The War Diaries

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Archive for the ‘Syria’ tag

Salafist Technologists: How I Discovered an Internal IS Map App

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A billboard in Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Bintang neighbourhood advertising consumer-grade unmanned aerial vehicles manufactured by the Shenzhen-based DJI corporation Though the adverts portray perfectly innocent tourism applications for these machines, they were adapted for deeply nefarious purposes such as makeshift bombers and creating maps of enemy positions for the world’s most technologically advanced non-state terrorist outfit. Chinese-made drones such as these were regularly smuggled into IS-controlled parts of Syria.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

New York- A couple of months ago I was riding in a van along a rough hewn piste in Deir ez-Zor governorate’s al-Jazeera region east of the Euphrates river when i was shown a map app that IS had used against its enemies be they an-Nizam (“regime” or “ruler” meaning the al-Assad government), the Quwaat Suria al-Dimuqratia (ie the SDF), Jabhat al-Nusra, or local tribes. From this almost chance technological encounter, I have a report for Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in the UK titled “Captured Islamic State map files underscore technological capabilities and priorities for state building.”

Though IS certainly did not architect the app itself, that was done by mysterious, apparently French developers calling themselves Pysberia.net, they innovated well within its boundaries in order to crush their battlefield opponents and thus gain more territory befitting their expansionist worldview. Despite that I’ve been covering the IS beat since it was still ISI and largely confined to central and northern Iraq, this discovery made me more viscerally cognizant of the group’s tech capabilities in a first-hand sense.

My escort from the Deir ez-Zor Military Council was using the captured map files to help guide me safely back from their barracks in al-Kasrah near the river to a road leading up to al-Hasakah toward relative security. This was toward the end of the battle of al-Baghouz further south and IS guerrilla attacks were focused far more on busier, sealed roads than out in the bush. In essence we were doing our best to circumvent a possible insurgent attack by using the maps and routes of the insurgents themselves dating to their proto state-building efforts.

Heading from al-Kasrah toward frontline positions with an-Nizam in Deir ez-Zor governorate back in March. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Neither the SDF constituent militias nor an-Nizam have such savvy tech skills or hyper adaptability even in the wake of IS’s territorial collpase. Part of the war in Syria, and Iraq for that matter, is one armed actor constantly playing catchup with the next in terms of technological exploitation and capability. Much as I hate to admit, IS was seemingly light years ahead during the peak khilifah (caliphate) period than any other nearby armed actor. The SDF, Iraqi security forces and others had always been at least two steps behind on the tech front. But as the khilfah steadily shrank from late 2016 onward with concerted effort of external force air strikes, ground forces were able to vacuum up heaps of intelligence that lay in the wake of dead or retreating militants. Reading the work of colleagues or competitors on a topic like this isn’t quite the same as experiencing this phenomenon on one’s own. I had to confront how complex the workings were of an organisation I loathe immensely was. I then put immense effort into unpacking this utterly sophisticated intelligence for which there was a significant learning curve as someone who doesn’t work in tech and is often in war zones with gear that’s at least 3 years old. These globalist génocidaires really did have the upper hand in this region for a while and that is not an easy thing to accept on the most base ethnical level.

Local forces gathered information on how exactly IS governed. As they did, the picture became clearer on just how they enforced a writ that was simultaneously medievally brutal and hi-tech in the most 21st century sense. From Silicon Valley to Guangdong province, technology companies often market themselves as rather benign entities that either will help to further democratise societies (the former) or keep consumers entertained in undemocratic states that eschew the most basic freedoms (the latter). But as my work demonstrates, software and hardware is only as innocent as the intentions of its users. So this ostensibly French-developed app meant to guide hikers through, say, parts of the Pyrenees or the Rockies where mobile service is spotty or scant, was adapted to help guide suicide vehicle bombers toward their targets on either side of the Sykes-Picot line they sought to dissolve. It also says something about the potential for cruelty in our collective human psyche. Breakthroughs in coding and computing can enable a genocidal cult just as much as they could accelerate positive change in traditionally underserved, marginalised communities.

These are screen captures of customised IS maps of Deir ez-Zor governoate in eastern Syria where the city has been renamed “al-Kheir” (roughly “the good”) by the khilifah’s online cartographers. They renamed cities and whole regions to demonstrate their disdain for places names it considered insufficiently Islamic. Deir means ‘church’ in the Syrian context.

Just as there is no unified approach to combatting IS on either side of the Syria-Iraq border between the SDF and the ISF-Hashd al-Shaabi which have vastly different local geopolitical aims in their role as anti-IS war fighting groups, there is no commonly accepted agenda amongst the world’s inflated tech industry titans on how to balance free speech with the global spread of varying forms of political violence their platforms help inflame. I’m of course not suggesting technology is a cause but rather a conduit as violent acts become increasingly transnational from Syria to Iraq and from Australia to New Zealand.

