who’d lost his job and was only in the WTC that day to take part in a job-hunting workshop that was a mandatory component of his buyout package.
The diversity in just these five names–two of whom were Muslim–demonstrates that 9/11 was a global event whose magnitude devastated families from the Caribbean to China, from West Africa to South Asia. When I would photograph the anniversaries over the years at what was then referred to as Ground Zero, I was always struck by the diversity of families who arrived to collectively grieve and remember. Al-Qaeda killed Muslims from the beginning. Many of the victims in the East Africa embassy attacks were adherents. Most of the victims of salafist terrorism today are in fact Muslim.
While for me seeing the footprints of the towers evokes a somber feeling, the memorial is a place buzzing with life. Every visitor has a smartphone. People are smiling taking photos as tourists tend to do when on holiday. Then a policeman walks by and wipes the dewy spring moisture off of one particular name as if to honor it. I notice a rose on Mother’s Day wedged into the name of a victim who was carrying an unborn child. A place that once stood as global business incarnate with people from around the world is now host to every imaginable emotion in the spectrum.
New York- I don’t ordinarily post the work of others here on TWD (unless they happen to be close friends) but I am thoroughly impressed by this interview by Jon Stewart of the disgraced former NYT reporter Judith Miller. It is as if in his final leg of The Daily Show, he treading into an area where professional American television journalists fear to and have feared to for years now.
His interview with Miller is both sharp and devastating. She refuses to admit that she bears any direct responsibility for anything having to do with disseminating White House or Pentagon propaganda that led to the war in Iraq. If one looks at the long view, this then led to the emergence of the angry man of Camp Bucca, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. You can draw a line from events in 2002 all the way to the present. The forcible dismantlement of the Ba’athist security state in Iraq in March and April 2003 led to one of the most ominous security vacuums on our planet.
I remember on the early morning of September 11, 2011 as journalists gathered in lower Manhattan for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I had Miller in my group as we were escorted to the stands from where we would watch the Bushes and Obamas awkwardly stand side by side. I wished Miller, her former colleague Thomas Friedman who said the invasion of Iraq was “unquestionably worth doing,” and other like-minded travelers would atone for what they had written and bear responsibility. I also felt and still feel that they should be stripped of their influential perches in our media landscape beset by ethical frailty and beset by intellectual dishonesty. The Iraq war was unquestionably a failure.
Stewart’s questioning of Miller is righteous in the best sense of that term. Watch below.
New York- An image I shot back in 2008 in Karachi was employed to tell the tragic story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s disappearance and murder in the early days of the War on Terror. The programme, titled Witness: Remembering Daniel Pearl’s murder aired on BBC on 17 February.
Pearl’s gruesome beheading was a watershed moment in the post-9/11 period. More than two years on, the beheadings of Nick Berg in Iraq and Paul Johnson in Riyadh signaled a spate of horrific online violence where the internet became a conduit devoid of the most fundamental human dignity. With the recent beheading videos coming out of Syria, the Pearl case now in hindsight appears to have been a template, albeit a comparatively more elaborate plot, for the terror that was to come. Orchestrating such brazen executions in the cause of supposed ‘defensive’ jihad in salafi Islam seems to have become a norm.
I remember being gripped by the Pearl case after returning home from covering the war in Afghanistan and hoping against hope for a positive outcome. I’d done my university thesis in Pakistan in late 2000 which provided me with the last glimpse of the ummah before Afghanistan. I’d mixed with petty traders, warm tailors, drug dealing scoundrels with wild stories to tell from the frontier, gem stone smugglers, and gun runners. My memory of the country was fond. The hostage drama that unfolded had me reexamining my own experiences in the country.
Then in 2008 I walked in his and the plotters footsteps in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Karachi to create the visual narrative for a report being done in Washington by a student group at Georgetown University. When it was finally published in January 2011, I barely had a moment to reflect upon it as the Arab uprisings were in full force, leading me to cover the war in Libya.
More of my images and the completed projected can be viewed in a free e-book called The Truth Left Behind: Inside the Kidnapping and Murder of Daniel Pearl.
Barcelona- Today is just another 9/11 anniversary it seems. On twitter, everyone is consumed by Obama’s speech last night vowing to “destroy” the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The brutality of al-Qaeda has been rhetorically lessened with foolish tracts saying that Ayman al-Zawahiri disowned Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s movement because AQ 1.0 was put off by IS’s even harsher methods as if there has been a collective forgetting of what al-Qaeda and its allies have done over the years. This is an absurd assertion.
The split is based more on divisive interpretations of salafi ideology, a supreme contest of egos within a very violent subculture, and plain envy. Bin Laden was not primarily a takfiri (one who maintains the authority to declare lesser Muslims or minorities within its reach ‘apostates’) but in his alliance with the Deobandi Taliban he was simultaneously focused on both the near and far enemies. Baghdadi has thus far been more narrowly focused in constructing his personality cult whereby the desired targets of IS’s aggression are the Shia and other related sects and those affiliated with regional regimes they deem worthy of death. To say one group is more ‘brutal’ than the other is a futile comparison. It is far more about the ebb and flow on the centers of power within trends in global militancy than a zero sum game.
