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Beyond 2014: Afghanistan, Pakistan, the West and the Rest

February 20th, 2013 No comments
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An ethnic-Tajik teenage fighter from Jamiat-i-Islami/Shura-i-Nazar on the front line between Khanabad and Konduz on November 15, 2001. These fighters, labeled “rebels” by the media at the time even though the Taliban government was only recognized by 3 states in the international community, were under the command of the now deceased Muhammed Daud Daud (whom certain reporters wrote up as Daud Khan at the time). Daud, who late became a top police chief for northern Afghanistan, was killed in what was purported to be a Taliban suicide bombing on May 28, 2011 at the Takhar provincial governor’s office in Taloqan. ©2001 Derek Henry Flood

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.

Screen shot 2013-02-20 at 11.20.10 AMFor 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.”

Mali, North Korea and the Confluence of Histories

February 2nd, 2013 No comments
A protestor marching on Benghazi’s corniche on March 9, 2011 defaces as 1 dinar note featuring Muammar Qaddafi to shown his disdain for the Libyan dictator at the height of the Arab Spring movement. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

A protestor marching on Benghazi’s corniche on March 9, 2011 defaces as 1 dinar note featuring Muammar Qaddafi to shown his disdain for the Libyan dictator at the height of the Arab Spring movement. This image to me epitomizes the concept of my article featured below. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

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.

Screen shot 2013-02-02 at 8.14.31 PMThis 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.

The depiction of Philip the Arab on Syria’s 100 pound note is an indicator of the deep historical ties between ancient Iran and Syria. In a rock carving at the Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis in southern Iran’s Fars Province, Philip the Arab is shown along with the Roman Emperor Valerian the Elder as they bow before the Persian king Shapur I the Great. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

The depiction of Philip the Arab on Syria’s 100-pound note is an indicator of the deep historical ties between ancient Iran and Syria. In a rock carving at the Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis in southern Iran’s Fars Province, Philip the Arab (kneeling, far left) is shown along with the Roman Emperor Valerian the Elder (center) as they bow before the Persian king Shapur I the Great (mounted). Damascus’s employing Philip the Arab is likely no accident. Unlike the Saddam-era old 25-dinar note in Iraq depicting the Battle of al-Qadissyah showing an ancient Arab (Iraqi) enmity toward Persia (Iran)–Hafez’s al-Assad’s mortal enemy in the inter-Ba’ath rivalry–Syria’s 100-pound bill emphasized Syria and Iran’s ancient, shared history…in which Roman Arabia (present day Syria) is the supplicant. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

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.Screen shot 2013-02-02 at 8.18.11 PM                                                                                                                                                                       

TWD Mali Media Offensive

January 16th, 2013 No comments

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New York- In the wake of the French military intervention in Mali late last week, I felt like it was time for TWD to kick into high gear. On Monday, I appeared on BBC Arabic’s News Hour programme from the beeb’s Manhattan studio (which was actually the NYC AP bureau). The show was hosted by Lebanon’s lovely Fida Basil and featured Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a one time Algerian ambassador to Libya-turned outspoken Algerian dissident in exile in the UK and Akli Shaka, the Leeds-based spokesman for the Imohag (alt. Imuhagh–the endonym of the Tuareg people) and myself. I also did a piece for CNN.com (pictured above) synthesizing recent developments with my work on the ground there in 2012.

Mohamed Larbi Zitout. left, and Akli Shaka, right.

Mohamed Larbi Zitout. left, and Akli Shaka, right.

One of the topics I fielded during the segment was whether or not there would be a Salafi blowback on the French metropole or in amongst any of Mali’s neighbors where security is already inherently sketchy and AQIM essentially has freedom of movement across several over the borders. As I was answering an email to colleague this morning, I cited the GIA’s hijacking of an Air France flight 8969 heading from Algiers to Paris’s Orly airport on Christmas Eve 1994 and the Paris metro bombings in 1995 (as with all terrorist related events related to Algeria’s bloody civil conflict there of course is an alternate theory that the DRS-Algeria’s all-knowing intelligence service-was behind some or all of these events). Not suggesting the GIA in the 1990s is a precise direct analogy but the experience offers some insight. Monday I thought it all but assured that Mali-based Salafi-jihadis would strike in a neighboring state in the very least. Whether they have the capability to strike on French soil remains to be seen I suppose. Let’s hope that is not the case.