Written by derekhenryflood

May 30th, 2019 at 2:29 pm

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A Death in Raqqa

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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

Introducing Increments-An Analog Photography Story

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My ancient Olympus MJU-II with a fixed 35mm f/2.8 lens and some Kodak colour 200 speed film I picked up before going to the airport. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- Every so often at home in the West people will broach what can feel like an awkward topic of how I journey to Syria or other places that seem to be varying states of perpetual turmoil. I don’t generally have a boilerplate response as I often tailor my answer to my specific audience of one or perhaps three on a New York or Catalan street.

The answer that I travel in increments of change. It as not as if one takes an Uber to JFK and lands in Deir ez-Zor governorate the following morning. Everything for me happens in much smaller steps. So I had an idea to dust off this old compact point and shoot and bring it along toward a rugged reporting trip and document these human and geographic increments along the way from friends to militiamen and points in between. I last used this camera in Syria in 2002 and Iraq in 2003 and am curious to see how it’s held up over the years.

More so I’d like to be able to share my experiences in a more relatable way. I have no idea how these images will ultimately turn out but I’m betting on fun at the least. Perhaps I’ll make something of them in a modest story telling format. What I like is that it’s already adding another, albeit minor, dimension to my travels in the greater Mediterranean world.

This was shot in 2002 with the Olympus MJU-II in the courtyard of the famed Umayyad masjid at its western portico in Damascus by a friendly Syrian man I handed my low tech point and shoot to for posterity. This majestic complex dates at least as far back as the pre-Roman Aramean era. It then became repurposed for the Cult of  Jupiter followed by being  dedicated to John the Baptist during Byzantium. Its final and present incarnation is an exquisite Islamic holy site where the octagonal ablution fountain behind me was said to mark the middle point between Istanbul and Mecca.

Written by derekhenryflood

February 12th, 2019 at 7:29 am

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The Coming Battle for Idlib

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A fighter in what was then known as the Free Syrian Army in Idlib governorate early on in the war. Thing have only steadily deteriorated since those early days. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Some six and half years ago I trekked from Hatay province in southern Turkey to a small rebel-controlled town in Idlib governorate in northeastern Syria. The fighters I met at the time were local Sunni Arabs and indigenous Sunni/Sufi Caucasians who were strictly interested in fighting the Ba’athist regime and proclaimed their desire for Western support as had happened in Libya the previous year. I spoke with CNN at the time after I returned to Turkey about what the FSA desired and how a Libya-NATO scenario was highly unlikely.

When an affable FSA commander asked me why the West hadn’t rushed to their aid, put on the spot I replied, “Libya borders Chad to its south, your country borders Israel. The calculus for the Obama administration is entirely different as the geopolitical stakes here [Syria] are considered far higher.”

So here we are in 2018: the regime with its Russian patrons and Iranian partners each with their own agenda seeks to purge the governorate of ‘terrorists’ meaning Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra, Tanzim Hurras al-Deen, the Turkestan Islamic Party, and other salafi war-fighting groups. But Idlib along with nearby slices of Hama, Latakia, and Halab (Aleppo) governorates are home to millions of Syrian civilians–both local and displaced– who have had to interact with these fighters for many years now.

Idlib represents a great failure where a stark lack of diplomacy, social media-enhanced radicalisation, and the evolving agenda of illiberal powers converge to create an impending crisis. The governorate has already been shelled by regime artillery and Russian airstrikes but a ground offensive to dislodge said irhab’een (terrorists) has yet to begin in any serious measure. There are many more elements to be factored in. The TSK-Turkish army-is also present in the form of its ‘observation posts’ as well as the rebel fighters it backs. It all looks to be quite a mess.

Written by derekhenryflood

September 9th, 2018 at 3:20 pm

Posted in Syria

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The Devastation of the Air War Upon Syria

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An IDP family existing in the only habitable part of a bombed out building in Manbij, Syria. This structure was ostensibly hit by an American air strike during the siege of Manbij in the spring and summer of 2016.  To destroy a society is relatively easy, to build or rebuild one is a long, labourious task.                                        ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

May 30th, 2018 at 1:35 pm

Syria after the caliphate: Manbij poised between conflicts

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Fighters from the US-backed (at least for now) Manbij Military Council at the al-Arimah front southwest of Manbij town where they face Russian-backed regime forces.

Manbij-I have a new piece out for Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor (subscription required) regarding the ongoing strategic deadlock over this modest city in northern Syria’s Aleppo governorate.

Manbij has been in the news as of late as the Turkish government has repeatedly threatened to invade it unless its American NATO partners/foes enforce Ankara’s bidding to have the YPG retreat east of the Euphrates. There’s one problem with this AKP logic: the YPG does not control or administer Manbij. Manbij is secured by the Manbij Military Council, a constituent force of the SDF in which the YPG and YPJ are fellow constituents that are theoretically, if no way in practice, equal armed components in the SDF’s egalitarian outline. Politically it is run by the Manbij Civil Council which, although operating under the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s TEV-DEM norms, is not simply a PYD outpost under a different name. The local administration does not count itself part of Rojava and many council members speak zero Kurdish.

