Archive for the ‘9/11’ Category
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.
New York-The reverberations of the misguided American policies following 9/11 paired with the continued spread of anti-authoritarian Arab salafism, South Asian Deobandism, evolving Levantine takfirism and the like amongst the global Sunni community*–both in terms of rhetoric and ground reality–are being felt today.
*Although it must be noted that actual adherents to kinetic radicalization are very few in absolute numbers relative to the global population of Islam’s principle denomination.
I recently appeared on BBC Arabic in my colleague Murad Shishani’s report on the first documented American suicide bomber in Syria, a young guy originally from West Palm Beach, Florida named Moner Mohammad Abusalha.
Clearly the only thing the Bush-era/neoconservative speak did was further polarize vulnerable communities and individuals. Suicide bombing has long since metastisized from somewhat of a curiosity among those studying war-fighting in the historical/tactical realm to such a common practice it is barely worth a mention in the news cycle unless its victim is someone of great importance.
The NYPD’s terribly clumsy spying program here on New York City’s masjids has only made immigrant communities here turn inward, wary of interlopers. Instead of developing methods of genuine inter-communal dialogue (while keeping in mind the now radioactive concept of ‘assimilation’ on which there is no longer a broadly accepted societal compact on just what that precisely means today), there seems to have only been an unfortunate increase in radicalization.
Judging by outward appearance in the outer boroughs, some hijabis are becoming niqabis and young dishdasha-clad boys in Air Jordans who hail from a lungi-wearing and shalwar kameez cultural milieu are being indoctrinated by agenda-bearing mentors. (I’m very narrowly referring to my personal observations of the minority but growing pro-Bangladesh Jamiat-e-Islami sector of the Bangladeshi Sylheti and Chittagonian community here.)
Last week Dr. Abdullah Abdullah’s presidential campaign convoy was attacked by suicide bombers outside the Ariana Hotel in Kabul just before this weekend’s runoff election that will hopefully finally signify an end to the stultified malaise of the Karzai era. And this morning we learned that ISIL had gained control of large swaths of Mosul in Ninewa Governorate in a post-America Iraq that seems to be falling apart save for Basra and parts of the deep south.
The world as a whole cannot seem to move beyond impudent, self-destructive polemical tracts with the vitriolic terminology they entail. As we are presently witnessing in Ukraine, there is apparently a fight between ‘fascists’ and ‘terrorists’ there. The language being employed by all sides in that conflict spans from Stalingrad to the Chechen wars.
These unhelpful, reductive terms obscure reality and inflame conflict.
New York- As I attempted to chronicle the major events of the first decade of the 21st Century, I scurried all over the world applying for visas through arcane processes at hard to find embassies and consulates, felt the thud of earth shattering ordnance , and did my best to get an intellectual grasp on all that was unfolding around me. Most of what I had shot in New York revolved around events at Ground Zero, but this milieu of civil disobedience was something different yet ultimately related to 9/11 in the larger scope of things.
In late August 2004, a time that was arguably the zenith of neoconservative power with Bush on the cusp of his second term, conservatives were rallying in New York of all places. According to its detractors New York was/is the cradle of comparatively liberal media save for Murdoch’s media properties. But New York was also where 9/11 principally happened which neoconservative operators used to consolidate their hold on executive power in D.C. In other words, these were strange days in the city.
That year I pragmatically stayed home to financially recover from the chaos I’d created for myself from 2000-2003. Wars don’t wait and when you run off to one after having made a decision from one day to the next, it is to your own detriment upon your return home unless you come from an old money or nouveau riche background. So that year I looked inward to shoot a story at home and along came the Republican National Convention protests that August.
On August 30, 2004, I followed hordes of people from Dag Hammarskjold Plaza to Madison Square Garden where the convention was being held. Next thing I know I was shooting shoulder to shoulder with James Nachtwey, Antonin Kratochvil and many of the other war photographers from the VII and Magnum agencies (all with the latest digital SLR cameras bestowed upon them by corporate sponsors I guessed).
I was in a weird place with relation to money and technology: I could get to events and shoot them but as I was an analog holdout I couldn’t compete with everyone else who’d already long since made the switch to digital well before Iraq in 2003. I could just afford to shoot and develop actual film but not buy a digital body and lens kit. Meaning that I couldn’t file ultra competitive breaking news stories. I therefore had to take a long view of history as it was happening since while I had the access to world events, I didn’t have the technology to get my work out there at the time. So I have this large analog film archive that I treasure to this day.