In the immediate aftermath of the largely successful raid on the jet at Marseille’s airport in which the four GIA operatives were killed by French commandos, four Catholic priests were murdered in in the immediate aftermath in retribution in Tizi-Ouzou east of Algiers in the Kabylie region which has remained a locus of conflict in some degree or another until the present.

The destination board at the Sévaré bus depot. Destinations to contested, ungoverned spaces. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

The destination board at the somewhat forlorned Sévaré bus depot. The prices for these arduous rides are listed in BCEAO CFA francs. Destinations to contested, ungoverned spaces await weary travelers already having come all the way from Bamako in many cases. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

As soon as I hit send on said email, I then checked the news to see something that seemed like the logical next step: a massive raid was launched on a sprawling energy installation’s complex today in which an estimated 41 expatriate workers were taken hostage by men believed to be under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s (a.k.a. MBM, a.k.a. Belawar) AQIM faction “La katiba des Moulathamine” (or is it al-Mouwaqiin bi Dam-“Signatories in Blood battalion” a constituent of or breakaway from the “Masked Brigade”-it seems there is no agreement/too little information at the time of this writing) or AQIM itself depending on reports.

In what was likely a carefully planned assault, militants struck the Ain Amenas liquified natural gas field project being operated by BP, Norway’s Statoil, and Algeria’s state energy concern Sonatrach on Algeria’s eastern border with Libya due south of the triple border with Tunisia.Many believe that Belmokhtar was behind the audacious raid in Algeria’s Illizi Wilayat (province), bringing a flurry of attention to a character generally little known in Anglophone media circles.

There had been speculation last fall that Belmokhtar had been dismissed as commander of his men by AQIM’s overall Algeria-based emir, Abdekmalek Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud) which Droukdel reportedly later denied.

The biggest story suddenly surged from the war in Mali to one of the biggest terror attacks on Algerian soil in many years. Just like that, the news cycle had to catch up to speed on events to Mali’s north in the chaotic midst of learning about Mali itself. As with its captured diplomats in Gao, Algeria taking its characteristically hard line, claims it categorically will not negotiate-much less pay ransoms for-hostages, foreign or indigenous.

Walking along Sévaré blistering hot main drag in June. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Walking along Sévaré’s blistering hot main drag in June. As a desert-modified pick-up truck of Malian troops whizzed by, my cautious fixer urged me not to attempt to photograph them for our own good, much to my disappointment. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Just before the start of the Mali conflict in December 2011, I edited a report by Dario Cristiani entitled “Mixing Ideological and Pragmatic Jihad: A Fresh Look at Mokhtar Belmokhtar.” If you are following me on Twitter, you can DM for a PDF if interested.

UPDATE: In keeping with Algiers’s stated no-negotiations position (despite the fact the government said talks were attempted), Algerian forces launched what could be called a disastrous ‘rescue’ mission. Reports right now are conflicting about whether the operation is still ongoing or whether it has already concluded. Whatever has happened, it has likely been quit bloody.

Myself and

Myself and presenter Fida Basil. Uttering ‘Jamaat at-Tawhid w’al-Jihad fi Gharb Ifriqiyya’ is a hell of a lot more of a mouthful than MUJAO!

Before the current phase of the conflict kicked off, a photo from this blog was used in a report by the International Peace Institute in mid-December.

Before the current phase of the conflict kicked off, a photo from this blog was used in a report by the International Peace Institute, a UN-linked think-tank, in mid-December.

UPDATE: Friend and colleague, the Toronto-based analyst Andrew McGregor appeared on CBC News to talk about the history of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the impact of the Ain Amenas raid, its sophistication and beguiling logistical improbabilities. He also discussed the possible long term effects on Algeria’s energy industry, a key source of that country’s GDP. Click play below.

 

How Syria Has Changed

January 9th, 2013 No comments

New York- I have an article out this week in Asia Times Online based on my very different experiences in Syria from 2002-2012. Throughout the decade after 9/11, Syria–though absolutely central to the history and culture of the Arab realm–was viewed as a quiet backwater for both the West and it jihadi opponents. Syria’s mukhabarat intelligence services either facilitated or turned a blind eye to the transit of salafi fighters from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula into a besieged Iraq.

