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Those black banners / AQ flags, revisited

[ by Charles Cameron — don’t let’s go overboard, eh? ]

I’d like to note up front that Liz Sly was talking about a pro-Morsi rally, and Leah very possibly about an anti-Morsi event…

In any case, these two tweets between them remind me that my own interpretation of “black banners” in terms of the army from Khorasan may well be due for retirement except when specifically indicated.


I’ve been writing here for a while about the black banners of Khorasan and their apocalyptic resonance, especially for those in Afghanistan and recruiting for AQ: today I’d like to suggest two qualifications.

The first is that there are a variety of black flags flown in various parts of the world for various purposes, and have been since the Prophet first flew his black flag, the Raya. It seems plausible that the Khorasan ahadith originated with the ‘Abbasids, in support of their own miltary activities, and certainly black banners taken together with those ahadith have been a powerful recruiting tool for AQ, as illuuminated in their respective books by Ali Soufan and Syed Saleem Shahzad.

But there are black flags and black flags, some plain black, some bearing the shahada, some with what looks to be a replica of the Prophet’s seal — and the one that is most commonly called “the Al-Qaida flag” is the one that originated with the Islamic State of Iraq — see Aaron Zelin‘s post on the matterr at al-Wasat. That post, btw, is likely the one that seeded my thoughts here.

My second point, then? A problem arises when we begin to think that any black flag seen, photographed, or reported in any Islamist context is “the AQ flag” — or indeed that any of the varieties of black flag reported hither and yon would qualify for that appellation.

In Iraq, the flag with seal, okay. A black flag with shahada in a Khorasan / Mahdist context — yes, and with Mahdist overtones. Otherwise — maybe, or maybe not so much.

So could we be a little more cautious, and more specific?

As for Cairo — I wasn’t there, and haven’t see a Liz Sly photo, so I don’t know which black flag or flags she saw. And yes, she was at a pro-Morsi rally. But as Leah notes, in recent days black flags have been less prominent, and Egyptian flags more in evidence — as indeed, this photo from an anti-Morsi rally on July 3 this year suggests:

If my guess is any good, then, black flags showing up in Egypt now presumably indicate MB or Islamist but not necessarily by any means AQ sympathies, while Egyptian flags would appear to indicate dissatisfaction with Morsi and his Islamist cohorts, combined with strong nationalist sentiment and pride.


Corrections, amplifications etc are welcome… This is a test post, really: a big question mark. I’ve an inquisitive mind to be sure — but as you’ll have seen in my previous post, I also admit to ignorance.

Oh —

And now I’m totally confused, too — El Cid just pointed me to Arch Enemy‘s Under Black Flags We March video. Eh?

9 Responses to “Those black banners / AQ flags, revisited”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    Heh, no sooner do I write this than Aaron Zelin tweets:


  2. Aaron Y. Zelin Says:

    Sorry for the late response. Just catching up after two weeks on vacation. I agree that just saying black flag is misleading at this juncture. The one above that I got in Lebanon has been viewed as the al-Qaeda flag since al-Qaeda in Iraq designed it, but we’ve also now seen other regular non-jihadi Salafis take up this flag. Further, we have also seen other jihadi organizations make their own flags and/or modify the AQI-designed flag. See:

    Jabhat al-Nusra: http://onaeg.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/%D8%AC%D8%A8%D9%87%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B5%D8%B1%D8%A9.gif

    Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia: http://islamion.com/Images/Attachments/post_images/15240374511%20grgjkui.jpg

    Ansar al-Sharia in Libya: https://fbcdn-sphotos-g-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/1000383_666751250004897_212269188_n.jpg

    Even AQI has changed it since they created the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham: https://si0.twimg.com/profile_images/3612520751/4432fdbcc4fca0525d64598549a3d43b.jpeg 

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Aaron, much appreciated.

