The War Diaries

"We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Archive for the ‘Jane’s Intelligence Review’ tag

The Tearing Pearl

without comments

Though Sri Lanka’s Christians make up only approximately 7% of the country’s population, Christian places of worship such as this Catholic cathedral in Jaffna are numerous and visually prominent with the island’s urban centres. @2019 Derek Henry Flood  

Fremantle- I have a report out this week for Jane’s Intelligence Review from my recent travels in troubled Sri Lanka. I spent a few weeks on the island finishing up work from Syria and simultaneously conducting some field work before the Easter bombings which killed 253 and injured some 500.

I traveled by bus through 5 of the country’s 9 provinces canvasing attitudes of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims who hold themselves to be a distinct ethnic group while overwhelmingly Tamil-speaking at home. To me, the polity seemed as fractious as it was when I lasted visited in March 2007 while the eastern offensive to take Batticaloa was underway (government forces ousted the LTTE from there that July). The country’s central government had not worked in the decade since the war ended to reconcile long-held animosity between communal groups that tend to identify with the armed actors in the conflict.

Sure, Sri Lanka is technically at peace as there is not presently an armed conflict but that should not be mistaken for any kind of healing between Sinhalese and Tamils. Neither side has worked in any significant manner for a post-war harmony. I left with the impression that people get along out of sheer pragmatism rather than any sort of newfound love between north and south. I some of the language people used to describe the other during my visit, it was clear that the Western concept of political correctness had yet to arrive in the pearl of the Indian Ocean.

Once I was in what became the relative safety of northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, terror struck Sri Lanka again. But this time around it was group of acutely radicalised local Sunnis which posthumously portrayed themselves as acting in league with, or in honour of, IS following its territorial demise in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governorate. Rather than attacking the government directly or its attendant security forces, a team of 9 suicide bombers attacked an array of Catholic sites which straddle the ethnic divide and upscale hotels. Neither of these target selections sync with traditional patterns of of either ethno-linguistic or religio-political violence in Sri Lanka. And that may have been just the point. The salafi-jihadis (often referred to as “Wahabbi” in the press though people rarely self identify with a term) struck out at targets where security was lax, were highly symbolic, would likely produce a high casualty rate necessary for a mass casualty attack, and perhaps most significantly fit neatly within the post-modern narrative arc of globalised Sunni radicalism that pits ‘the Muslims’ in an epic battle with ‘Rome’ ie Christendom. Sri Lanka had no significant history of communal violence between Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Catholics. There was, however, a long history of LTTE-Muslim violence before the LTTE’s demise precisely 10 years ago this week, overwhelmingly the former brutalising the latter during the 26-year-long war. And much more recently episodic bouts of of Sinhalese-Buddhist-Muslim confrontations in Kandy district etc.

Part of why commentators claim to have been shocked by Sri Lanka being the target for a complex, bi-coastal ‘martyrdom operation’ as suicide attacks are known among salafi’een, is because no one gave a damn about the South Asian island nation. With all eyes on current conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other similar theatres of formalised warfare as well as a deep analytic emphasis on attacks in Western cities (Barcelona, NYC, Nice, Paris), no one was paying much attention to a place once more romantically known as Ceylon. People generally don’t care about places where wars have ended, the flame of the news cycle has long been extinguished. But that was also Afghanistan. Then we had 9/11. People simply weren’t paying attention to that country aside from some Iranian clerics, Pakistani intelligence officers, and women’s rights campaigners in the West at the time.

The decades long war off the southern tip of India didn’t stoke much interest even at its height. Ten years ago this week I contacted an editor at Tina Brown’s Daily Beast just as the war was coming to a bloody conclusion and the LTTE were facing their ultimate defeat about writing an armchair piece from Los Angeles about the last battle and the significance of the death of Vellupilai Prabhkaran, the LTTE’s cult-like ‘supremo’ (leader). The editor, an effete British woman at the time, sent me a delayed reply that she was unsure that the fall of the world’s most technically sophisticated terror group that pioneered much of modern suicide bombing was timely or relevant to their audience. I recall reading the email and thinking to myself, “wow, nothing has changed in the media machine since 9/11. No lesson was learned. It’s still all about ascribed relevance in the myopic minds of gatekeepers.” Timely? The war was ending that week!