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In the other direction, it acted as a very willing conduit for Iranian arms and treasure into tiny Lebanon on whom it holds in a geographical bear hug. But one of my key points is that Syrian intelligence officers made Syria itself one of the safest places in the world–unless one was a terrorism suspect extraordinarily rendered there or a member of the Brotherhood languishing in one of the country’s awful prisons. But what was remarkable at the time was that as hot wars raged on either side of it, Syria remained completely quiet internally until its revolution commenced in March 2011.

After Hama in 1982, Syrians were well aware of the regime’s potential for wrath. If jihadis had made attacks inside Syria, its borders would have been shut down overnight thus sealing off the vital jihadi pipeline to western Iraq.

Even though jihadis viewed the Assad regime as perhaps a caricature of apostasy on earth, they never directed their ire toward the near enemy. Instead they sought to attack the occupying forces of the far enemy stationed inside Iraq in the aorta of the ummah along with non-Sunni and non-Arab Iraqis (and Sunni Arabs who cooperated with the occupation forces).

While even Jordan suffered the horror of massive, coordinated suicide bombings in Amman in November 2005, Syria suffered no similar consequences during the core of the Iraq conflict.  It seemed that the Assad regime–steeped in its own post-colonial Arab nationalism and an historic enmity toward rival Iraqi Ba’athists–had found common cause with or at the very least sought to accommodate those traveling in the salafi-jihadi caravan.

Whatever we want to read in, Syria, which had done far more to crush Sunni Islamism in the past than Jordan’s famed GID, was not made a kinetic target of jihadis throughout the decade after 9/11. It certainly may have been an ideological target by Sunni exiles in London and elsewhere but the country did not suffer a suicide bombing until it was consumed by the current civil war.

Damascus simply didn’t withstand blowback as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, England and others had. Now Syria itself is the magnet for those who want to carve out a Sunni state in the heart of the Levant or any other piece of territory they believe they can hold and build.

Syria’s Doomed Ceasefire

October 26th, 2012 No comments

New York-One of the myriad topics was what constitutes or defines intervention in Syria.  A high-ranking NATO official explained to me at 2 2012 security conference that the Alliance was emphatically not going to get involved militarily in Syria even if the so-called “red lines” set forth by individual member states were crossed time and again. When NATO became deeply involved in the Libyan war, it was under the auspices of protecting civilians as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which outlined the multi-national mission that culminated in Operation Unified Protector.

Members of the Free Syrian Army take aim at a Syrian Army post across the valley in northwestern Idlib Governorate. @2012 Derek Henry Flood

I mentioned at that February conference that I had inadvertently run across a pair of intelligence operatives on atop a cliff on the outskirts of Nalut in western Libya’s Jebel Nafusa/Western Mountains region in August 2011. I presumed the men to be either Central Intelligence Agency officers or former ones who were now for-hire intelligence contractors. They were providing real-time battlefield intelligence while decisive air strikes were being carried out in the then (until 6pm that day to be specific) Qaddafist-controlled towns of Ghazayah and Takut on the stiflingly hot plains down below. With a satellite phone and military grade macro binoculars they were apparently relaying coordinates for air strikes and feedback about the accuracy of previous bombardments.

Libya’s NTC rebels rest in the shade after capturing the Qaddafist-held town of Takut with NATO and CIA assistance on July 28, 2011. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

When I confronted the NATO official about this, which to me appeared to be in direct violation of UNSC 1973 as an outside power was clearly taking sides with one of the conflict’s belligerents thereby nullifying the idea of any form of non-partisan negotiated solution with the Qaddafi regime, NATO’s man swiftly countered that member states within the Alliance had undertaken unilateral intelligence missions which were not part of NATO’s mandate nor had its official bureaucratic blessing. Oh, ok, well I guess that wraps my question up neatly, right?

BUT…how were the Libyans on the ground, both NTC rebels and Qaddafists, supposed to interpret these elite distinctions made in Brussels, Washington, Doha, London, Paris and Benghazi? For the Libyans, the CIA and NATO were one in the same, entirely conflated entities. Not to mention perfect fodder for those on the anti-imperialist left and conspiracy theorists in general who cynically assume the overthrow of Mu’ammar Qaddafi was planned long ago at a Bilderberg Group meeting or some such thing.

