Thira- Since supposedly Awlaki is finally really dead if we’re to believe the Yemeni Defence Ministry, I decided to put up some images of al-Ribat al-Islami, the mosque where he preached before 9/11 in my old hometown of San Diego, ‘America’s Finest City.’ No doubt Glenn Greenwald is having a fit if it turns out Awlaki was zapped by a drone but honestly, will anyone miss the guy? Of course it would have been much better– in terms of the historical record anyway– if he…and ObL..had been captured alive and brought to trial. Another Obama victory that is also a failure if one believes that assassinating one’s own citizens is a grievous violation of the American constitution. With each drone hit, so much knowledge is lost. But what can we do when the Agency is running the whole paramilitary show in the shadows?
Paris & Athens- Firstly I want to thank Jean-Luc Marret and the staff of his Fondation de la Recherche Stratégique for hosting me and allowing me to speak at their global terrorsim conference yesterday. The title of my talk was Western Boots on Eastern Ground: A Comparative History of Western Intervention in the Muslim World in the Post-911 Decade (Which I may very well transform into an upcoming article). My only regret is that I had virtually no time to enjoy the city on my sleepless, croissant fueled whirlwind. I was happy to be part of the trans-Atlantic political continuum if only for a moment in time.
I left a gleaming, well functioning Paris this morning, full of shimmering life and bustling with tourists to arrive in a sullen, deserted Athens. I found out upon arrival at the nearly empty airport that the Greek capital is bracing for yet another paralyzing transport strike to show union and neo-Communist displeasure at the austerity measure being imposed on them by the Papandreou government. It was told that if I had flown in tomorrow rather than tonight it would not have been possible for me to reach to port of Piraeus-where I am holed up in a budget hotel for the night to catch the morning ferry to Santorini-except if I had hitchhiked. The few locals I was able to talk said this next day of direct action is meek compared to others earlier this year where the port was blockaded and tourists were apparently prevented from reaching their intended ferries by burly union types. I was assured that ferries will be running despite the possibility that most of Athens proper will reach a tense standstill rather quickly. But I have left my big DSLR behind on this trip in order to take away the temptation that is always there to jump into the fray (though I do have one hell of a point and shoot should the mood strike). Heading to Santorini at the outset of its long, quiet (I think?) off season to get my nose to the grindstone on some long overdue long form writing.
Paris- I will be speaking at Maison de la Chimie tomorrow for the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique’s conference entitled “Dix ans après les attentats du 11 septembre 2001: bilan et perspectives de la lutte contre le terrorisme.” I will be speaking about my experiences and analyses of several Western military interventions throughout the post-9/11 decade, their successes and failures, and where we head next. Although it is an incredibly vast topic, I will somehow try and keep it concise and based on my own on the ground observations rather than something derivative and wonky.
New York- What began as one horrific day turned into a decade long quest. 9/11 did not change the course of my life, it merely accelerated it at hyper speed. In the weeks before the suicide attacks on New York, I had been studiously laying the groundwork for a photographic journey inside Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. I had hoped to undertake the trip in the spring of 2002 when the first winter snows would begin to melt. The Taliban regime maintained a little known office in a working-class section of New York’s Queens borough. Taped to the front of the ad hoc mission’s cheap wooden door was a sign printed up on computer paper that read: “Mission of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in English, Pashto, and Dari.
From this non-descript medical building filled with Indian doctor’s offices, two Taliban diplomats shuttled back and forth to the United Nations headquarters in Turtle Bay. Shunned by the majority of the international community when word of their track record on women’s rights or lack thereof and anti-Hazara pogroms became publicized, they tried and failed to win over other nation-state’s representatives to grant them the international recognition they craved. My cold calls to these men were met with great suspicion. They wanted records of what university I attended and a detailed study of my employment history to even consider granting me a tourist visa to their then forgotten backwater that occupied my dreams.
In the interim, I studied up on all the available literature on the group that existed in August of 2001, which was next to nothing. I then happened upon a rather obscure text in the warrens of The Strand, New York’s most famous used bookshop. The book, Taliban: A Shadow Over Afghanistan by a German academic called Burchard Brentjes and his wife Helga, was translated into English and published in Varanasi, India. I scooped up the book, confident it would not be missed by anyone else that August and shuttled it back to Brooklyn. On a balmy evening two days before 9/11, I sat upon the tar papered rooftop of a brownstone row house and excitedly flipped through the text, occasionally glancing up to watch the setting sun radiate off the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on the other side of the East River. I sat in wonderment, thinking about this devastated, landlocked country a half a world away that captivated my imagination since a pair of backpacking visits to its borderlands in Pakistan’s Baluchistan and Northwest Frontier Province (since renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkwha Province) in 1999 and 2000.
Afghanistan under the Taliban was a weak, chaotic place that drew in Salafi-jihadi terrorists from around the globe to its realm ruled by accommodating Deobandi Islamists with a myopic worldview. The relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda was a highly transactional, murky one and, at the time, the two entities were considerably less interdependent than many might assume looking back on the era today. That important nuance would matter little when 19 men from four Arab countries would hijack four passenger jets and use two of them to pulverize the densely populated New York icon killing nearly 3000 people. The destruction of the World Trade Center would set the stage for the first decade of the twenty-first century, much of it disastrous. It would transform me from a curious California geography student into a war correspondent. Year after year, I returned to the site of the attack to document the bouts of collective grief and fits of progress. This is my record of a decade of 9/11.