Turkish claims are ultimately expressions of vague bellicosity. When that country’s president and his foreign minister reference Manbij, these statements have no bearing on ground realities in this mostly Arab urban centre.

Manbij’s Asayish gendarmerie is almost entirely Arab for example. What the AKP bigs may have been conflating however was that during the battle for olive-rich Afrin (if I’m to give them the benefit of the doubt), the YPG and YPJ were transiting via Manbij on what seemed to be like a nightly basis both to and fro embattled Afrin. So in that sense, yes, the Turkish leadership was correct that was a YPG presence there but the key nuance is that it was on the move to defend the PYD’s northwestern enclave from the Turkish military and the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (rebranded salafi-jihadis mostly).

Scrawled on the wall of what had been an Islamic State torture prison in Manbij, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet. Stay in the Islamic State.” ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

The people of Manbij who were not able to flee north to Turkey and perhaps onward to the EU during the two year and seven month rule of IS there suffered immensely. After a siege in the spring and summer of 2016 in which the city was ultimately liberated, the place has been making a vibrant, remarkable comeback with seemingly no outside help unless you count Aleppan financiers as outsiders. Exploring the remnants of IS’s brutality there was utterly haunting. Some of the torture techniques that were described to me seemed as if they were straight out of a CIA playbook circa 2002.

Today, this town is thriving on the relative stability and freedom it provides IDPs, returnees, and those who never left, even as it faces a multitude of emerging threats with IS seemingly least among them.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 10th, 2018 at 2:56 am

Crossroads of a Global War

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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

Back to Iraq 6.0

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A headless statue of the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad 15 years ago. If the neoconservative war planners’ goal was “regime decapitation,” in this case it was interpreted literally by beheading a statue atop its shiny plinth. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- I arrived back in Iraq for the sixth time since the American-led invasion that commenced fifteen years ago (a month from now give or take). On 20 March 2003 Baghdad time, the ground forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Poland, along the royal navy of the Kingdom of Denmark (with possibly a small contingent of special operations forces). This country has been in some form of chaos ever since. While many areas are comparatively stable as here in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s administrative seat, or the oil port of Basra far to the south, even these areas are built upon a shaky political modus vivendi that guarantees no future stability without some for of genuine communal reconciliation.

We are now living in the era of the so-called ‘terror wars,’ a time of perpetual terror and spreading instability. Though our world is oft said to be in a steady decline of conventional warfare since the conclusion of the second world war in terms of both breadth and the geographic distribution of conflict, that academic sentiment holds little if any water to the people of this region. From Operation Desert Shield to Desert Storm to Desert Fox to Iraqi Freedom to New Dawn to Inherent Resolve,* much of what Iraqis (and now Syrians) know about American power is through the blunt force of orchestrated, highly mechanized violence.

*Note: Coalition partner code names may, and often do, differ.

Here we are in early 2018 and it has been reported that American troops in Iraq are to begin a gradual force drawdown after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-abadi declared a total victory over IS…in terms of territoriality anyway. But note that a drawdown is not a withdrawal and that it may purportedly, quietly signal a troop build up in Afghanistan where the Taliban are gaining territorial control replete with shadow governance. And unlike October 2001, IS has a serious presence there now presenting themselves as a more fundamental movement in terms of Sunni salafi jurisprudence as opposed to the traditional Deobandi strain of Taliban ideology with its local South Asian characteristics. In short, the fight in Afghanistan has intensified in terms of its non-state actor complexity.

Iraq is as fractious and fluid as a nation-state can be. In the wake of the IS defeat in Ninewa, al-Anbar, and Kirkuk governorates in particular, nothing in terms of the country’s territorial integrity has been resolved nor has the insurgency been completely defeated by any means. There are still IS remnants in and around the Hamrin mountain range and there is talk, albeit somewhat unsubstantiated at the time of this writing, of a group of disgruntled Kurdish nationalists calling themselves the ‘White Flags’ or ‘White Banners’ operating on the outskirts of Tuz Khurmatu in perennially troubled Salah ad-Din governorate south of here.

Kurdistan Democratic Party-aligned Peshmerga in one of the ‘Disputed Territories,’ Dibis district, Kirkuk governorate, five years back. While facing off a multitude of Sunni and nominally Sufi insurgents, they were also facing off the forces of the central government. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

In Iraq, and now neighbouring Syria, the end of one war merely often only signifies the start of the next. This is due in large part to indigenous political elites pandering only to their power base while never genuinely mediating, much less resolving, core ethno-sectarian fissures coupled with Western policy makers having only a primordial understanding of.

The terror wars expand and contract but they do not end. There is no end game, no coherent strategy. And there never was.

The Iraqi flag flowing in Erbil fifteen years after the latest stage in the war here began (and then morphed). ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

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February 14th, 2018 at 11:23 am