So here we are in 2019. Some lessons still not learned by governments, large media organisations, militaries, and so forth. We now live in a world of borderless terrorism. Daunting as it is to state, everything and everywhere must be paid attention to. Ignore at our peril.

A lesson that should be learned from Sri Lanka is that there are serious limitations to predictive terrorism analysis which has become quite the cottage industry for some in the past 18 years. Something about the genie not going back in the bottle, humpty dumpty not going back together, or Pottery Barn’s damaged product policy. Much of that thinking exists inside the box so to speak. But in the grand asymmetry of the phenomenon that is global terrorism, there is no a hard box. Attacks don’t need to recognise borders. We must accept that sometimes we will fail to explain push and pull factors before it’s far too late in a faraway society that seems mostly ok from a facile, removed analysis.

I was in Dubai after leaving Iraq and Syria and made a spontaneous decision to revisit Sri Lanka 12 years on to see what had changed, if anything, beyond the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity. When I left I had a vague, sinking feeling something nasty was going to happen, particularly after a specific, foreboding warning from a contact I’d made in Unawatuna that militant Islam had gained a small but indelible footprint on the island since the war ended. Then Easter morning happened.

Written by derekhenryflood

May 12th, 2019 at 12:50 am

A Death in Raqqa

without comments

SDF fighter and my guide through the ruins, Ismail Khalil photographed in Raqqa on 19 September 2017. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Pai- Recently, I discovered via Twitter that a man I briefly knew in Syria some two years ago was killed, and killed quite some time ago. I was doing frontline analysis for Jane’s Intelligence Review that resulted in my piece entitled CBC reporter Adrienne Arsenault did a story about Ismail’s death in August 2018-though he was killed by an IED in January but perhaps the dots weren’t connected until much later. For some algorithmic reason I only saw this Twitter thread earlier in 2019. Indicative, I suppose, of the nature of social media and how our world works today.

His name was Ismail Khalil, a Raqqawi who had joined the SDF and desperately wanted IS pushed out of his city. According to my friend Mahmoud, he was the victim of a booby trap left behind by IS as they rigged the city with explosives knowing their state-building effort was doomed. Ismail was assigned to me by Mustafa Bali, the SDF spokesman who you may have read quoted on a daily basis during the recent Baghouz operation that ended in March with a decisive SDF victory.

After sleeping at what was then sort of the media base in Ayn Issa and waking up a dawn at the very end of a hot, violent Levantine summer, Bali explained that an SDF fighter who knew the streets of Raqqa intimately had to ride along in my dusty Korean-built van as my driver and fixer were Kurds from Amuda along the Turkish border not terribly familiar with central Syria. The day was hot and hellish as you might imagine.

To produce stories such as these, I take enormous risks from time to time in places experience spectacular violence. But the people who help me along the way take far greater risks because they cannot or do not simply cross an international border to safety once a narrow goal has been accomplished. They are living in wartime. Inhabiting a geography of terror. The work I do isn’t created in a vacuum. It is the product of a thousand human interactions. Discerning linguistic nuance, observing local cultural norms, tight focus on survival.

Ismail taking advantage of the wifi while I interview a YPG commander called Heval Kane. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

I often think about fixers, drivers, or friendly guys with guns who’ve helped me in wars past. Wars where Twitter wasn’t a thing or at least I hadn’t joined the online echo chamber yet. I think about Sadeq in Karbala, Kamal in South Governorate, Faisal in Benghazi. All I have is an old photo, a faded business card, a number that no longer works. Are they still alive? When conflicts reignite in certain places, I sometimes contemplate the fate of these guys. Today with the interconnectedness of our rapidly decentralising world, we have the ability to find out things we may wish to have never been updated on. I would much prefer to still wonder if Ismail was rebuilding his business in Raqqa rather than know with certainty he only lived for a few more months after the city’s liberation from IS.

As I tracked Ismail through the shattered warrens of Raqqa, we encountered SDF fighters doing all sorts of tasks that sound mundane like delivering bottled water or jerry rigging radios with makeshift batteries except, well, Raqqa. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

In the case of this man, the story has a horrific ending. The kind of closure your imagination never desires when mulling over the past.