New York- In advance of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I scanned a number of never before seen images that I shot on that ashen evening a decade ago. I knew this day would eventually come but it is all still so vivid. 9/11 helped to lead me all around the world from Brooklyn to Kunduz to Hamburg to Najaf to San Diego to Kuala Lumpur to Tarragona and on and on. I have followed both the trail and aftermath of this event more doggedly than almost anyone. What sets my story apart is that I simply lived much of it. I lived in San Diego when Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar did. I used to deliver pizza to the apartments across the street from Anwar Awlaki’s mosque. I met the Taliban in Peshawar less than a year before 9/11 when I was writing what would become my senior college thesis.
I was already planning a trip to Afghanistan when 9/11 happened. I was in the process of tracking down the Taliban at their office here in Queens which they had set up to lobby the UN (unsuccessfully) for international recognition beyond that granted to them by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Islamabad. I was in touch with the Italian photojournalist who had shot what would turn out to be Ahmad Shah Massoud’s obituary photo in the NY Times. He would in turn be assassinated by an Israel Defence Forces conscript in Ramallah just six months later. The carnage would not end there.
Witnessing 9/11 in New York allows one a few exemptions. Having been in Manhattan and Brooklyn that day (and having been in Pakistan before and Afghanistan afterward) allows me the intellectual liberty of never having to entertain tiresome conspiracy theories. There is a certain righteousness in tragedy. If I choose, I don’t have to listen to anyone’s opinion who was not there about what they think happened…much less anyone who has never been to New York or the US as they pontificate their ridiculous ideas. There was a conspiracy behind 9/11. It involved a group of Arab Salafi-jihadi men who sought to punch a hole in the heart of the West.
Yes there are a ton of things we can never understand about how exactly things went down that day or what transpired in Hamburg and the Afghan camps before 9/11. Yes the 9/11 commission report is full of holes, vague on many, many details, and is an overall shoddy document. But none of that amounts to the justification of nonsensical 9/11 theories put forth by armchair crackpots, middle class Peshawaris, or anti-American social democrats. And finally, yes, 9/11 justifies almost none of the clumsy, giant footprint military actions that took place in its aftermath. 9/11 was never a justification for human rights abuses or going to bed with gruesome dictatorships (think Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan et al).
It was not 9/11 itself that heralded the stark polarization so desired by al-Qaeda. It was the response to 9/11 that divided the world more than the post-colonial, post-war realm had already been. A decade of talking about who has won and who has lost is both immaterial and intellectually childish. It was never about winning or losing. It is about carrying on with life. Getting on with the business of this awkwardly, unevenly integrating world. Forget about the concept of globalization and its discontents.
My dream morphed into a mission. Photographer became photojournalist. A day turned into a decade. Photojournalist became journalist. Life into death. Day into night. Dark into light.
Barcelona- I have written an extensive profile of Said Bahaji, one of the last members of the Hamburg cell still on the run (the other being Zakariya Essabar) in the new issue of Militant Leadership Monitor. Bahaji was a core member of the 9/11 plot and one of it’s least known figures. With the death of Osama bin Laden back in May, Bahaji is one of the few men alive to have operational knowledge of 9/11. Bahaji is still being sheltered by certain Pakistanis, out of reach of everything but a Hellfire missile it seems.
It would be a damn shame if we were to find out he had simply been obliterated in a drone strike rather than somehow captured alive. In fact, his logistical knowledge of the 9/11 operation makes him much more valuable to the historical record than bin Laden (if in a fantasy bin Laden had been captured alive and tried in a court of law rather than assassinated). If it were possible to abduct him from North or South Waziristan and bundle him to the West, I reckon his debriefing could finally shut up the tiresome 9/11 conspiracy theory crowd. But that is another fantasy. The ‘truther’ movement is apparently impervious to reality and updated historical record keeping. You cannot have a serious debate with people who have made up their minds before they have heard the first question.
It is highly unlikely Bahaji will live out a quiet retirement in the bazaars of Mir Ali or Miranshah. It is more probable that he will be collaterally assassinated in a CIA drone strike on some TTP big in a convoy along the border with Khost. In several ways, he is the ideal AQ operative being half Western and half Maghrebi. Adam Gadahn has nothing on Bahaji. The United States has made great strides in nailing AQ men in Pakistan’s cities-Ramzi bin al-Shibh in Karachi in 2002, KSM in Rawalpindi in 2003, and ObL in Abbottabad in 2011. It has had much, much less success in FATA where Pakistan’s writ is barely existent in many swaths of the tribal belt. Instead the US has been going after TTP figures like Baitullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain Mehsud, essentially getting caught up in the sticky web of Pakistan’s varied and sundry internal conflicts rather than sticking to what should be very narrow goal. It seems the White House is “smokin’ ‘em out” more than ever before as the drone programme shows no sign of letting up. But are we smoking out the right men? Should Langley be smoking out Islamabad’s internal enemies in a remote control dirty war? The security of Pakistan’s nuclear programme (from its own people) has become a raison d’être for supporting a hideously corrupt, loathsome Zardari government that has no friends other than the American tax payer and its PPP patrons. It is the perpetuation of a deadly inertia as policy writ large.