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Aaron asked me if I had any further comments to make, and I do — but they’re a mixed bunch, spanning a number of different areas —
    Which particular flag is an individual holding?  It would be helpful if blogging anthros in the field, wonks with appropriate language and area skills, and intel sources would be precise about this — and that journos would keep current with their findings, and if possible check the details out for themselves.  I know, I’m an optimist, and the doctors tell me it’s incurable.
    The point here is that thinking every black flag represents another bin Laden, another suicide bomber with a three-to-five year fuse already lit, injects dangerous paranoia into an already volatile situation, swinging media, popular opinion, focus groups and decision makers away from reality and into lala land.
    What does the guy holding a particular flag mean by it?  How much of that meaning is a generalized “yea us, fuck you?” where the “us” and “you” are not necessarily easily defined, and if questioned, the guy might say “us” is Islam in a generic sense, a sense that excludes Shia, one limited to political Islamists, to AQ and similarly aligned jihadist movements, to the general consensus of the particular crowd or protest of the moment, or to his own particular movement?  And it seems to me that someone might give two or three different answers if asked by different people or at different moments, reflecting a generalized affinity with more than one of them.  And similarly with the negative meaning. Does it just mean FU to the anti-Morsi factions, to America, to the “American-Zionist project” — indeed, does “jihadist” mean “dying to die” or “would die if push came to shove” or “hey, I’m kinda proud of you guys”?
    Think of some other flags.  Consider the passions the American flag inspires.  Consider the different meanings it has at the Arlington National Cemetery, in a painting by Jasper Johns (which sold at Christie’s for $28,642,500), on a presidential limousine, on a Hell’s Angel’s jacket, at a peace march, on a Twisted Sexy Bandeau Tube American Flag Stars Striped Women’s Bikini, flown upside down.. burned..
    Think of other flags that might get called “American” — the Confederate flag, the flag of the original thirteen…
    And think of the symbolic power invested in each of these…
    Do we really want decision-makers — or popular opinion — getting confused about the specific meanings of specific flags at specific times and in specific places?

    So there are specific flags, and specific contexts in which they’re waved — or trashed.  There are also specific audiences — I’ve mentioned decision makers and popular opinion, but pundits need to be up to speed, too… as do analysts at various levels “up the ladder” to the folks who write and approve NIEs. 
    Photographers — just where you point your camera, which flag or flags are visible — editors — which pics you chose —
    You remember the photo of the naked girl running from napalm in Vietnam? or its Palestinian equivalent, the Muhammad al Durra incident, with the young Palestinian boy allegedly killed in his father’s arms, which has become iconic across wide swathes of the Islamic world? — Doreen Cavajal wrote in the NYT that “it is the harrowing image of a terrified 12-year-old boy, shielded in vain by his father, that carries the iconic power of a battle flag”…
    Whether real or staged, Iconic images have impact, and often serve as tipping points.  And what images are more naturally iconic than flags?


  5. Mr. Orange Says:

    Just an addition on the ISI flag as AQ flag. I have often argued against this for the simple reason that AQC has never used this flag. The only other AQ group using it is AQAP. AQMI does not use it.
    It first became popular with smaller salafî-jihâdî groups, mainly in Gaza. Granted, this has spread internationally but still it is not the AQ flag but the salafî-jihâdî flag. Take Mali for example: Tawhîd wa-l Jihâd uses it, al Mulathamûn who pledge to AQC uses the traditional white shahâdah on black.
    As Aaron mentioned this salafî-jihâdî notion of the flag tends to be blurred. Non-violent salafîs began using it and more and more religious people believe it to be in fact the Prophet’s flag (interviews with protesters flying that flag in Egypt by al-Monitor).
    The latest version of AQC’s has a golden shahâdah on black. Before the shahâdah was white, sometimes a sword underneath sometimes not. Mind you, that design was very common in the 90s and not solely used by AQC, or even jihâdîs. Hizb al-Tahrîr used the very same flag.
    Someone flying the new flag (golden) could be said to use the AQ flag because it has till date not been used by anyone else. This is different for the ISI flag and for the Islamic Emirate (Tâlibân) flag which has the shahâdah in black on white. 

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Mr Orange.
    What this boils down to, I’m beginning to think, is that flag + context is far more informative & less likely to lead us astray than flag alone. If someone is waving any sort of banner, black, white, green, with or without shahada, while also quoting the Khorasan ahadith, then they’re thinking, either in belief or as propaganda, of the Mahdi’s soon coming and a jihadist army from Iran, Afghanistan etc, sweeping down and taking Jerusalem. With Ghazwa-e-Hind associations, there’s still a Mahdist strain, but the focus is the “second prong” into India. And in both those cases, there would be further information available regarding the strategic geography involved.  Absent the hadith or similar context, it’s a much more open question.
    I use those examples because Khorasan and Ghazwa-e-Hind are particular interests of mine; others with different local focus will have similar ways of distinguishing what constitutes a specific group or movement indicator, and what’s just a natural diffusion of imagery, signifying — as you point out — “the prophet’s flag” and potentially flown by non-jihadists as well as jihadists.

  7. larrydunbar Says:

    I wonder how confusing it is for someone who takes it out of context the words of someone like a POTUS candidate and a member of congress Michelle Bachman, who say the second coming of Christ will be in her life time (non-jihadist), and a commander of the US military in Iraq who says (at least in the video I saw) that they are doing Gods work (jihadist) in Iraq?
    They both are each under the same flag, but they don’t really represent the people of the USA?

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Larry:
    It’s all very handy for “lumpers” but tricky for “splitters” — or “splittists” perhaps? ; )

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

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