New York- With each coming day lately there is a new tragedy being announced by the takfiri evangelists who refer to themselves as ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic State). With a campaign noted for executions believed to be taking place in ar-Raqqah Governorate and sieges upon the bastions of religious minorities or anyone is simple doesn’t adhere to takfir practices, IS risked the global public becoming inured to their atrocities. So their latest meme is destroying artifacts and smashing some of the Levant’s most prized ancient sites in parts of Ninewa Governorate under their control.
My interest in the Middle East began not with its intermittent warfare but with its rich archaeological history. My first trip to the region was to help excavate King Herod’s palace in Caesarea Maritima, not to cover an adrenaline-fueled war. As is my luck, war broke out during that dig between the IDF and Hezbollah. Suddenly digging around the biblical building blocks of the ancients felt somewhat irrelevant.
What they are doing is not complete foreign in contemporary Islam as the state-orchestrated destruction of sites in Saudi Arabia is in keeping with Wahabi ideology that forbids the worshipping of ancestry lest it be deemed a form of shirk (idolatry) that runs counter to the narrowest interpretation of tawhid (monotheism) and is at least partly intended to marginalize Shia religious practices within the boundaries of the Kingdom.
Little to no global outcry has slowed the demolition of holy sites in both Mecca and Medina. The Saudi monarchy has been obliterating history in accordance with its state-sanctioned ideology since the mid-1920s under the auspices of purifying the Arabian Peninsula. Many holy places in Mecca have been simply bulldozed to make way for mass market capitalism. Profit has replaced the physical history of the prophet. In a sense IS is continuing this policy writ large against Muslim, non-Muslim and pre-Islamic sites alike.
In March 2001 when when a Taliban set out to demolish the Hellenist-inflected Buddhas of Bamyan in central Afghanistan’s Shia-majority Hazarajat region, it was speculated that the Deobandi Islamists did so to thumb their nose at the world that isolated their largely unrecognized regime while collectively punishing the Hazara minority who they’d fought to bitterly in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997-1998. The comparisons to the crime in Bamyan were inevitable. The reported razing of Hatra is but the latest of atrocities against Iraqi, and well pre-Islamic civilizational history of all mankind, following the demolishing of statues inside the unguarded Mosul museum, and destruction at the Assyrian capital of Nimrud and Ninevah.
One of Iraq’s greatest Islamic monuments from the height of the Absassid caliphate is the spiral minaret known as the Malwiyya in Samarra. Along the banks of the Tigris, Samarra sits about midway between Balad and Tikrit–where a large scale offensive is currently under way–in a hotly contested area between the Iraqi state and its allied Iranian-backed Shia militia movements versus IS.
Ostensibly the Malwiyya would not be slated for IS destruction as it represents a pillar of Sunni religio-cultural history, is in no way idolatrous, and does not depict graven imagery. But I’m being far too logical in my assessment I suppose. In its wedding cake-like tiers, it is somewhat evocative of, if not inspired by, a ziggurat.
When the U.S. military barged into Iraq in March 2003, vandalizing Iraq’s Ba’athist history, namely the iconography of Saddam Hussein’s carefully crafted personality cult, seemed to be part of official Pentagon policy. Iraq had been vilified ever since the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the ensuing Gulf War in 1991 that sent Iraqi troops retreating along the “highway of death”where stifled images showed the cruelty of such a precision air war.
Although Iraq, and to a lesser extent neighboring Syria, are thought of as the ‘cradle of civilization,’ this geography has known little other than war and deep, violent internal repression for decades. Iraq’s culture coupled with the civilizational landmarks that remain within its present day geographical boundaries have not been incentivized to be respected. Aside from the well publicized destruction such as that which occurred in the Mosul museum, there has been widespread looting of sites for years to fund criminal enterprises and now outright salafi-jihad. The destruction gets the attention, the looting nets the income.
