Archive for the ‘North Africa’ Category
New York- After what media attention was paid to the disgusting al-Mourabitoun attack on the Cappuccino Café and the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a story seeped out that I found disturbingly relatable. Among those killed was a vivacious Franco-Morrocan portrait photographer called Leila Alaoui. She had been in Burkina on assignment for Amnesty International and had been a patron at the cafe that morning when more young salafi-jihadi men launched another attack in West Africa where French and local forces have a large anti-terror operation underway (more on that later). Ms. Alaoui, who once lived here in New York, perished of her wounds well after interest in terrorism in an utterly obscure African country had piqued.
I had never heard of her or her work but when I saw it I was immediately moved by its depth and genuineness. Rich, finely toned portraits of ordinary Moroccans jump to life from 72 dots-per-inch. To make something interesting about a place so trammeled by mass tourism is an accomplishment in and of itself. I’ve often been motivated by trying to break through bureaucratized geographical borders and cumbersome cultural boundaries to obtain images others either cannot or have not. Ms. Alaoui turned her lens on a very accessible land yet on a people wary of intruding photographers with unclear intentions. Her work is sumptuous and inspiring to me. It stands alone in its beauty.
Many questions have been asked about the Ouagadougou siege such as the possible context of a global ideological competition between al-Qaeda, in this case AQIM and al-Mourabitoun, and IS or whether such an incident would have occurred at all if former President Blaise Compaoré had still been in power. Compaoré had links to terror organizations in that he inserted himself as an interlocutor in the conflict in northern Mali to put it succinctly. Ouagadougou had welcomed leaders of Ansar Eddine at one point during futile negotiations back in 2012.
But for myself, I must ask another question, one that has been bothering me for years. What happens when an incredible writer, photographer or analyst is cut down in the midst of their prime? It reminded me of when Alexandros Petersen, the then young author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West–an ode to Sir Halford MacKinder– was killed in the Taverna du Liban attack in Kabul two years ago, a restaurant in Wazir Akbar Khan I recall having a great night at with fellow journos during the heated 2009 presidential election. The work of victims like Alaoui and Peterson lives on of course, but they do not. I find this a difficult reality.
These images push me, they make me want to rush to B&H before departing to Burkina in defiance. Posted here without permission, posted with admiration.
New York- One of my first notions of this still new year is that the heyday of the ‘Arab Spring’ was firmly five years ago. The uprisings and revolutions of 2011 were either usurped, crushed, or soundly defeated, It is oft said that Tunisia is the Arab Spring’s singular success story due to its firm state structures (and perhaps proximity to the southern shores of the EU). But keep in mind that Tunisia produces the most mujahireen (emigrant jihadi fighters) per capita. The wunderkinds of the Benghazi media centre are now considered ‘veteran’ journalists, the ones that are still in the game anyhow. Libya is mostly a no go zone for journos like myself and an IS tentacle controls Qadaffi’s last bastion of Sirte. 2011 transformed France from the 2003 “freedom fries” Chirac era to one of the most proactive Western state actors in military interventionism today. Times have changed and not necessarily for the better.
2016 is looking rather bleak in terms of global counter radicalisation efforts and containing war fighting in the second, third and fourth world realms. Further discord has been seeping into Central and West Africa for years now and North Africa is still reeling from this chaos. Calling Iraq and properly functioning state today is absurd. The rump state headquartered in Baghdad will be lucky to maintain the territory is currently administers intact.
Despite analysts stating that IS gains are receding and the group is lashing out in the West as some form of asymmetrical offensive measure signaling that its territorial position is weakening, the so-called Kurdish question not only has not abated but has been greatly exacerbated. Though IS has greatly threatened the Kurds obviously, leaders from Suleimaniyyah to Afrin have used the conflict to firm their grip on land. The arc of Kurdish control south of Turkey and west of Iran has expanded and deepened. Meanwhile The conflict within Turkey itself has reignited and worsened. IS is now operational as far north and west as Istanbul within the Turkish republic and Ankara not only has no feasible strategy to defeat it but its obsession with Kurdish ethno-nationalism enables such expansion.
