Those black banners / AQ flags, revisited

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

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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.

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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.

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