Thus the IS assault on the country’s treasures in Ninewa comes as no shock. There is also a knee jerk response in social media that if one emotes a deep, genuine sadness for such an immeasurable loss, that one is somehow lessening the ongoing loss of human life in these places. It is as if the intertwined plights of history and humanity are inherently mutually exclusive. This makes advocating for these treasures appear to be a possibly insensitive act.
Preserving Iraq’s vulnerable heritage was never explicitly part of the occupational mandate of U.S. forces in the 8 1/2 years they served in Iraq. Though it would seem Washington has the power, the military power, to stop this vast crime spree, it is not considered to be of paramount importance in the national security interest. Plain and unfortunately simple. Though there are initiatives like the State Department funded Syrian Heritage Initiative, the overall large scale political will is just not there. Iraq is too mired in intractable sectarian and ethnic fissures to do much to save its treasures while the Assad government in Damascus is concerned with solely with regime preservation.
The future of the past indeed looks bleak for the time being.
New York- An image I shot back in 2008 in Karachi was employed to tell the tragic story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s disappearance and murder in the early days of the War on Terror. The programme, titled Witness: Remembering Daniel Pearl’s murder aired on BBC on 17 February.
Pearl’s gruesome beheading was a watershed moment in the post-9/11 period. More than two years on, the beheadings of Nick Berg in Iraq and Paul Johnson in Riyadh signaled a spate of horrific online violence where the internet became a conduit devoid of the most fundamental human dignity. With the recent beheading videos coming out of Syria, the Pearl case now in hindsight appears to have been a template, albeit a comparatively more elaborate plot, for the terror that was to come. Orchestrating such brazen executions in the cause of supposed ‘defensive’ jihad in salafi Islam seems to have become a norm.
I remember being gripped by the Pearl case after returning home from covering the war in Afghanistan and hoping against hope for a positive outcome. I’d done my university thesis in Pakistan in late 2000 which provided me with the last glimpse of the ummah before Afghanistan. I’d mixed with petty traders, warm tailors, drug dealing scoundrels with wild stories to tell from the frontier, gem stone smugglers, and gun runners. My memory of the country was fond. The hostage drama that unfolded had me reexamining my own experiences in the country.
Then in 2008 I walked in his and the plotters footsteps in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Karachi to create the visual narrative for a report being done in Washington by a student group at Georgetown University. When it was finally published in January 2011, I barely had a moment to reflect upon it as the Arab uprisings were in full force, leading me to cover the war in Libya.
More of my images and the completed projected can be viewed in a free e-book called The Truth Left Behind: Inside the Kidnapping and Murder of Daniel Pearl.
New York- How did we get here? This is what you may be wondering with the news today that a group of 21 Egyptian Copts were mass beheaded in an unspecified area of coastal Tripolitania by salafi-jihadis in Libya that pledged bayah (oath of allegiance) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State a continent away. Like my recent post on the revolution lost in Syria to anti-everything elements, Libya was a place in 2011 that, while incredibly dangerous, welcomed journalists in droves.
Nearly a decade after 9/11, the Tunis and Tahrir revolutions ushered in a new wave of journalist wunderkinds, several of whom are today well established while still not yet 30. Now Libya is a hostile place across the board riven by parallel governments concomitantly claiming to be the legitimate rulers while salafis move in and operate freely. I would perhaps return to Libya, but with far greater caution than during my trips in 2011.
With the news of the Copts’ execution, there may be am even larger state actor moving into the fray. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has stated that Cairo has the right to “retaliate” in what would transparently be an act of revenge..if Egyptian security forces could discern who carried out the executions. The Egyptian air force, along with that of the UAE, already carried out bombing runs last August to smash Islamist weapons caches in and around Tripoli to no avail.
Egypt has been deeply intertwined in the Libyan remittance economy for decades. I recall speaking to my uncle in Heliopolis in March 2011 who had been a geologist for the Libyan petroleum industry in the first half of the 1970s. He described lightly-populated Libya as a migrant worker “colony” of the Nile Valley dwellers who left their densely people region to send much needed cash home to their families in Anwar Sadat’s Egypt.