Destroying Takut in order to save it. NTC rebels rest in a smashed police checkpost at the entrance to the western Libyan town after wresting it from Qaddafist forces in concert with precision airstrikes, ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

So as the viewer’s comment pointed out NATO itself is nowhere in the vicinity of launching a large-scale military intervention in Syria but individual member states are indeed carrying out an intelligence war as unilateral, sovereign state actors outside the bounds of the trans-Atlantic security structure. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen had been adamant that Syria will not become another Libya stating an armed humanitarian intervention was “not the right path.”

The conundrum escalated with the recent cross-border shelling by Syria when ordinance not only landed on Turkish soil but killed Turkish nationals which appears at least on the surface to have caused Rasmussen to change tack. An attack on one member state is theoretically an attack on the broader Alliance which the other members must then be obligated to defend if such action is deemed necessary. Now Secretary General Rasmussen has stated “We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary.”

I also want to quickly elaborate on the unraveling of the October 20, 1998 Adana Agreement which was essentially a peace treaty between Turkey and Syria to halt PKK attacks that were being mounted from safe havens on Syrian territory at the time in a vicious proxy dispute over water rights. Hafez al-Assad, near the end of his thirty year reign, sought to improve relations with Turkey and expelled Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan, the PKK’s cult-like leader. (Ocalan was captured in Kenya on the run in 1999 and extradited to Turkey where he remains holed up in an island prison today in the Sea of Marmara) Turkish-Syrian relations than greatly improved as Turkey tilted away politically from the European Union and began renewing ties, particularly economic ones, in the lands that constituted its former Ottoman realm (as well as warming relation with the clerical regime in Iran as part of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy).

Turkey nearly mounted an invasion of Syria in the late 1990s under the pretext of attacking the PKK. Turkey has also had a long time military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan and parliament in Ankara recently renewed Turkey’s standing hot pursuit mandate whereby Turkish ground forces can enter Iraq when giving chase to PKK fighters. So Turkish troops moving into Syria en masse is not so unthinkable in the present scenario.

The PKK has been stepping up attacks across southern Turkey in recent months and many Turks believe Bashar is playing his father’s old PKK card from the 1990s in an act of calculating strategic desperation. After all, what else does the already isolated Syria regime really have to lose at this point?  Even if the Assad government can somehow survive, relations with an AKP government in Turkey will not be put back together again. It is from this calculus that the Assad regime is basing its tragic strategic decisions and going with what is known as “the Hama solution” (code for scorched earth tactics in crushing any serious threat to their Ba’athist Alawi dynasty)

9/11 Cover to Cover

October 13th, 2012 No comments

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.

This very dramatic title epitomized the mood at that moment. There developed an extreme dichotomy at the time between what were referred to as “the everything changed-ists” versus the “nothing changed-ists.” But don’t judge a periodical by its cover. The bulk of this issue was in fact not dedicated to 9/11, just the first few front articles mostly. Whereas a New York area periodical would have been entirely dedicated to 9/11, shutting out the rest of the news cycle save for perhaps speculating about Afghanistan.

Paris Match, September 20, 2001, “The War: World Trade Center, Tuesday, 9:03 a.m., New York”

Reading the September 12, 2001 edition of the New York Times in Brooklyn. ©2001 Derek Henry Flood

The September 23, 2001 New York Times magazine titled “The Remains of the Day.” A gorgeous, stark illustration of collective loss.

The October 11, 2011 edition of Paris Match “At the Heart of the War” featuring a Jamiat fighter on the front line at Bagram, Afghanistan. World media attention began to shift away from New York and toward Afghanistan when the bombing there began on October 7 of that year.

The September 2, 2002 edition of Der Spiegel titled “The Day that Changed the World.” I got this issue and the Stern below as I was leaving Hamburg, Germany after investigating the lives of the Hamburg cell led by Mohammed Atta in the Harburg district.

The September 5, 2002 edition of Stern titled “New Photos from 9/11.”

The September 11, 2002 edition of Time Europe. I took this from my flight from Hamburg to New York as I was returning home to document the first 9/11 anniversary.

New York Magazine, September 11, 2011, “One Day, Ten Years.”

A Decade of War and Peace

August 20th, 2012 No comments


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.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah preparing to depart for Ghazni province with the Afghan airforce to campaign in remote ethnic Hazara villages. Abdullah was the leading opposition candidate challenging President Hamid Karzai in the August 2009 elections. On the right stands a Shi’ite Seyyid accompanying him to Shia population centers for campaign credibility. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

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.

