New York- Upon reading the headlines today about the killing of Adnan el-Shukrijumah in South Waziristan, I thought I’d quickly post a short profile I wrote of him back in 2010. He was reportedly killed southwest of Wana in a joint raid carried out by the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps after fleeing Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan which has pushed jihadis and militants into the tribal Agency to the south.
New York- The other day I picked up The History of Armenia by Simon Payaslian somewhat at random off the bookshelf mainly to get some regional context for Georgian history during the Menshevik period and subsequent Bolshevik takeover shortly thereafter. Reading about Transcaucasia as a buffer zone between the Ottoman empire and the Russian imperial empire and the folding in of Western Armenia to the Turks, I recalled my visit to the medieval Armenian ruins of Ani today located in Turkey’s Kars Province abutting the border of the modern Armenian republic along the Akhurian River. I went to Ani and a number of other fascinating ancient sites around eastern Turkey while I killed time waiting for my Iranian visa to be processed back in Ankara.
It was at this time that I conceived the idea of the “Fabled City,” a photography project explore the lesser known interconnectivity of the ancient world in order to promote a healthy form of post-Cold War globalism in the present day. This idea died in an instant as I stood stunned in the ashes of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But I still have many of the images lying around as a kind of pre-9/11 detritus of memory. I thought I’d scan a couple of the prints and share them.
New York- It’s been twenty long years since Eyad Ismail, Ramzi Yousef and co drove that Ford Econoline Ryder rental van through the Holland Tunnel from Jersey City and parked a massive urea urea nitrate bomb in the parking garage of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Today was a quiet anniversary of an event largely forlorn in America’s national collective conscience in the shadow of the much more dramatic 9/11 attacks.
That wintry day two decades ago, the United States faced the beginning of a poorly outlined struggle against the decentralized doctrinal ideology of al-Salafiyya-al-Jihadiyya [Salafi-jihad]-a form of Islamism that articulates violent means to achieve political gains.
One of the points about the Sunni jihadi attack on New York in the winter of 1993 is that it marked an unexpected pivot from the perceived threat of highly centralized millenarian Shia revolutionaries and resistance terrorism epitomized by the rise of the clerical regime in Iran in 1979 and the formation of Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982.
This suited America’s so-called ‘moderate’ Sunni or Sunni-dominated allied nation-states just fine. These regimes could be free to espouse anything from the export of the Wahhabiyya strain of Salafism that serves at the state theology in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Marxist-tinged radical Arab socialism emblematic of the Hizb-al-Ba’ath (Ba’ath Party) or the post-Nasserist-turned-personality cult regimes of Egypt and the Maghreb. That was of course until these ideas either collided with American foreign policy as in the case of Iraq or collapsed under their own weight as in the case of Tunisia.
A friend who was stationed for the U.S. State Department in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province-where the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing took place-and later Bahrain, privately hinted to me this view of the Shia threat had changed little at least in some official channels even while the U.S. was propping up a succession of Shia prime ministers in its Iraq project and its Special Forces had fought alongside Shia irregulars to oust the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
But while the United States has done a great deal to degrade Ba’athism by invading Iraq in both 1991 and 2003 and aiding Syrian rebels bent on demolishing the Ba’ath in Syria at present, for instance, American foreign policy still remains fixated on Iran and Hezbollah and would still not dare challenge the vitriolic Wahhabism prevalent in the Arabian Peninsula. Though it is a fool’s errand to pit absolutist wings of Islam’s great schism against one another for purely hypothetical purposes, it has been transnational Salafism that has attacked the American homeland in 1993 and 2001 and in East Africa in 1998 and Yemen in 2000. If the two fronts of radical Islamism were simplistically made analogous to the space race, Khomeini may have successfully launched Sputnik first, but it was bin Laden who put a man on the moon.
We should be reminded that the 1993 attack was connected to 9/11 through the common thread of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed (KSM as he came to be referred to in intelligence jargon-inflected reporting) who is currently in the pre-trial hearing phase of the never ending, apparently never closing saga at the sweltering detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Though Yousef and the other 1993 plotters were not known to be formally pledged members of a then fairly embryonic al-Qaeda, they certainly were connected to the Peshawar-based jihadi nexus borne out of the CIA and Saudi funded anti-Soviet jihad that took place west of the Durand Line. The radicalization of the Masjid al-Farooq in Brooklyn and its refugee center-cum-Office of Services set-up visited by Abdullah Azzam was a definite factor in the 1993 plot. While the trial of the five accused al-Qaeda men in Cuba (KSM, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, and Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi) is referred to by the United States government as a “9/11 trial” In sense, it dates back the events of 1992-1993 in Brooklyn and Jersey CIty involving the men linked to KSM and the original plot against New York City.