The gruesome IS video reportedly alludes to “Rome” in the context of the medievally framed apocalyptic prophecy regarding the village of Dabiq in Aleppo Governorate. In IS propaganda, Rome symbolizes the West as a whole, the lands of ancient Christendom, and frankly anyone deemed kufr in IS’s takfiri thought world. The group has tightly shrouded itself in the mantle of the Judgement Day speak as part of its purported belief to be defending the prophet and the ummah as a whole. A battle for the town of Dabiq would spark the ushering in of the end of days in which Constantinople and Rome would fall to ‘the Muslims’ (orthodox Sunnis only).
Seeing as Libya was part of ancient Rome (see Cyrene and Leptis Magna), and in the early twentieth century the Italians colonized Libya, their reference to being “south of Rome” is duly a calculated one meant to get Libyans themselves onto their agenda. Should Egypt formally enter the battle for Libya, it will likely only complicate that mess further. The Egyptian state is struggling in Sinai these days with regular attacks on the military there demonstrating the lack of knowledge of the physical and human geography on the Peninsula. I’m not sure what purpose it would serve to have the Egyptians expand their failing war on terror into their western neighbor. For the Coptic hostages, it is too late.
New York- I have a photo of the Israeli destruction of Haret Hreik, Lebanon from the UN-mediated ceasefire in August, 2006 in the new issue of Research Horizons magazine published by the University of Cambridge. Haret Hreik, a souher suburb of the Lebanese capital, has been called Hezbollah’s “strategic quarter.”
My image accompanies an article that explores the history of thelong defunct tawheed (“oneness” or “monotheism”) movement in Tripoli in the early 1980s and how it compares deleterious Islamic State organization that is festering in Iraq and Syria at present. Some researchers have been looking back at Lebanon for possibly useful parallels to Syria today.
Lebanon today is once again in a precarious historical position. What has shifted is instead of being the locus of instability, it is at risk from its inevitable spillover since the once tightly controlled Ba’athist Syria began disintegrating in 2012. Lebanon’s polity has been greatly affected by the unabated chaos next door with the influx of refugees coupled with the outflux of fighters into Syria.
I’ve been doing some personal writing of late on my dreadful experience in Lebanon that summer. In doing so, I’ve been revisiting some of these images for that purpose. In the spring I will have similar images in a documentary on Lebanese blues band The Wanton Bishops. Never know when people will want to hit up my vast archives from the post 9/11 decade. I always welcome it.
New York- Three years ago today I trekked into northern Syria’s rebellious Idlib Governorate from Hatay Province in Turkey. I had to put immense trust in my fixer who was living in a Turkish Red Crescent camp at the time with his family after having fled the town of Binnish where he’d been a school teacher in peacetime. When I asked how many other journos he’d taken where we were headed, he said just one, the legendary Times correspondent Anthony Loyd. When I badgered about who else, he’d said Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director. Not bad company, I thought to myself.
These dudes were famous and if they trusted M_____d than I thought I could too. As with any of these situations though, there’s just an element of risk that cannot be subtracted. Besides the obvious dangers (and this was before Syria had become a beheading ground for the most unfortunate outsiders), there was the sheer physicality of it all. The mountain, the rain, the snow, the razor wire, the fear, the paranoia. Why was this worth doing? I was following a chain of events since early 2011 in which stultified regimes in the world’s most politically stagnant Arab-ruled states.
The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ involved far more than the ‘Arab Street’ of the early 2000s. Libya had its Tubu, Tuareg and Amazigh (Berbers), Syria had its Kurds and so forth. None of these places were ethnically homogenous. Plus there were the fleeing guest workers from Bangladesh and other forlorn states that had grown dependent on a remission economy as they bled out economic migrants. It was a broad movement that caught fire with local characteristics. Social media met kalashnikovs at dizzying rate. There were notable exceptions of course, like Algeria where it was posited that the populace had tired of the bloody war from the 1990s thus not having the stomach for a prolonged clash with the Bouteflika regime.