The West’s strategy to defeat IS is made up mostly of air strikes and press briefings. There is no cohesive strategy amongst the P3 (US, UK, France) and this is to the salafi-jihadis advantage. Russian scorched earth style warfare will accomplish nothing other than to smash cinder blocks and the vulnerable human beings trapped underneath them. Russia’s policies in the North Caucasus have been an abject failure. Anyone who knows the bleak history of the Russo-Chechen wars can’t be hopeful about Moscow’s efforts in a hyper fractious Syria.
Chinese naval encroachment in the South and East China Seas is not going away. The Philippine authorities are busy asking the united States Navy to return in a robust partnership to curb the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the Spratlys. The Chinese Navy and/or Coast Guard is also making incursions into the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islets which a theoretically pacifist Tokyo cannot stand. As all eyes remain on the fire and drama of a misunderstood Middle East, East Asia has a depth of inherent geopolitical conflict that is being largely overlooked by the rest of the global public.
Then there is Ukraine. From the Maidan to rebellion enmeshed with covert action to unabashed war, the fight in the Donbas continues on. Despite talks between leaders at the executive level, the Minsk Agreement seems worthless. Though the embattled President Poroshenko vows to restore sovereignty over the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics,” just how he would accomplish this seems far from clear to me. Some are predicting the war in Ukraine may come to some sort of conclusion in 2016 but the best case scenario is more likely to be its devolution from a hot conflict to a frozen one.
When one looks at the Moscow-supported fracturing of the Georgian state which has gone on for years now, Ukraine looks bleak if peered in through the Georgian prism. Of course the war for the Donbas is vastly different–no two conflicts are truly analogous–Russian intransigence is part of state policy since the end of the Yeltsin period. Donetsk and Luhansk are not Abkhazia and South Ossetia but there are some rough similarities even in the semantics of the areas being referred to as “rebel republics.”Sure, the Putin regime attends negotiations, but what do they really accomplish? In the Caucasus as a whole, all they have done is establish a status quo with a bureaucratic creep backed up by the FSB’s own internal agendas.
And people wonder why I look at cheerful imagery of the beaches of Oceania as a fleeting escape…
New York- I’m appearing in a new series which premiered last week for Discovery Networks entitled Evolution of Evil about the rise of dictatorships in the twentieth century. In the first episode I discuss the rise of Muammar Qaddafi (alt. Gaddafi) over the course of forty years between the ouster of King Idriss in the September Revolution and his unceremonious demise during the earth shaking Arab uprisings of 2011. I appear alongside Bruce St. John, author of Libya: From Colony to Independence, and others in this new series profiling the men who became synonymous with megalomania.
The next episode I will appearing on will be Saddam: Butcher of Baghdad on August 20.
New York- The first images have seeped out of the Franco-Chadian battles in the Adrar des Ifoghas and the Adrar Tigharghar areas of northeastern Mali’s Kidal Region today. Both Chadian state television and al-Jazeera Arabic gained (or were given) access. Contained briefly in the al-Jazeera English version of the AJA report was this fleeting image of a dead man alleged to be the notorious Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the AQIM/Signatories in Blood katiba leader.
Chadian TV describes its battle as one against “narco-terrorists” of “diverse nationalities” while displaying images of bedraggled captives, mud-caked technicals and dust-encrusted munitions. French news weekly Le Point has exclusive images of French soldiers captured war material from AQIM including a BM-21 Grad truck with a 40 shell Multiple Launch Rocket System.
Update: Long after I posted this, France publicly confirmed the death of AQIM’s Abou Zeid but never did such for the case of Belmokhtar. The fate of Belmokhtar is still the subject of wild speculation. Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno said firmly (if bizarrely) that Belmokhtar exploded himself after learning of the death of Abou Zeid in a moment of pure desperation. On the other hand, Algiers indicates that it believes Belmokhtar is in southern Libya-likley related to their version of deadly events surrounding the In Amenas gas plant raid. Only time will truly tell I suppose.