Though there are conflicts about some of the precise specifics, one of Omar Abdel Rahman’s sons, Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman was nabbed (by the CIA, the Pakistanis or a mix of the two) in Quetta, Pakistan around the time of KSM’s apprehension when Pakistani authorities were hunting KSM. Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman is now a free man back at home in Egypt after having been listed as one of the CIA’s “ghost prisoners” (as was KSM) in 2005. He was released by the Mubarak regime in 2010.
KSM was apprehended in Rawalpindi, Pakistan ten years ago (though alternate sources may say he was actually captured in Quetta a month prior and the news of his arrest delayed by Pakistani authorities). His and four other co-conspirators’ painfully deliberating preliminary hearings has been described as being in “discord.” From what information does come out of the proceedings, it has partly the air of a circus what with Walid bin Attash (a.k.a. Khallad) making multiple outbursts about violations of attorney-client privilege and his defense lawyer wrapped in “a black abaya out of respect to the religious sensibilities of her client” according to a Guardian report.
The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg describes the awkward goings on at Guantánamo as primarily focused on the ways in which the five suspects were captured and the conditions under which they were detained before being exfiltrated from “black sites” to the American naval base on Cuba’s southeastern coast. In other words, these proceedings are not about 9/11 .
New York- On February 5th, I participated in a Huffington Post Live discussion entitled “Engaging The Taliban” (featured below) after the trilateral meeting between David Cameron, Asif Ali Zardari, and Hamid Karzai at the British Prime Minister’s country residence outside London. The topic concerned the withdrawal of NATO and ISAF troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 and the idea of some kind of vague peace deal with the Taliban midwifed by Pakistan and meant to take place in Qatar. That talk inspired my lengthy article in today’s edition of Asia Times Online (at left).
Afghanistan, once a byword for forgotten backwater, has had its war become internationalized to the absurd point where even a good number of tiny non-NATO, non-Western nations like Georgia (desire to join NATO), the United Arab Emirates (business interests, Islamic hearts-and-minds credibility), and Tonga (pressed by the UK) have inserted troops. And nations like these have done so in the context of their very diverse, often non-overlapping agendas.
For Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun ethnicities who house a sense of collective victimhood, this is the equivalent of having the fox guarding the hen house. Despite US troops and intelligence officers partnering up with warlords who were deemed “legendary” in the earliest days of Operation Enduring Freedom, there are certainly no angels among any of Afghanistan’s warlords of all hues despite a certain amount of rather theatric press reportage at the time. But renewed political power for the Taliban, whose enemies believe it would use to gain military power in the theater of Afghanistan’s gun-barrel politics, would be the surefire catalyst for a retro-themed civil conflict.
Some factional military leaders especially those of the Jamiat-i-Islami/Shura-i-Nazar type whose 1980s and 1990s-era leadership has suffered a string of assassinations attributed to the Taliban such as Burhanuddin Rabbani and Muhammed Daud Daud in 2011, may likely be content to exact retribution in some form. Abdul Rashid Dostum– another sworn enemy of the Taliban who knows that he is on their target list–could easily fully remobilize his Junbesh-i-Milli militia when push comes to shove.
But the risks for the integrity of the Pakistani state have changed entirely since the Taliban swept in Kabul in 1996. The creeping Talibanization of Pakistan creates an entirely different calculus. Additionally anti-Shia/Hazara violence in Balochistan being carried out by Lashkar-i-Jhangvi seems to be at an all-time high, a dire crisis which Pakistan’s political leaders refuse to effectively address. All sorts of Taliban factions are now operating in Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital, and inflaming tensions with the very territorial, virulently anti-Pashtun Muttahida Qaumi Movement which portrays itself as the guardian of mohajir identity in southern Sindh Province.
Part of the advantage of Pakistani hegemony over Afghanistan in the 1990s was that Islamabad could have groups that it was funding or manipulating outside of its territory. Afghanistan was relegated to an obscure, abandoned backwater that was essentially a free-fire zone for regional proxy warfare. States from all over Eurasia were dragged into Afghanistan’s internecine battles.
Following 9/11, the Afghan morass brought into most if not all of the armies of the Western world. At the same time, Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus was ejected after the fall of Konduz in late November 2001. Now as the West and its allies clamor for the exits, Pakistan, Iran and other regional powers will be forced to reassess their role in the future of Afghanistan. And it does not look promising. The Pentagon would like to leave a residual number of troops behind for training and “support” missions pending an as yet unspecified status-of-forces agreement being worked out with Kabul.
Though the United States ending its combat mission in Afghanistan has made a big splash in the news, there has already been an attrition on Western troop numbers. Dutch troops packed up and left Uruzgan Province in August 2010 when the Netherlands enfeebled coalition government collapsed over the issue. The Dutch ditched their Australian partners in the home province of Mullah Muhammed Omar which created a vacuum that had to be filled by American troops. The French, now deployed in Mali in what is perceived as being a more immediate to France’s national interests, entirely abandoned their combat mission in Kapisa Province in November 2012. The final French combat troops then departed Afghanistan altogether in December 2012. New Zealand plans on pulling out the majority of its troops from Bamiyan Province by April of this year.
