Charles Cameron, my regular guest blogger, is the former Senior Analyst with The Arlington Instituteand Principal Researcher with the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He specializes in forensic theology, with a deep interest in millennial, eschatological and apocalyptic religious sects of all stripes.
Khorasan: A Muslim Once and Future Kingdom
by Charles Cameron
The title of an interview in a Taliban sponsored magazine with Hammam Khalil al-Balawi — the Jordanian jihadist physician and double-agent / informant who signed himself Abu Dujana al-Khorasani on jihadist forums, and carried out the recent CIA bombing in Khost — is intriguing in a self-referential, “Doug Hofstadter might like this” sort of way:
Interview with Brother Abu Dujanah al-Khorasani, a Well-Known Blogger in Jihadi Forums, and a Newcomer to the Land of Khorasan.
In his appearances on the web, al-Balawi / Abu Dujana had given himself the geographic cognomen “al-Khorasani” meaning “from Khorasan” — yet he was a Jordanian by birth, and the interview title calls him a “newcomer” to Khorasan, while the interviewer himself remarks, “Abu Dujanah al-Khurasani (sic) is actually now inside Khorasan, and the decision to travel to the lands of jihad is a divine blessing and a magnificent grace.”
The Khorasan that Abu Dujana “is actually now inside” is presumably Afghanistan on the literal, geographical level — but what of the Khorasan of the mind and heart to which, as his choice of handle indicates, Abu Dujana must have long aspired?
What is the significance of “Khorasan”?
It’s a bit like “Jerusalem” — only yesterday I was reading that Grand Rapids, Michigan is referred to as “Jerusalem” by some folk of Dutch extraction in the Pacific Northwest. I think we’ll get the sense of the idea if we call it of “Khorasan of sacred memory and present hope”. As the UCLA scholar Jean Rosenfeld puts it (personal communication):
In any event, Khorasan refers to much more than a former region of the Islamic empires. It has a mythical meaning that is being taken seriously as a “once and future kingdom” in the millennial mindset of al-Qaida.
The territory once called Khorasan — and the borders covered by that name shifted a great deal over the centuries — covered parts of what we now know as Iran (which still has a province named Khorasan), Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and NW Pakistan. I’m finding references that suggest the name originally meant “the place where the sun rises” — the East, the Orient.
Rosenfeld suggests that Khorasan “is code in al-Qaida for the warrior sect itself” — “the army of the (future) caliphate in the mind of the International jihad” and thus, Al-Qaida in Fawaz Gerges’ broad sense. My own reading ties it in with the ahadith about the “black banners of Khorasan” and the army which will sweep down from Khorasan to Jerusalem…
As I’ve noted before there are many variant ahadith describing the army of the Mahdi. Here is one commonly cited version:
If you see the black flags coming from Khurasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice, for this is the army of the Caliph, the Mahdi and no one can stop that army until it reaches Jerusalem.”
Quite how we should align that with actual jihadist entities such as AQ core and or its subsidiaries or the various bodies called Taliban, however, I’m not sure. The clearest implication I can see is to the place of origin of the Mahdi’s army.
It is at least as much an eschatological as a geographic claim.
Since the imagery of Khorasan is closely tied to that of black flags, I would like to take a slight detour here. We have seen that the black flags signify the army of the Mahdi, but what are its origins, and how widely is it used?
The Islamic Imagery Project at West Point Combating Terrorism Center lists “Black Flag” under the heading “Warfare Motifs“, saying:
The Black Flag (al-raya) traces its roots to the very beginning of Islam. It was the battle (jihad) flag of the Prophet Muhammad, carried into battle by many of his companions, including his nephew ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. The flag regained prominence in the 8th century with its use by the leader of the Abbasid revolution, Abu Muslim, who led a revolt against the Umayyad clan and its Caliphate. The Umayyads, the ruling establishment of the Islamic world at the time, were seen as greedy, gluttonous, and religiously wayward leaders. The Abbasid revolution, then, was aimed at installing a new, more properly Islamic ruling house that would keep orthodox Islam at the center of its regime. Since then, the image of the black flag has been used as a symbol of religious revolt and battle (i.e. jihad). In Shiite belief, the black flag also evokes expectations about the afterlife. In the contemporary Islamist movement, the black flag is used to symbolize both offensive jihad and the proponents of reestablishing the Islamic Caliphate.
The flag is frequently identified with specific jihadist groups — thus Bill Roggio, writing in Long War Journal, refers to “the al rayah, the black flag of al Qaeda” in his 2007 article, “Musa Qala and the NATO offensive”.
Likewise, the Somalian president Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed in 2006 is reported to have spoken in 2006 of “the ‘black flag’ of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban” — and as recently as this month, Al-Shabaab “vowed to replace the Somali flag with its (al-Shabaab’s) black flag”.