By August 2004, the Iraq war was in full swing with American troops battling Jaish-e-Mahdi men in Najaf while the Afghan war was a forgotten backwater. Even though New York and DC were attacked by salafi-jihadis on 9/11, GIs were somehow fighting Shia militiamen instead. Sure I’m being rather simplistic in pointing that out, but purposefully so.
New York- With the partial election results from the April 5 vote trickling out from the Independent Election Commission (IEC) along Jalalabad Road on the edge of Kabul favoring Abdullah Abdullah, the world may witness the first peaceful transition of state level power in Afghanistan in post-royalist modern day history. Though Abdullah does not appear to have the absolute majority required under the Afghan constitution (50.01%), he maintains a healthy lead with an estimated 44.9% vs. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai trailing with 35.8% and Zalmay Rassoul far behind at around 11%. This will likely lead to a runoff election in late May as Abdullah and Ghani have no interest in forming a coalition as yet.
Hamid Karzai has effectively been in power since the conclusion of the Bonn Agreement in December 2001 when he was perceived as the West’s man in Afghanistan. How times have changed.
As Karzai grew increasingly erratic, paranoid, and hostile to donor nations who had troops occupying his country over the years, he seemed to become a rather reclusive creature of the presidential palace in Kabul’s fortified green zone. If Abdullah were to take power that would upend the ethnic calculus of foreign diplomats and intelligence agencies following 9/11 that the head of state must hail from a Pashtun tribe, preferably from the south. Abdullah, while being half Pashtun, is generally thought of simply as a Tajik with his partnership with Massoud that painfully ended on September 9, 2001.
The Americans and their allies felt that ethnicity should trump other traits in Afghanistan in order to placate the agrarian populace from whom the Taliban emanated in the mid-1990s. Similarly, these same people strongly felt that the leader of a post-Saddam Iraq must be a Shia in order to properly represent that country’s oppressed majority. In that regard, the two principle democracy export projects were not genuinely democratic at all. If these disastrous neoconservative legacy projects had been truly democratic in nature, than an Uzbek or Tajik should have been able to theoretically be the leader of Afghanistan and a Kurd or Assyrian the leader of Iraq. Instead, American and various participating EU member states’ policies did nothing but reinforce preexisting notions about what should be the mother tongue of the imposed national leader or what sect he must belong to in order to satisfy the electorate.
For Washington, moving past Karzai is critical in light of its failure to reach a Bilateral Security Agreement and NATO n=unable to hammer out a Status of Forces Agreement regarding the presence of foreign troops beyond the slated withdrawal date come the end of the current year. Both Abdullah (above) and Ghani (below) have indicated they will sign such agreements if in power. For all of the effort that has been put forth and lives lost, the Taliban have never been effectively quelled. The U.S. may be tamping down its planned-for forces numbers from 10,000 troops to possibly closer to 5,000 or less according to Reuters.
One should hope that a new leader will bring a modicum of progression to Afghanistan’s internecine affairs. But Abdullah was Massoud’s deputy-the Taliban’s archenemy on the battlefield-and Mohammed Omar is still at large unlike bin Laden and it is unlikely his most strident foes will have forgotten that. Look what they did to Burhanuddin Rabbani after all? Almost exactly a decade on from the killing of Massoud by Maghrebi jihadis in Khoja Bahauddin, a Taliban turban bomber struck the former president. Grievances are seldom forgotten, particularly when truth and reconciliation have never been achieved in a land as pained as this one.
For there was never unanimity among relevant players (Pakistan, and even Iran in certain circumstances) about how Afghanistan should move forward beyond the formal collapse of their Kandahar-based movement in November-December 2001. This goes into massive geopolitical tangents about not having a proper mechanism to resolve once and for all the simmering Kashmir conflict between Pakistan and India to say nothing of the Kashmiris themselves and China and the enmity between Iran and Pakistan. With bizarrely-ruled Turkmenistan officially ‘neutral’ and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in varying degrees of stultified dictatorship, Afghanistan is and will remain a geopolitical laboratory for some time to come.
But if it can move beyond its leader in power since January 2002, that will be a step beyond the predicament in Iraq where Maliki is seeking the 3rd term in a vote a few days from the time of this writing that may likely further ensconce the bloodletting there while hindering political progress verging on the dictatorial.
The measures of progress in Afghanistan can be interpreted through a wide array of prisms. Below I am using the images below to make a simplistic, unscientific contrast based on my own frustrations derived from visual observations rather than data points.