In the understated words of noted Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai: “2014 and the Western withdrawal will not mean Pakistan’s problems are over.”
New York- I saw on twitter that the former Amir (leader) of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, died in Islamabad today (technically tomorrow in Pakistan). I photographed him campaigning against the vote in the February 2008 parliamentary elections. Hussain was reciting his boilerplate firebrand rhetoric urging the constituent members of the All Parties Democratic Movement to shun any political activities that further legitimated the rule of Pervez Musharraf. Hussain riled the entirely male crowd to keep the embers of jihad alight in both Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Despite the efforts of such political luminaries like the late Qazi Hussain Ahmad and Imran Khan, two days later, the general elections were held rather quietly and with a minimum of political violence and their results maintained the feudal status quo of the country’s dynastic politics. Pakistan should theoretically be gearing up for a new round of general elections next month seeing as the events in these photos took place five years ago.
Though Hussain, a stalwart of mainstream jihadi politics in Pakistan, has now passed from the scene, his comrade in Punjabi and Pashtun politics carries on. Imran Khan continues to portray himself in English-language media outlets as a sort of neo-anti-colonialist who is altruistically trying to eject American influence from the Pakistani polity. But the mere fact that he was leading a rally that had anti-Shia extremists from Jaish-e-Muhammad and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan in the mix gave me the impression he is a savvy political operator who provides Urdu-language audiences with quite a different message-if in no other way than by the visible company he keeps.
Khan is now marketing himself in the West as an anti-drone activist–fair play–but in some circles of the Pakistani intelligentsia, he is derisively referred to as “Taliban Khan” for his seeming appeasement of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. At least with Qazi Hussain Ahmad, you always knew exactly where he stood.
But very much unlike Hussain, he ranks 3rd on The Hotlist: 20 of the Hottest Men in Pakistan!
New York- I had a piece out in Friday’s edition of Asia Times Online about the massive diplomatic row belatedly caused the Chinese government’s new biometric passport. In one fell swoop, Beijing managed to ruffle feathers from the remotest corners of the South China Sea to the Himalayas. I did my best to write a long-ish piece within reason discussing most of the disputes highlighted by the passport as well as some that either were not or have not yet been discussed in the mainstream press.
There seems to be a now ingrained conventional wisdom that the era of large scale land wars between state powers is dead and that from the 1990s onward conflicts will be either state versus non-state or sub-state groups as in Lebanon 2006 or states fighting via non-state proxies versus discredited regimes as in Syria today. But as the short but hot August 2008 Russian invasion and brief occupation of the Republic of Georgia illustrated, a conventional land war in Eurasia or a maritime one in the cases of the East and South China Seas is far from out of the question.
China and India fought a brief but symbolic land war in 1962 when the PLA invaded Arunchal Pradesh and permanently occupied Aksai Chin while acquiring the Shaksgam Valley from Pakistan the following year in a quid pro quo arrangement with the Pakistani regime at the time (the Sino-Indian War). Then China invaded Viet Nam in 1979 as retribution for Hanoi forcibly deposing the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge and subsequently occupying neighboring Cambodia the previous year (the Sino-Vietnamese War). [It should be said that both of these conflicts can be discussed in the broader context of the Sino-Soviet split]
To young post-Cold War kids, these events may as well be consigned to ancient history but they are very much alive in the minds of the military strategists and foreign policy Mandarins of the aforementioned states. A lot has changed since 1962 in that India has attempted to form a nuclear balance against China-which had the deleterious diplomatic side effect of spawning a nuclear arms race with erstwhile China ally Pakistan. Viet Nam, meanwhile, pulled out of Cambodia in 1989, lost its Soviet patron in 1991, and is in the awkward process of drawing closer to the United States-and its ASEAN ally the Philippines-partly in reaction to its varied and sundry islet disputes with China to the north (even though both Hanoi and Manila have claims on the Spratlys).
One point I want to quickly clarify is that the so-called ‘nine-dash’ line that encompasses much of the South China/West Philippine Sea predates the Maoist takeover of China in 1949-but just barely. The New York Times has alluded to this pre-Communist cartographic assertion here and here. The line was originally drawn by the Kuomintang regime in 1947 and then adopted by Mao beginning in 1953 according to a Singaporean publication, Energy and Geopolitics in the South China Sea: Implication for ASEAN and Its Dialogue Partners. Some sources say the original U-shaped line was comprised of 11 dashes and later reduced to nine.
On a much lighter, soulful note, check out this Nina Simone gem I found on Youtube:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.