Archive for the ‘9/11’ tag
Barcelona- Today is just another 9/11 anniversary it seems. On twitter, everyone is consumed by Obama’s speech last night vowing to “destroy” the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The brutality of al-Qaeda has been rhetorically lessened with foolish tracts saying that Ayman al-Zawahiri disowned Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s movement because AQ 1.0 was put off by IS’s even harsher methods as if there has been a collective forgetting of what al-Qaeda and its allies have done over the years. This is an absurd assertion.
The split is based more on divisive interpretations of salafi ideology, a supreme contest of egos within a very violent subculture, and plain envy. Bin Laden was not primarily a takfiri (one who maintains the authority to declare lesser Muslims or minorities within its reach ‘apostates’) but in his alliance with the Deobandi Taliban he was simultaneously focused on both the near and far enemies. Baghdadi has thus far been more narrowly focused in constructing his personality cult whereby the desired targets of IS’s aggression are the Shia and other related sects and those affiliated with regional regimes they deem worthy of death. To say one group is more ‘brutal’ than the other is a futile comparison. It is far more about the ebb and flow on the centers of power within trends in global militancy than a zero sum game.
Here in Barcelona, it’s Onze de Setembre (National Day of Catalonia), a celebration of Catalan martyrdom that is experienced as hyper localized nationalism. Drums beat, scooters beep and a rivalry in the heart of the first world rages on.
To me, it is simply 9/11.
For a solid decade I would return from wherever I was in the world to New York to document the goings on at the World Trade Center which for many years was referred to simply as ‘Ground Zero.’ For all of the anniversaries I attended in order to document, I did so without accreditation except for the final one–the 10th–when I applied for permission from the Bloomberg administration to photograph the two visiting presidents. That last few years since the 2011 shoot, I haven’t returned to the World Trade Center.
Yesterday here in Catalunya it was in fact the furthest thing from my mind as I hung out with friends at the beach in Barceloneta. Nor did I think about the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud either. Things that I have felt and witnessed and people I once knew who have died have since been enveloped into history as once so viscerally palpable anniversaries have often morphed into more ordinary days as the healing current of time passes by.
We often think of history in a linear form comprised of a 365 day year based on the Gregorian calendar with momentous anniversaries in one-year increments up until the 5th year and in five year increments thereafter (and later potentially being noted in 10 year increments) i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th anniversaries being momentous and then culminating (for now) at the 10th which forms a time capsule known as a ‘decade.’
But for the people directly affected, is today’s 13th anniversary any less significant than the 1st back in 2002, the 5th in 2006 or the 10th in 2011? History as we live it is a living, breathing organism. Time never does stand still. I may be in the fever of minority linguistic politics here along the western Mediterranean as if Franco died yesterday but I cannot escape the track in which the events that day 13 years ago defined the course of my adult life. Though I no longer rush back to New York to document the day, it will forever remain in my aching heart.
Barcelona- After an egregiously long sabbatical in the chunky, ‘polar vortex’ torn streets of NYC, I finally made it back across the Atlantic. I put plans for returning to Iraq’s Green Line and Ukraine’s chaotic Donbas region on hold for the time being to work on a couple of armchair pieces. As a perennial freelancer, sometimes a sure thing outpaces an unsafe bet and so I’m remaining in the West for the moment.
I brought loads of prints over to do some more photo walls as I had been doing the previous month in Long Island City. In my original idea conceived in 2000-2001, I had wanted to plaster prints up on either side of the Euro-Atlantic community to pique interest in the historical juncture of Central-South Asia in order to bring attention to that region’s political maelstrom by appealing to the public with its beauty. Such was not to be.
As I’ve alluded to in prior posts, those plans were imediately tosed out the window after 9/11 because it was going to involve obtaining an Islamic Emirate visa for Afghanistan which was immediately unrealistic despite my efforts of reaching out to members of the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan and Flushing, Queens just before the attacks.
Now well over a decade on, I hope to close that loop albeit under far different circumstances. Below I’ve posted snapshots of my final two projects in the U.S. Hope to do some new ones here very soon…
New York-Going through a storage locker the other day, I dug up a lot of stuff from my personal archives in the early post-9/11 period. I collected lots of odds and ends back then thinking they’d be of historical import down the road. Here we are a decade on and its interesting (at least to me) to reexamine this stuff. Here are scans I made of magazines I collected in 2001-2002.
I believe it is important to collect and document these artifacts in time where we are inundated with so much media and where attention spans seem to be ever shortening. Each new global crisis feels like it obfuscates the previous one. It is almost as if the Arab Spring replaced the global financial crisis (such an inarticulate term) which replaced the terror wars.
This is a visual record of an indelible post-modern tragedy.
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.
Thira- Just finished reading The Eleventh Day by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, a masterful account of 9/11 and was thrilled to see one of my articles was used as source material for the bit about Hamburg’s Mahmoun Darkazanli (pp.275-276) in the endnotes on page 523. I’m glad to have contributed in a small way to this work, much of which aims to dispel the unfounded talk of conspiracy theorists. This book is a must read. The first section called simply “Attack” is so vivid it is nearly difficult to read. It is an immense story in both size and scope and the author’s have done their utmost to put it together in what comes off as a very readable, gripping narrative.
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.