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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

 

My Friend’s New Blog

July 27th, 2009 No comments

Picture 3Jen Marlowe has a new blog on the ever disputed Levant on PBS’s World Focus site. Her first post relates a personal experience of al-Nakhba (“the catastrophe”) by a Palestinian friend of hers. I will be plugging some of Jen’s other posts as well from Palestine.Picture 4

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An Old Website That Is Still Up…

July 15th, 2009 No comments

I’m sitting around trying to finish my book project before my birthday this fall (a goal I set on my last birthday). I’m googling this and that from my journeys before and during the Bush years and am very pleased to see that the website of a long deceased colleague is still operating. If you’re an Afghanophile or war photography junkie, please visit Postcards from Hell by A. Raffaelle Ciriello. Raffe was a man who’s impetuous, adventurous life was ended by a young Jewish conscript while reporting on a battle in downtown Ramallah. It is interesting and kind of weird that someone can be dead for seven years and their life’s work is still online for all to see if all know where to look. The  dark irony about his site is a lot of it is dedicated to other reporters that died. Only an Italian can genuinely look stylish in a war zone and somehow not appear to be pretentious. Ciao Raffe! Sei mancato ragazzo! 


Raffe’s Last Video March 13th, 2002 Ramallah, Palestine

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The Islamist Revolution

April 17th, 2009 No comments

crooke-bookI attended an event with Alastair Crooke, author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution and veteran EU Middle East diplomat at the New America Foundation here in Washington. The event was webcast on the The Washington Note and Crooke’s presentation was little short of spellbinding. Flanked by Amjad Atallah and Daniel Levy from NA’s Middle East Task Force, Crooke took the audience through the rise of modern political Islam in the late twentieth century beginning with the earthquake of Imam Khomeni’s revolution up until the present. In a thorough bit of comparative historical analysis, he wove the narrative of the pairing of an evolving Protestant Reformation in the heart of what would become modern Europe with Enlightenment capitalism and the invisible hand. This pairing according to Crooke, led to the rise of the Western notion of strong individualism which would later clash with Islam’s concepts of communitarian social equity and justice. The invisible hand was meant to maximize human, and therefore individual, wealth. Combined with a belief in the “spontaneous natural order of the body politic” spurred by competitiveness would form the two pillars of modernity that would bring Islamic societies to near extinction with the rise of the (Westphalian) nation state and attendant human rights. 

According to Crooke, “powerful, unitary nation-states were necessary to create economic markets.” Thus with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire came a modern dark age for traditional Islamic societies. Western Europe’s Sykes-Picot version of the Middle East, creating definable state borders with centrifugal client leadership (and subsequent dependent economies) was devastating to regional cultural order. Using the rise of Kemalism in Turkey as a prime example, Crooke noted the Armenian Genocide and the state orchestrated oppression of Kurds as “Mountain Turks” and transfer of the indigenous Greek population as an enormously destructive result of revolutionizing Turkey from a fluid multi-ethnic empire to a monolithic market-state modeled after Western Europe.

In the aftermath of the Great War, simultaneously, Marxism was attacking Islamist ideology from the bottom up squeezing religion out of the political space as revolutionary communism mimetically competed with branded Western capitalism throughout most of the twentieth century, much of it through imperial or neo-imperial enterprise. Genuine political Islam says that “social justice must be subordinate to markets” making it diametrically opposed to the “two pillars of modernity” mentioned above. Crooke mentioned that what most in the West consider “revolutionary” Islam is in fact a counterrevolutionary brand of the faith’s implementation of politics. Islam’s counterrevolution is “dogmatic and anti-heterodox”. The West has used this form of Islamism in it’s containment strategies of “Nasserism, Marxism, Shi’ism, and Soviet Communism” to name several. 

Containment strategies in their inherent quality are by and large a short term, ill conceived methodology that often give birth to larger, less reconcilable quagmires. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the mujahideen in 1980′s Afghanistan are examples of this flawed policy. Amjad Atallah noted that U.S. policy in Cold War Afghanistan didn’t differentiate between sponsoring Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami and Ahmad Shah Masood’s Jamiat-i-Islami and even encouraged the more virulent ideology of the former rather than the more pragmatic Islamism of the latter.

The West, he said, ends up on the wrong side (of history) with its policies and actions (that are reinforced) with its own dogma and literalism. Having Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia (read: apostate) on the “throne” in Baghdad, the seat of Abassid glory, is akin to Hulagu’s sacking of the city’s ancient incarnation in the twelfth century and heretical Mongol siege of the city in the eyes of Salafis

Speaking on the transformational ascendency of Hassan Nasrallah across the breadth of the Middle East among Sunni and Shi’i alike, Crooke said “If you want to get a taxi quickly to the airport in Doha, wait until Nasrallah gives a televised speech”. Nasrallah’s charisma breaching entrenched social and doctrinal boundaries in part highlights the struggle for the future of the whole region within the Middle East’s competing indigenous ideologies since the era of classic great power competition in the Middle East has ended and a new era of affinities both regional and imported, rather than hardened alliances, has been ushered in. 

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