Returning to the Syrian border in October 2014, I wouldn’t have dared to cross it. The country had transformed from a place that welcomed foreign journalists when it was once the least covered uprising to the most feared place to work in the world. Even little Bahrain was a more fashionable topic when Syria kicked off nearly four years ago. The uprising began the day I returned to Alexandria from Benghazi on March 15, 2011 and I recall it as a minor news item. By the time I reached Syria three years ago after much of my own work in 2011 was focused on Libya, the media was still referring to the war there as a ‘crackdown.’
At the risk of sounding ultimately naive, there seemed to be an innocence about the rebel fighters I met. They welcomed me with the hospitality I remembered upon first traveling the region as a backpacker in the late 1990s. They sought to overthrow the Assad dictatorship. Yes, they were Sunni men from the countryside but they didn’t frame their struggle as a religious one when I spoke with them. I feared it might turn into a sectarian conflict with the history of the scorched earth suppression of the Ikhwan in the late 1970s, culminating with the destruction of Hama in 1982. Just as the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996 had helped propel the Libyan war, Syria’s past would eventually come back to haunt it.
Syria’s war in 2015 is an intractable, fissiparous mess. It needn’t have been. But after decades of one man, one party style rule, even if the FSA rebels had coalesced under a properly hierarchical leadership, the country may have just morphed into a different version of chaos. We will never now. When the rebel commander asked me why the West wasn’t eager to assist his men as they had so willingly in Libya (as it appeared from a Syrian perspective), I made a cynical retort: “Look at the map. Libya borders places like Niger and Chad to its south that no one in the West gives a damn about save for energy interests. Your country borders Israel to its south (west). This makes assisting your people in an armed humanitarian intervention infinitely more complicated.”
New York- With all of the nonstop news and largely negative social media I scan day by day with regard to affairs in the Arab-majority states of the world, I was reflecting for a moment today on the tranquility of Oman. Oman is perhaps the only Arab nation-state that never, ever, makes headlines. And yet it is sandwiched between Yemen with its Houthi insurgency, AQAP, drone strikes, seemingly nonstop hostage crises and the United Arab Emirates, which puts enormous effort into marketing its flashier emirates as global trading hubs. Oman is calm, rather expensive to travel, and is seldom talked about.
It remains an absolute monarchy ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said since he took the throne from his father in 1970. At the end of February 2011 while I was careening back and forth from Benghazi to the constantly shifting front lines in the Libyan revolution-cum-civil war, Oman underwent the so-called Arab Spring’s least newsworthy protests. They mostly entailed calls for modest economic and political reform as opposed to the overthrow of the sultanate. The Sultan’s reaction was to simply pay off his subjects with cash and promises to improve their quality of life in order to keep them quiet.
Oman had what I call the GCC Syndrome: I think the only Omanis I ever really interacted with were the guys at immigration who mistook me for a Pathan laborer as I was still in my shalwar kameez coming from a month in Peshawar researching my university thesis. Otherwise I met some very friendly Lebanese, Egyptians, Malayalis, Tamils etc who make up its expatriate work force and middle-man business class on the street.
Oman was the last place I visited in the ummah before 9/11 and for just that reason it will always have a find place in my memory. It was a time when I was traveling for the sheer sake of it, without any particular objective. I think the main reason I wanted to fly to Muscat was because I’d never spoken to anyone who’d been there and was enthralled by its then obscurity. Oman is in the shadow of Yemeni fitna, the issue of Saudi women driving, Abu Dhabi’s largesse and Dubai’s excess.
Looking at these photos makes me want to revisit the place no one talks about…
New York- I have a new (and final for the time being) report on the battle for Kobane for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst titled “Ideological divide – Kobanê’s ethnic war.” As of today, the siege of the formerly non-descript border town in Aleppo Governorate now continues into its fourth month (today is day 96 to be precise) with no end in sight. Operation Inherent Resolve still goes bringing death and destruction from above. The YPG and YPJ are still fighting IS daily. Yet IS does not want to give up nor will its ideology that bestows martyrdom on its human canon fodder allow it to.