No grand conspiracy here, just plain, old awful war. On August 15, 2006, a Lebanese ambulance lay destroyed by what appeared to be an Israeli missile strike (quite possibly a drone strike or SPIKE anti-tank missile) outside of Sidon in southern Lebanon, an irrefutable violation of the Geneva Conventions on war crimes. Pro-Likud right-wing bloggers would dare say scenes like these were part of elaborate false flag operations by Hezbollah or photoshop masterpieces by left-wing or pro-Hezbollah journalists meant to demonize the Israel Defense Forces. This ambulance was not part of the so-called “ambulance controversy” nor am I aware that this particular wreckage appeared anywhere in the international media at the time.  ©2006 Derek Henry Flood

Images of Syria Then

March 1st, 2012 No comments

Britney and Bashar. The clash of personality cults for sale in Damascus’ old city. Bashar al-Assad had been in power just over two years since his father Hafez died and his regime was hard at work disseminating his visage in what looked to me as an outsider as a desperate bid for credibility among the people he was never meant to rule had his brother Basil not died in 1994. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I first embarked on a trip to Syria in the summer of 2002. I had been in touch with the office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-a.k.a. the Barzani family) in D.C. about entering Iraqi Kurdistan clandestinely from Qamishle-something they said they would be all too happy to do at the time. Of course when I got to Syria to meet my D.C. KDP’s contact in Damascus, it was a different story. I stayed at a decrepit old hotel from the French Mandate period called the al-Haramein. My main memories of the place were shaving at an open air sink on the quintessentially Levantine roof and meeting a beautiful older Syrian woman with her adorable young daughter in the sun splashed courtyard who was visiting family from Kuwait where she lived and mistook me for a Syrian (hence the aforementioned shave). Oh and also the incredibly cheap and delicious falafel carts near the end of the walking street the hotel was situated on.

Syria, to the naive Westerner, could seem to have been a deceptively peaceful police state. But Syria was and is a place with a long history of political violence and repression which the regime has until 2011 been incredibly adept at sweeping under the rug. We now know that beneath the religious and ethnic tapestry lies great anger that can no longer be repressed. The genie is out of the bottle and much as Bashar and his vile brother Maher try, the end of the Assad dynasty along with the Ba’ath Party is all but assured. Syria is a lovely country ruled by a loathsome family.

Of course the KDP guy refused to meet me saying the office in D.C. had never mentioned anything about an American journalist who he was supposed to meet. Looking back, I should have simply headed up to Qamishle and linked up with smugglers to make the semi-secret Tigris crossing. Then I recall having a devil of a time trying to email my KDP person back home because Bashar al-Assad had thoughtfully blocked Hotmail which was what I was using at the time. Anyhow, my idea totally went south and I ended up bailing Syria altogether and going to Georgia and sneaking into the Pankisi Gorge abutting the Chechen border.

I took just a few snapshots in Damascus because I thought I was saving all my film (yes, film!) to shoot the Peshmerga frontline with the Iraqi Army. So I thought I needed to conserve my film rolls. Glad I have the photos I do though because now I don’t know when I’ll be able to freely wander around Syria’s fascinating capital again.

The Assad regime only allowed one kind of political expression, anti-Zionism. Any other sort of expression, such as supporting the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, would be ruthlessly put down. All rage was to be expressed toward external enemies. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Damascus was blanketed with intermingling symbols of Arab nationalism and Palestinian solidarity which the Assad regime used to ultimately justify internal repression and deny liberalization at home. I aroused great suspicion after taking photos on this random side street with some cranky old man accusing me of being a spy. I think I had to scurry back to my hotel after this to avoid any possible interaction with the mukhabarat, Syria’s secret police. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

The de rigueur shot of the magnificent Umayyad mosque courtyard. No photo blog post on Damascus would be complete without one. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Thinking at the time that Alawite-ruled Syria had few mainstream Twelver Shia, I was struck by the silhouettes of this quiet meeting of Shia clerics in the shadows of the Umayyad mosque. Ten years later, finally taking the time to do the proper in-depth research, I know that the Assad’s welcome clerics from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon to bolster their credentials in the region, consolidate their strategic depth in Lebanon as well as isolate (then) Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

This is the Iranian-financed Shia shrine of Ruqayya, daughter of Imam Hussein, in Damascus that I stumbled upon while wandering around on a brilliant sunny afternoon killing time.  I remember how tranquil it was, shielding the visitor from noisy car horns and the general bustle of the city. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood