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Ali Soufan: AQ, Khorasan and the Black Banners

[ by Charles Cameron — yet more black banners, Khorasan, Jerusalem and Armageddon, with the usual strategic implications ]

It’s beginning to be embarrassing how obvious the Khorasan / black banner / Mahdism meme is getting these days.  Earlier this week I pointed it out as the basic through-line of Syed Saleem Shahzad‘s Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11. Today it’s Ali Soufan‘s turn.

In his book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al-Qaeda — which I hope to review here — Soufan too makes the apocalyptic significance of AQ’s jihad painfully apparent. Take his title, for instance

Black banners, eh?

Those would presumably be the ones mentioned to Soufan by Abu Jandal, who began to quote the hadith:

If you see the black banners coming from Khurasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them —

at which point Soufan broke in and completed the hadith for him:

— and they will finally read Baitul Maqdis [Jerusalem], where they will erect their flags.

And in case you missed it, that’s an explicitly end-times, Mahdist hadith, as you can see from (eg) this Hizb-ut-Tahrir-associated site:

Messenger of Allah said: “If you see the Black Banners coming from Khurasan go to them immediately, even if you must crawl over ice, because indeed amongst them is the Caliph, Al Mahdi.” [Narrated on authority of Ibn Majah, Al-Hakim, Ahmad]

Soufan goes on to say:

I was to hear that reputed hadith from many al-Qaeda members I interrogated. It was one of al-Qaeda’s favorites.

Khurasan is a term for a historical region spanning northeastern and eastern Iran and parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and northwestern Pakistan. Because of the hadith, jihadists believe that this is the region from which they will inflict a major defeat against their enemies — in the Islamic version of Armageddon. Bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war against the United States – a main text for al-Qaeda members – ends with the dateline “Friday, August 23, 1996, in the Hindu Kush, Afghanistan.” It’s not a coincidence that bin Laden made al-Qaeda’s flag black; he also regularly cited the hadith and referenced Khurasan when recruiting, motivating, and fundraising. Al-Qaeda operatives I interrogated were often convinced that, by joining al-Qaeda, they were fulfilling the words of the Prophet.

It is an indication of how imperfectly we know our enemy that to most people in the West, and even among supposed al-Qaeda experts, the image of the black banners means little…

I could go on, but that’s surely enough.


And by the way, who is that man on the cover, anyway?


11 Responses to “Ali Soufan: AQ, Khorasan and the Black Banners”

  1. Matt Says:

    Excellent post. It is interesting that pirates used to fly just plain black flags during the 17th and 18th century. They too eventually modified and added to the flag with all sorts of symbols to spice it up. 

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Just a quick note to say: Yes, the quotes (1, 2 and 4) are from Soufan’s book — but I  was working from a google Bo0oks e-version, so don’t have any page numbers.  I’ll update this post when I get a hard copy.

  3. david ronfeldt Says:

    more fascinating material about millenarian tendencies among jihadists!  many thanks for keeping the theme going here, charles.

    i’m reminded again, however, that for over a decade it’s not been a popular theme among experts on terrorism, many of whom used to dismiss it.  and, although maybe i missed something, i don’t recall it figuring in the myriad recent 9/11 write-ups about the evolution of al qaeda and other trends that may affect the future of terrorism. 

    yet, i’d hazard that a series of ongoing trends will increase the appeal of millenarianism among jihadi forces.  my list includes the shattering of al qaeda, an ill outcome to the arab spring, a deepening sense of disaster (political, socio-economic, tribal, natural, whatever) in the societies that generate potential recruits,  and … well, i’m not sure what else to add, but i’d be interested in your own and others’ thoughts.

  4. david ronfeldt Says:

    for a marvellous exception to what i said above about the dearth of attention to millenarian themes in recent 9/11 write-ups, see richard landes’ post (really a reprise) comparing the medieval christian warrior roland (“song of roland”) to osama bin laden at

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, David.
    I’ve actually known Richard Landes for a dozen years or more — since my friend Stephen O’Leary introduced me to him (and to their Center for Millennial Studies at BU, where I was the point man for millennarian aspects of Y2K) — and hope to have a review of his very new and impressive book, Heaven on Earth, here shortly.
    Another 9-11 retrospective with a millennial focus was this one from Tim Furnish at MahdiWatch.
    I think it will take a post to respond properly to your question in #3.  :  )

  6. Bryan Alexander Says:

    Following Matt, I’m reminded of the anarchist use of black.
    (Not to mention the Rolling Stones’.  "I see a red door and I want it painted black…")

  7. leslie Says:

    I never for one minute believed that Saadam has nuclear weapons.  We were lied to by our government and our emotions on 9/11 were used in the worst of ways.  This book confirms what a piece of shit Bush was, and Rumsfiled and Cheney.  May they all rot in hell for what they have done to this country!