So the siege continues and the small city lay in total ruin. Though Ankara has allowed a second deployment of KRG peshmerga to enter, Turkish policy remains largely unchanged. IS commanders are all too aware of this fact and continue to take advantage of it. Exactly what is taking place on the IS side of the equation–such as the reported killing of one “Jundullah (transliterated as Dzhundalla according to Cyrillic sources) Shishani”–is all but impossible to verify. Part of this has to do with how incredibly difficult the battle is to access for journalists and how dangerous it is when done. A veteran military correspondent I met in Benghazi referred to this scenario as the “soda straw view of war,” a phrase that has managed to stick with me. A lot of interpolation is required when you only have very limited access to just one side of a story.
The situation in Kobane has become another of the world’s intractable conflicts but it needn’t be so. Policies do not adapt often quickly enough to the rapidly changing ground realities of affect ongoing crises in real time. Kobane has become an important node for IS sending recruits into battle under the tutelage of grandiloquent field commanders who so heavily rely on social media to burnish their war fighting credentials.
Even though I was there two months ago, I’m still very much concerned with the outcome in Kobane. It is one of those stories that stays with the observer long after having left.
New York- I have a an article in the November/December issue of the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel publication titled The Battle for Kobani Comes to the Fore. Above is a clip I put together from my field work in Kirkuk Governorate in August 2013. Though Kirkuk and Kobane are geographically disparate places, many Kurds consider these pivotal cities as key nodes in a singular struggle against Ba’Athism, salafism, Kemalism and any other form a ideology that they believe seeks to deprive Kurds of their collective rights as a nation.
Fourteen months after my trip to Kirkuk, I traveled to southern Şanlıurfa Province in southern Turkey to witness the siege of Kobane just inside Aleppo Governorate. Kurds gathered in solidarity there frustratingly expressed that the siege of Kobane was but the latest round in an persistent narrative of anti-Kurdish mass casualty violence that has gone on for decades.
Some in the hills of Mürşitpınar expressed that the sweeping attacks on the Kurdish-majority villages that once buffered urban Kobane were aimed at pushing back Kurdish nationalist aspirations. The fight against Kurdish autonomy may have gone from racist Ba’athism to predatory salafism but it was the same anti-Kurdish feeling expressed under another ideology according to a number of observers I spoke with.
Those interviewed believe the Kobane crisis is firmly rooted in 20th century Arab Ba’athism, Turkish republicanism or Iranian chauvinism in which respective Kurdish minority populations were politically oppressed by ethnic majoritarian governments. They held that IS’s salafism has absorbed traits due in part of veteran Ba’athists who had joined its upper ranks.
From previous anti-Kurdish policies most epitomized by the al-Anfal scorched earth campaign in northern Iraq in 1987-1988 which killed an estimated 150,000, a feeling of communal vulnerability exists across Kurdistan that transcends post-colonial borders. This thinking extends into the global Kurdish diaspora in the West as well.
In the eyes of many watching nervously along the Turkish-Syrian border, the surrounding of Kobane by IS fighting trucks flying trademark black banners—and the ease with which this occurred— symbolizes not an intra-Islamic fight between radicals and those they deem less pious Sunnis but an ethnic contest between Arabs coupled with their foreign fighter acolytes and indigenous Kurds.
It also left an impression that Turkish authorities were so ardently anti-Kurdish particularly in the case of Rojava that Turkey in fact preferred to have IS jihadis facing its jandarma than the PYD’s YPG. Some Kurdish observers in Suruç and environs felt that Turkish passivity on the siege was an indicator that it actually actively supported the IS advance because Ankara would prefer to have dour salafists on its border as in the case of nearby Jarabulous or Tel Abyad than a sturdy, vibrant Kurdish autonomy movement.
While the Kurds have largely succeeded in their grand goal of consolidating Kirkuk and its oil wealth into Iraqi Kurdistan proper, the fight for Kobane continues to rage illustrating that though gains in one part of greater Kurdistan have been made, there is a long way to go yet still.