New York- I had a couple of long term projects published at the end of this past week. The first was an examination of the little known history conjoining Mali in West Africa with North Korea in Northeast Asia over at Asia Times Online. I discovered this newly built part of Bamako while riding around on my fixer’s motorcycle last year when we were trying to organize a semi-doomed trip toward the front line with MUAJO et co up in Mopti Region.
This spot I found (linked, left) in the Malian capital is called Carré des Armées (Army Square) and it was built by a North Korean state enterprise (not as if Pyongyang encourages private enterprise). As I begun to play with the idea of doing a full length article on the topic, it dawned on me that Mali and North Korea had a shared history dating all the way back to Mali’s independence from France in 1960.
Not exactly a topic for broad mass consumption, I know, but for those who it may interest, I think it’s a fascinating topic. It also speaks to a lesser understood phenomena of how ties forged in the heat of the Cold War still can very much exist in a post-Cold War world.
The ties between North Korea and Mali certainly may have lessened over the decades and have changed in their orientation (started out as political and military in the 1960s, now more transparently financial-the same goes for Mali’s relationship with China). One of the key differences between the relationships between North Korea and China with an inherently unstable state like Mali is that seemingly no circumstances would or will derail ‘business as usual.’
Just for argument’s sake, I honestly think that if Ansar Eddine and its Salafi allies had somehow managed to capture Bamako and miraculously gain some kind of political legitimacy that over time Beijing and Pyongyang would still send delegations back to Mali to get their business interests on track. After all in 1960, the government of Modibo Keita was deemed a righteous, radical enough anti-imperialist government by Kim Il-sung and co to forge ties on the other side of the world. Maybe the anti-imperial tenets preached in the context of Salafiyya-jihadiyya would be revolutionary enough for the Beijing’s politburo and the DPRK’s Workers’ Party of Korea to be able to keep infrastructure projects going uninterrupted. Who’s to say….
The second was a passion project nearly 14 years in the making about the history and symbology of all the war zone/quixotic regime currencies have managed to collect in my travels over the years featured in The Christian Science Monitor. It spans from an out-of-circulation Iranian rial I obtained in Tehran in 1999 to a Libyan 1 dinar note I saved from Benghazi in 2011.
Not a project that even the most ambitious young turk with a fancy master’s degree fresh out of Georgetown or Columbia could have done. It’s a bit of a blood, sweat and tears project in that sense and I was thrilled to have it come to fruition. I’ve dealt with countless fast talking money changers, sky rocketing wartime inflation, crossed borders only opened when regimes were in the process of being toppled and made all sorts of other absurd, laborious entreaties to obtain this collection.
Many of these specimens were lost for years or so I thought, until I uncovered them last fall in a musty storage locker and began to examine them one by one. I then realized they merited an article treatment on their own.
Most of these notes (except the Qadaffi-era dinar which is still in circulation pending the release of new notes by Libya’s central bank) are long out of circulation. And more importantly, each banknote tells a story both in its iconography laden artistry and in the circumstances in which I obtained it. The 20th anniversary of the Shia Islamic revolution in Iran, the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and so forth.
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.
Barcelona- The above title is a line from the remix of M.I.A.’s Paper Planes single with Bun B and Rich Boy. It kind of capture’s my day today in a way. Sitting in the First World which seems at points in danger of slipping in the Second and writing and wondering about the volatile politics of the Third in Mali that verges on Barcelona’s own Manuel Castells‘ Fourth World in the north. I know Alfred Sauvy’s Third World is supposed to be long out of fashion in the post-poltical correctness era of the Global North and South or Majority World not to mentions the BRICS but maybe that’s why I continue to use it. Sometimes I simply like a passé expression out of sheer sentimentality. Other times it’s just a more evocative term than something bland-sounding coined by a present-day economist, demographer or sociologist.
I have a new article out from my trip to Sévaré the other week in today’s Christian Science Monitor. Despite a nuisance of a government minder, a confrontation with a fearsome man from the security forces and close to 100º F temperatures, I’m somehow managing to get some work out into the internet-o-sphere this week. The eurozone is in what seems like constant crisis and Spain here is chief among the economic enfants terribles. Well after Greece that is…
Nonetheless summer is here and things are plodding along. Unemployment is at record levels but at least there’s a beach. And at least the perennial post-Franco nationalism and separatism here in Catalunya is confined to flags, football, and mostly civil politics unlike dear Mali from where I’ve come in recent weeks.