  8. Al Qaeda: AQ Raises The Black Banner In Libya | Feral Jundi Says:

    […] background and discussion about the black banner that jihadists rally around, check out this post over at Zen […]

  9. Sarah Says:

    There are two black banners mentioned in Thawban hadiths. And as the saying goes blood thirsty scholars love to cut short and interpretate the messenger words as they feel fit
    but here is a summary then long form
    1. the hadith first says ‘ black banners will come out and kill you ( this is after 9/11. Those black banners belong to Black Water /US Mercenery firm. They will kill you like unlike any other before ( new age aerial weapons/drones, bombs, etc. Because true muslims don’t kill Muslims)
    2. the last part of the hadith says ‘ then black banners will come out, when you see these  banner , join it because they set as other hadith says is going to the Mahdi in Syria where they will eliminate the Sufyani excution stye, find the first set of relics of the ARK, freeing Gaza and planting its banner/government of the Mahdi in Jerusalem/Elya for 72 months/6yrs while the Third temple of Solomon will be constructed
    Quba bin Abi Zainab came to Jerusalem to seek refuge. Raja’a bin Abi Salma asked him “Maybe you are afraid of the West?’
    He said ‘No! Their evil will not spread until the Black flags appear. And when they do, then fear the evil of the West”
    (Naeem bin Hammad- Kitab ul Fitan)
    THE FOLLOWING STATEMENTS’ He said ‘No! Their evil will not spread until the Black flags appear. And when they do, then fear the evil of the West” ‘ IS IN CONNECTION WITH THE FIRST MENTION OF THE SET OF BLACK BANNERS OF THAWBAN’S HADITH ” and they will kill you in a way that has never before been done by a nation ”
    The Prophet (saas) said: “Before your treasure, three will kill each
    other — all of them are sons of a different caliph but none will
    be the recipient. Then the Black Banners will appear from
    the East and they will kill you in a way that has never before
    been done by a nation.”
    Thawban, a companion said: ‘Then he said something that I
    do not remember by heart then continued to say that the
    Prophet, praise and peace be upon him, said: “If you see him
    give him your allegiance, even if you have to crawl over ice,
    because surely he is the Caliph of Allah, the Mahdi. If you see
    the black (meaning war) 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.”(Son of Majah, Al Busiri, Al Hakim,
    Ahmad Nuaym, Ad-Daylami, Hasan, son of Sufyaan, and Abu
    Ibne Majah Page 300, Also in Ahmad’s Musnad, al-Haakim’s
    Mustadrak and others *Note:[The authenticity of this hadith
    is duscussed in the end ]

  10. abu muslim khurasani Says:

    First taliban dont use black banners, their offical flag is white.
    And Ahmad, at-Tirmidhi and Nu’aym ibn Hammad narrated from Abu Hurayrah [radhiyallahu ‘anhu]
    that he said: “The Messenger of Allah [sallallahu ‘alayhi wa-sallam] said:

    “Black banners will come out of Khurasan, and nothing will stop them, until they are raised in Ayliya’ [i.e. Bayt al-Maqdis].”

    Has been fullfilled with the ottomans. The turks have used black flags when they moved forward from khorasan.
    This and the others predicting the Mahdi also reffering to the turks. The Mahdi will come among turks.
    298/2″Soon black banners will come forward from Khurasan, if you see them then go to them even if you have to crawl over ice, for among them is Allah’s khalifah, the Mahdi.”

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily rely on Wikipedia for information about the Taliban. Most of the evidence I’ve seen comes from videos, and they aren’t indexed so it’s not easy to search for a particular video.  However this para from a Grande Strategy page may be enough to be going on with:

    Very interestingly, the Taliban hail from the Pashtun ethnicity and have traditionally used two flags, a white flag with a black Shahada (Kalma) embossed for their government and diplomatic purposes and a reversal of this i.e. a black flag with a white Shahada embossed for their military. These types of black flags are also vividly seen across the tribal Pashtun areas that are now reportedly under the control of Pakistani Taliban.

    Grande Strategy offers Strategy & Analysis, Islamic Perspective


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