So the Black Flags or banners represent the Prophet as warrior at one end of Islamic history and the Mahdi’s army from Khorasan at the other — and have been adopted as symbols of jihad by different groups from the Abbasids to al-Shabaab. They are indeed indicative of jihad, but it is their association with Khorasan that gives them a specifically Mahdist reference.
The defeat of the Umayyads and establishment of the Abbasid caliphate, and hence also the golden age of Islamic culture, was strongly supported by forces raised in Khorasan, and David Cook in his Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature suggests that “the Abbasids sought to present their movement as the fulfillment of messianic expectations, and so they produced a great quantity of materials given in the form of hadith traditions to indicate that the Mahdi would come from this region.”
The tale lives on. As I’ve mentioned before, Cook notes that bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam, made fresh use of this line of messianic tradition and “popularized the position of Afghanistan as the messianic precursor to the future liberation of Palestine” in his book, From Kabul to Jerusalem, while bin Laden refers to finding “a safe base in Khurasan, high in the peaks of the Hindu Kush” in his 1996 Declaration of Jihad.
The spiritual geography, then, is clear: Khorasan is that place in the east, somewhere in the general region including eastern Iran and northern Afghanistan, from which the Mahdi’s army will come — and it is very plausibly also a place the jihadist might need to “crawl over ice” to reach.
I think Rosenfeld is right in suggesting that al-Balawi’s geographic cognomen is a significant one, as is “Abu Dujana” — the name of a particularly valiant companion of the Prophet, as I discussed in a previous post.
But which of the various jihadist forces currently deployed in Afghanistan and nearby might be the nucleus of the Mahdi’s forces? The army with black flags from Khorasan has been identified with the Abbasids, with the Iranian revolutionaries, and with the Taliban. Bin Laden would presumably wish for it to be with al-Qaida, and Cook also says, this time in Understanding Jihad:
Since Afghanistan, as Khurasan, has powerful resonance with many Muslims because of the messianic expectations focused on that region, this gave the globalist radical Muslims associated with al-Qa’ida under the leadership of Bin Ladin additional moral authority to proclaim jihad and call for the purification of the present Muslim governments and elites.
In Jordan via the jihadist web forums, al-Balawi signaled his identification with the victorious army of the coming Mahdi and with jihadists in Afghanistan by his choice of the cognomen “al-Khorasani” — but the name alone does not tell us which particular jihadist group he might have been thinking of, and that may not even have been an question he felt the need to resolve at that time.
Once in Khorasan itself, al-Khorasani left us two “media” items, a magazine interview and a video, and we might hope that they would add to our understanding of the more literal, geographical meaning his name carried, for they clearly indicate his associations.
According to Flashpoint-Intel, who provided the version of the interview I’ve seen, al-Khorasani’s interview was given to “Vanguards of Khorasan” which they describe as “a well-known Taliban propaganda magazine” and released by the Al-Fajr Media Center, which they term “the official online logistical arm of Al-Qaida”. SITE refers to “Vanguards” as “the … magazine of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan”. Others more familiar with the logistics may want to clarify the point.
The video, then, seems to give the clearest indication. Al-Khorasani was taped sitting next to Hakimullah Mehsud, the head of the Terik- i-Taliban Pakistan or TPP (whose death in a drone strike is reported but unconfirmed at the time of writing), and indicated his allegiance with the words, “We will never forget the blood of our emir Baitullah Mehsud” — referring to Hakimullah’s predecessor.
In general, “Khorasan” doesn’t appear to function as code for a particular jihadist organization, but as a more general symbol for victorious jihad — coming from the East, faithful to the truth, unstoppable, ushering in the Caliphate, serving the cause of the Mahdi, and thus heralding the End of Days.
I’m intrigued to note that the Australian analyst / scholar Leah Farrall at All Things Counter Terrorism blogged on Abu Dujana today (after I’d “completed” this post) and closed her post with an aside. I’ll quote the whole paragraph for context, but it’s the last point that ties in here:
Another point of interest is Khorasani’s internet history circa 2001- 2003. Despite what Khorasani said in his interview in the Taliban magazine ( I think it was the Taliban mag if memory serves), one does not get to be a forum administrator overnight. I watched another person rise through the ranks this way and he had direct contact with a mid-level AQ commander. It still took him 18 months or so. This brings me back to my question about Khorsani’s early internet history and possible real world history. As an aside, back then, in the early days you didn’t write Khorasani, Kandahari etc unless you had been there. It was used as an identifier. This has changed in recent years but I do wonder about this with him too.
Leah’s curiosity on this point reminds me that along with the general symbolism of Khorasan, which I have tried to explore here, there are intriguing aspects to the particular use Abu Dujana made of the name.
I look forward to any further thoughts she may have.
Grateful thanks to Jean Rosenfeld for our very helpful conversations around this and related topics, and for the comment that gave me its title.