Here in Barcelona, it’s Onze de Setembre (National Day of Catalonia), a celebration of Catalan martyrdom that is experienced as hyper localized nationalism. Drums beat, scooters beep and a rivalry in the heart of the first world rages on.
To me, it is simply 9/11.
For a solid decade I would return from wherever I was in the world to New York to document the goings on at the World Trade Center which for many years was referred to simply as ‘Ground Zero.’ For all of the anniversaries I attended in order to document, I did so without accreditation except for the final one–the 10th–when I applied for permission from the Bloomberg administration to photograph the two visiting presidents. That last few years since the 2011 shoot, I haven’t returned to the World Trade Center.
Yesterday here in Catalunya it was in fact the furthest thing from my mind as I hung out with friends at the beach in Barceloneta. Nor did I think about the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud either. Things that I have felt and witnessed and people I once knew who have died have since been enveloped into history as once so viscerally palpable anniversaries have often morphed into more ordinary days as the healing current of time passes by.
We often think of history in a linear form comprised of a 365 day year based on the Gregorian calendar with momentous anniversaries in one-year increments up until the 5th year and in five year increments thereafter (and later potentially being noted in 10 year increments) i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th anniversaries being momentous and then culminating (for now) at the 10th which forms a time capsule known as a ‘decade.’
But for the people directly affected, is today’s 13th anniversary any less significant than the 1st back in 2002, the 5th in 2006 or the 10th in 2011? History as we live it is a living, breathing organism. Time never does stand still. I may be in the fever of minority linguistic politics here along the western Mediterranean as if Franco died yesterday but I cannot escape the track in which the events that day 13 years ago defined the course of my adult life. Though I no longer rush back to New York to document the day, it will forever remain in my aching heart.
Barcelona- After an egregiously long sabbatical in the chunky, ‘polar vortex’ torn streets of NYC, I finally made it back across the Atlantic. I put plans for returning to Iraq’s Green Line and Ukraine’s chaotic Donbas region on hold for the time being to work on a couple of armchair pieces. As a perennial freelancer, sometimes a sure thing outpaces an unsafe bet and so I’m remaining in the West for the moment.
I brought loads of prints over to do some more photo walls as I had been doing the previous month in Long Island City. In my original idea conceived in 2000-2001, I had wanted to plaster prints up on either side of the Euro-Atlantic community to pique interest in the historical juncture of Central-South Asia in order to bring attention to that region’s political maelstrom by appealing to the public with its beauty. Such was not to be.
As I’ve alluded to in prior posts, those plans were imediately tosed out the window after 9/11 because it was going to involve obtaining an Islamic Emirate visa for Afghanistan which was immediately unrealistic despite my efforts of reaching out to members of the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan and Flushing, Queens just before the attacks.
Now well over a decade on, I hope to close that loop albeit under far different circumstances. Below I’ve posted snapshots of my final two projects in the U.S. Hope to do some new ones here very soon…
New York-The other wekend I finally got around to a rather simple task that I’d wanted to do over a decade back. Before 9/11 I had a vision of doing guerrilla art installations around New York and other major Western cities to explain to the rest of the world (or at least urbanized Western city dwellers) about what was going on in Afghanistan well beyond the bellicosity of the Taliban movement and its international critics. Afghanistan at that time was incredibly isolated in terms of the global economy and its discordant political representation abroad. I wanted people to understand Afghanistan in a pre-1979 sense.
I was inspired by the splendid per-war imagery of a Vermont-based photographer named Luke Powell who’d shot vivid landscape images of Afghanistan’s valleys and monuments that conveyed a powerful message about the country’s history and culture in a way that no day-to-day news image of war and pestilence ever could. What was remarkable to me about Powell’s photographs was that I found pirated versions of his prints hanging in the bazaars of Peshawar, Chitral, Quetta and so forth. His images had credibility amongst Afghans themselves as well as Pakistani bazaaris.
I had wanted to emulate an updated version of this concept and combine it with the illicit poster art craze of the late 1990s and early 2000s to create and artistic meme with a message. Beauty with a subtle educational agenda. I was in sporadic communication with the Taliban before 9/11 in hopes of them granting me access to the territory they controlled literally or nominally.
Then I woke up one morning in September and was suddenly inhaling ash pedaling as fast as I could muster to the World trade Center. In an instant I went from being a pragmatic idealist to a witness to the brutality of our living history. A series of rather absurd starkly bifurcated polemics would quickly follow: the 9/11-everything-changed-sts and the 9/11-nothing-changed-ists and the with-us or with-the-terrorists.
I still have not entirely given up on those original ideas, just procrastinated to the point of near abandonment. I was looking for something in a dusty drawer and came across these old prints from 2000-2003 which were beginning to yellow ever so slightly at the edges. I finally went to slap them up in a nondescript locale. Better late than never as is said.
I still hope to do a coffee table book of the best of these prints someday but rather than with an über cool northern Italian, London or Brooklyn-based publishing house I will most likely self-publish The Fabled City (as my project was known before 9/11). As I’m not even remotely close to being a famous photojournalist in that industry’s coveted inner circles, self-publishing via Blurb or something similar is probably the only way forward for me at this point. I see this initial installation as a step toward–a gateway if you will–that goal.