Ismail riding in the back of the van next to all my stuff. He would only live for four more months. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

May 1st, 2019 at 11:22 am

Crossroads of a Global War

without comments

Commander Heval (Comrade) Shiyar and his Manbij Military Council fighters at their position along the south bank of the Sajur River north of Manbij. These minimally armed men are at the centre of a global great game for control of Syria’s territory.©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Manbij- Along the Manbij Military Council’s mostly quiet frontline with the Turkish military and its Islamist Syrian Arab proxy militias, headlines have emanated from this mostly misunderstood crisis locus. One of the most crucial points which I personally found maddeningly frustrating was that Turkish president Erdoğan’s constantly parroted talking point that the Kurdish YPG militia must withdraw unconditionally west of the Euphrates River. This ultimatum is designed to meet Ankara’s narrow, localised geostrategic demands that what it deems the “terror corridor” of northern Syria must be cleared of “terrorists” on conditions dictated by the Turkish president and his obedient foreign minister.

This assertion was repeated by Western media outlets with global reach in such a blatantly unexamined manner. Some of that may have to do with outlets being risk averse when it comes to hiring freelancers in Syria specifically I would guess from the beheading episodes of 2014 though no one has ever actually told me this in writing, but it seems implied. One major US outlet told me they refused work from independent journalist working in Iraq and Syria in 2017 when I was covering the Raqqa offensive. At the time I presumed this because a freelancer they’d hired was kidnapped/captured though the editor I corresponded with then left me to make merely an educated guess. Thus an intensely complicated place like Manbij that requires immense nuance and time spent has not been aided by fleeting coverage in the mainstream media. This has helped advance the Turkish position on the matter–at least in terms of rhetoric-as-news-copy–coupled with the anti-intellectualism of a bumbling American leader repeatedly contradicting his own field commanders who partner with the Manbij Military Council. Thus I digress.

In an effort to examine battlefield nuance, I have an article in the April issue for Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required titled “Strategic Prize” as well as its companion online piece, “Diverse forces converge on Syria’s Manbij,” reporting from the frontlines of this incredibly complex threat environment.

Manbij and its rural hinterland are in fact defended by the Manbij Military Council, a mostly young Arab force helmed by veteran Kurdish commanders that in reality not simply a branch of the YPG. Like the YPG it is a constituent militia making up the SDF but it is a distinct force grouping with a high degree of operational autonomy.

The late Abu Amjad who led the MMC was in fact a Manbiji Arab. The MMC does not have female YPJ fighters along its frontline positions facing Ankara’s ‘Euphrates Shield’ forces or those areas where it is facing the Russian and Iranian-backed nizam (Syrian colloquial Arabic denoting the Assad regime). Manbij was a logistical resupply hub for Kurdish militias during the siege of Afrin to be sure but I never observed that they were responsible for this critical frontier city’s armed security.

Few independent journalists have actually visited Manbij and spent real time here but understandably so. Aside from a very brief dog-and-pony show with a not particularly articulate American general in early February, the coverage of this incredibly intricate battle space has been lacklustre at best. Though I also must emphasise just how difficult it has become to get not only into Syria but to get access to the core of the stories there. One must deal with the opaque decision making processes of not one but two internationally unrecognised governments whilst in a constant pursuit of freshly stamped permission papers with expiration dates. Having worked in Syria before in no way means working there the next time will be more easily facilitated either. Generally speaking, it doesn’t get easier.

The ethnic Arab frontline village of al-Dadat secured by the MMC, an area which the Turkish president claims is ruled by Kurdish “terrorists.” ©Derek Henry Flood

But then if things like this were easy and obvious I probably wouldn’t be pursuing them in the first place. In my entire career now spanning some 17 years I’ve yet to do an embed with a Western military and the possible self censorship such endeavours entail. I focus on the doings of indigenous non-state actors such as those of the Manbij Military Council pictured at the top of this post. People from the land they are striving to protect. To me that is and has always been the real engine of these stories. Occupation forces invade and inevitably withdraw in the Levant, even if that takes decades (think Syria and Israel in post-civil war Lebanon per example) but local fighters are fighting for and guarding their own territory which involves a completely different war fighting perspective.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 3rd, 2018 at 4:00 am