Does progress establish order or is preexisting order necessary to foment progress?
What is the connection between the disparate images below? The plot to destroy the World Trade Center and the massacre of the Shia Hazara people of central and northern Afghanistan stemmed from parallel jihadi milieus operating in southern and eastern Afghanistan simultaneously-Deobandi Taliban and Salafi Arab. So a shiny new tower rising from the ashes in lower Manhattan and the Hazara living in relative peace are in fact very much related imagery.
New York- I have an article out in this month’s edition of the CTC Sentinel about the evolution over the last two decades of the fight for the North Caucasus which has morphed a great deal. In my view, Syria has been a game changer with regard to Chechens and other ethno-linguistic nationalities from that region fighting with abundant documentation outside their homeland. I first encountered members of the Chechen community in Georgia in 2002. The stories of their under reported struggle fascinated me.
Personally, I was in an early career lull between 9/11 back here in NYC and covering the Afghan war yet before the Iraq would begin in 2003. I was roving around the Levant and the Caucasus in the summer of 2002 looking for original stories to cover on my own. Sure there were the mostly crude analogies to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan of a grass roots holy war being fought by righteous bearded guys against cruel, drunken Russian officers and their hapless young conscripts, but I wanted to meet ordinary people whose lives were gravely affected by the war that solidified Putin as the Russian Federation’s post-Yeltsin czar.
I’d wanted to meet Ruslan Gelayev (an infamous side-witching warlord present in northeastern Georgia at the time) and perhaps travel with his mujahideen unit onward to Ingushetia and Chechnya. I ultimately decided that the risk didn’t measure up to the reward, particularly in the case of being a freelancer with a story no one in the West much cared about anyway. I also wanted to make sure I was back in New York to document the one year anniversary of 9/11 which was of paramount importance at that time to me.
I settled for trekking around villages populated with refugees who had crossed from souther Chechnya in the autumn of 1999. I ended up staying in what I determined was basically a hostel for foreign volunteers heading northward through the ravines of the Greater Caucasus range to wage war against a dehumanized enemy. Russian soldiers and officers from various federal organizations like the OMON were portrayed as soulless cannon fodder in muj propaganda videos produced in the GCC which were used to draw attention to the fight for Chechnya among Arab audiences. These videos–some of which I were shown by Chechens in Tbilisi–painted the conflict as a righteous cause. The whole situation was a mess and Georgia itself was in a state of contained chaos back then.
One of the major points I have tried to make in my new piece is that propaganda has–over time–become a kind of new reality. From the fantasies of the Lubyanka to the web forum hosts of the Gulf, Chechens are other North (and South) Caucasians are now really, undeniably fighting abroad. I remember being at a terrorism conference in Washington in the mid-2000s and a young Marine officer stood up during a Q & A session and spoke of his unit having fought ‘Chechens’ in Iraq. But when pressed, he had no method of verifying this. Of course there are Chechens who are semi-indigenous to Iraq from their expulsion to the Ottoman empire–though that nuance was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Then there were the stories of Chechens fighting ISAF troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Army encountering Chechens in various battles in the FATA. But not one of these assertions was ever proven with even a shred of evidence.
Now, however, Chechens (many coming from the EU or those who were already present in the Arab world), Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Georgian Kists, Tatars and all sorts of other guys are indeed fighting in Syria. It is as if the FSB and GRU’s dream has come true…albeit over a decade too late. This situation serves several interested parties but in my view does a great disservice to the Chechens themselves. As a colleague and friend messaged me earlier this year: “[It is] sad what has happened to my people.”
When Chechen rebel officials were asking for the internationalization of the situation in their republic, they were ignored. When moderate Syrian rebels asked for a no-fly buffer zone along the Turkish border, they were ignored. Then when these places descend into nihilism, people condemn them devoid of context.
The Chechens were villains in poorly scripted Hollywood films and novels but the reality has always been they were mostly an embattled people consumed with the fight for their own homeland as a opposed to global salafi-jihad in general. A pillar of this sort of thing was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (ie the Taliban) recognizing the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (the rebels).
This move of non-state diplomacy served to benefit neither party. The Taliban wanted to be recognized worldwide well beyond the just littoral states of the Arabian Sea and when their efforts were rebuffed, they recognized the ChRI government. Moreover, the late Aslan Maskhadov, who was then president of the ChRI, was less than thrilled with the Taliban recognition and apparently believed it to be a play by Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Movladi Udugov to strengthen their position within a growing rebel schism.
The outside world’s contempt in the form of apathy for the horrors perpetrated in Chechnya with it relegated to an “internal affair” for Moscow to resolve struck me as simply sad. Interventionists patted themselves on the back for aleviating suffering the Balkans and lashed themselves (to a far lesser extent) for doing nothing in Rwanda, while they let the internal affair in the Caucasus fester for years.
In other news, my CTC Sentinel article on Syria from 2012 was cited The War Report: 2012, edited by Stuart Casey-Maslen, published by Oxford University Press and an interview I did with a top former Afghan police official was cited in Policing Afghanistan: The Politics of the Lame Leviathan by Antonio Giustozzi and Mohammed Isaqzadeh by Columbia University Press.
New York- I have an article out now for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst on the eruption of violence in Iraq’s sprawling western al-Anbar Governorate that borders the relatively calm governorates of Ma’an, Amman, Mafraq, and the somewhat sketchier Zarqa in Jordan, the war ravaged governorates of Deir ez-Zor, and Homs in Syria and, lastly, Saudi Arabia’s Northern Border Region. Control of Anbar is a security issue for the entire region that surrounds it when considering the war in Syria that is attracting foreign fighters like moths to a flame and the transnational outlook of salafi-jihadi thought in a geographically contiguous KSA.
Anbar became the symbol of anti-American resistance in Iraq so much so that the restive northern town of Hawija in Kirkuk Governorate was referred to as the “Anbar of the North” by the US military at one time. Anbar became almost a catchall term for a place that was difficult to pacify through traditional counterinsurgency doctrine much less purely by means of military hard power. Only through cooperation and co-opting was the Sunni Arab insurgency there quelled for a time with the raising of Sahwa militias.
In the now bloody aftermath of the American troop withdrawal that took place at the tail end of 2011 and was hailed by President Barack Obama as ‘ending’ the Iraq war, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Da’wa Party die-hard prime minister, has done nothing to tamp down the collective ire of Sunni activists from Fallujah north to Hawija. Maliki’s moves have merely moved the Iraq war into a much more indigenous phase.
From accusing notable Sunni politcos of being involved in terrorism, a crime punishable by death in Iraq’s draconian penal code, to doing nothing to assuage the concerns of angry protestors, Maliki at least partly set the stage for the arrival of ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah fi Iraq w’al Sham, know locally by its acronym DAASH, and by its English acronym ISIL, into Fallujah’s city centre and sections of Ramadi and several villages in the respective surrounding areas at the outset of 2014.
The Iraqi elections are approaching quickly on the country’s troubled political horizon on April 30th. How ‘free and fair’ voting will be carried out under such circumstances is entirely unclear.
I’m illustrating this post with the following images because I personally feel much of what is going on in Iraq today can be traced directly back to the elaborately expensive yet incredibly poorly planned Bush/neo-conservative regime decapitation initiative called Operation Iraqi Freedom. That moniker seemed to me to say that 99.9% of all Iraqis were equally oppressed by Hussein’s dreadful Ba’ath Party policies.
By and large, yes, Iraqis were treated terribly by an anti-egalitarian strongman in a nation-state rife with deep tribal, sect, and ethnic division. But the late dictator could not have ruled for decades without a degree of genuine support fostered by patronage networks and adroit imbuing of his own ideology among at least a cadre of willing followers.
But it should be noted that not all the Sunnis fighting the state right now are doing so under the black banners of salafi-jihad. Though those banners make for exciting headlines, there is a viable retro or neo-Ba’athist strain of rebellion going on. Though it had been primarily focused more on the Kurds and territorial issues pertaining to the Green Line in terms of strategy and tactics, the Jaish Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN) and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq which has been described as a political front group for the JRTN–since gone operational, are kind of Ba’athist revivalist groups (or two parts of the same movement depending on perspective).These movements have sought to resuscitate Saddamist symbolism to garner the support of disaffected Iraqis tired of what they perceive as “Safavid” (Iranian)-influenced political primacy in Baghdad. Certainly DAASH/ISIL and JRTN have starkly different ideologies and objectives, but for now they have a common enemy in PM Maliki and those who defend and support him.
Though at the time of this posting Fallujah remains under rebel control in a shaky truce mediated by the Anbar Provincial Council, in my view things aren’t likely to improve overnight in terms of Anbar’s overall security in the lead-up this spring’s election.