Archive for February, 2013
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 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.