The cliché goes that Mali was West Africa’s [lone?] success story under ATT in terms of democracy, good [or decent?] governance, corruption, and rule of law. Some Malians I spoke with over the weeks there strongly disagreed with all or parts of that characterization when describing day-to-day life under the “Soldier of Democracy” ATT’s rule but dissatisfaction was setting in even amongst some in the pro-coup camp as the weeks turned to months and the politics went from roller coaster to quagmire.
There was a report today in a Bamako paper (Français) that Malian forces began an assault on Monday on a very northerly garrison called Taoudéni not far from the Algerian and Mauritanian borders. The logistics for such an operation would seem impossible without the direct military assistance of either Algiers or Nouakchott. But one report in one local paper doesn’t necessary cut it. If there was renewed war in Mali, I’d think others would be breaking the story. Could just be a bit of regurgitated propaganda from Kati. We’ll see if anything else filters through in the coming days.
Farewell- Yesterday I awoke to tragic news in my inbox. My editor at Asia Times Online, Anthony ‘Tony’ Allison, died of complications from a heart ailment in Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand. He was 59. I immediately wrote an email expressing my condolences and proceeded to mostly put it out of my head for the rest of the day. I was busy finishing up some edits on the CSM article featured in the box above and alternately worked on a piece for Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst stemming from my trip to Mali. I then busied myself with petty tasks like doing laundry and went skateboarding at my favorite neighborhood spot at the entrance to the Barcelona zoo at the end of an incredibly hot day.
But today, in reading his obituary and tributes from us hacks, the news is really sinking in. Life is entirely unpredictable. When I saw Tim Hetherington standing outside the entrance of the hospital in Ajdabiya, Libya last year, I could never have guessed that just a few weeks later a guy of his stature in our industry would be killed. It’s partly a product of getting older I suppose. The longer you live, the more likely it is people you know (or have been in the presence of) will die. I have this idea about when I was in my 20’s, nothing in life seemed to change that dramatically. You could not talk to a friend on the opposite side of the country or the world for six months or even a year and the odds were their life had changed little in that interim. In the 30’s, all that went to pot. Unromantic, dull-sounding terms came into play like “marriage track relationships.”
Friends who were in these forced-sounding social constructs suddenly seem to drop off the face of the earth. People began to say predictable things with increasing consistency about buying houses and cars, sonograms and painting nurseries. New friendships then grew out of the commonality of those who eschewed such societal norms (ie those who were still out at the bars on Tuesday nights at 2am). No amount of pseudo-security or inherited wealth of one form or another can prevent the inevitable. We all eventually end up in the same place. It’s what we do until then that matters. No one I’ve known or met who died in the decade of the 9/11 wars ever thought as they were packing their bags, “OK, this is my final trip.” The first guys I knew who died in my field died in 2002. That was a decade ago. And somehow I am fortunate enough to look out at the brilliant blue skies over northeastern Spain 10 years on with what seem like endless possibilities still laying ahead.
Barcelona- I finally was able to upload this Libya mash-up video I had been working on in NYC from here in Catalunya. For technical reasons beyond my knowledge or control, I was having a devil of a time getting the thing onto Youtube before. I had wanted to get this online before the Friends of Anton benefit event at Christies in Manhattan on May 15. Not that I had anything to do with the event of course, but I was one human degree of separation from Anton Hammerl and I simply thought it would be something nice to do. I’m off to the next conflagration in the shattered Republic of Mali and wanted to get this up beforehand.
This project is obviously not a documentary or scripted television package. These are memories from Libya in total upheaval in 2011. This is my Libya mash-up, dedicated to those photographers that arrived in Libya to tell its story and never made it out. I want to reiterate how grateful I am to the people of both eastern and western Libya. Without their immense hospitality this project would never have been possible. War throws people together in such an odd way who would otherwise likely never have met.