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The matter of the Black Banners and Benghazi

[ by Charles Cameron — flag of AQ in Iraq, Benghazi, implications for Arab Spring, for AQ, millennarian / Mahdist implications, cautions ]


black banner of the Mahdi at Omdurman 

The question of whether a certain flag flying in Benghazi and elsewhere is in fact an (or teh) Al-Qaida flag has now reached Andrew Sullivan.

Sullivan quotes Will McCants of Jihadica at some length, and also links to the relevant pieces by Aaron Zelin of Jihadology and Adam Serwer, now of Mother Jones. McCants and Zelin are very much the right people to be reading on this topic, and while Serwer’s remit is wider, he’s a bright lad too.

Here’s Sullivan’s money quote from McCants:

[The flag’s] appearance in Benghazi certainly raises questions… Nevertheless, the appearance of the flag in other Arab countries is not necessarily evidence of growing support for al Qaeda or terrorist group’s presence. It could just as easily be youth taking advantage of their newfound freedom to scare their elders, or repressed Salafis using the most shocking symbol possible to voice their anger in public. There is also an element of “Wish You Were Here” photography to many of the photos of the ISI’s flag being unfurled around the Arab world and posted in jihadi forums. This is not to say that the appearance of the flags, particularly in protests, should be ignored. But more corroborating evidence is needed before hitting the panic button.


I want to take this a step further.

As McCants very briefly and understatedly indicates in his piece, black flags or banners are associated in Islam not only with the Prophet, but with the Figure at the Far End of Time, the one that’s awaited, the Mahdi. So there are really two questions raised by the presence of these flags:


Are they at some level indicative of Al Qaida?

That’s the question that people seem to be asking, and answering with either an incautious, unqualified “yes yes” or a more cautious and informed “maybe, but let’s not jump to hasty conclusions, there are many shades of influence between vague sympathy and radical participation”.

The “more corroborating evidence” that McCants feels is needed “before hitting the panic button” might include some unobtrusive interviews with the folks waving (or hoisting) those banners, or cheering them on, to see what a bunch of them have to say for themselves… But to me, that’s the less interesting of the two questions.

More interesting, because it deals with the undertow not the height of the tide, how flammable the kindling is, rather than whether it has already been ignited, its potential, not just its currently kinetic energy… is this one:


Are these flags at some level indicative of Mahdist expectation?

Black banners are associated in ahadith with the “end times” expectation that a triumphant army will sweep from Khorasan to Jerusalem.

I have covered this ground repeatedly on ZP, because I believe it is underplayed in most western narratives on the topic of jihad, and most recently I’ve pointed to its significance in Ali Soufan‘s recent book, The Black Banners.  Fwiw, the black flags are also mentioned, and a version of the Khorasan hadith cited, in Syed Saleem Shahzad‘s book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, pp 200-01, though there the emphasis is on the ghazwa-e-hind, a topic I’ll be returning to…

Here’s one version of the hadith:

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]

Here’s Ali Soufan’s comment on what he learned as an Arabic speaking FBI interrogator of such AQ figures as KSM and Abu Jandal:

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

So – along side the question of what the specific flag in question (with the Shahada and Prophet’s seal) means in terms of support for AQ within parts of the Arab Spring — there’s another question to be quietly and unobtrusively investigated – overlapping to some extent with the AQ question, but separate, distinct, less “obvious” to western minds, and in some ways more significant.

What does the presence of this particular black banner, or any black banner more generally, tell us about the state of apocalyptic expectation?


Use with caution:

Just as the presence of black flags may indicate any number of different shades of interest in or sympathy with AQ, so that presence may indicate any number of different shades of interest in or sympathy with Mahdist expectations.

Here again, “more corroborating evidence” is needed “before hitting the panic button” – and here again, that would presumably require some unobtrusive interviews with the folks waving (or hoisting) those banners, or cheering them on, to see what a bunch of them actually have to say for themselves… about the Mahdi, about the end times and “final war” — and most of all, specifically about the hadith regarding black banners, and the victorious army from Khorasan.

Let me just quote from the opening paragraph of Timothy Furnish‘s book Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden, and from the closing paragraph of Richard Landes‘ monumental, magisterial overview, Heaven on Earth: the Varieties of the Millennial Experience.


Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.


I respectfully submit that we will do better in the face of this immense challenge if we understand the varieties and dynamics of the most protean belief in human history: millennialism.


And let me add one further caution:

This one is about the analysis of those unobstrusive — and I do mean, unobtrusive! — interviews, and also about quotes like the ones I’ve just given from Furnish and Landes.

The excitable (Richard Landes calls them “roosters”) will tend to overstate the current of apocalyptic enthusiasm, because it’s exciting — because they will in fact by the very nature of apocalyptic expectation be what Landes terms “semiotically aroused”.  The cautious (Landes calls them “owls”) on the other hand, will understate the current, because it seems jejeune or hysterical (compare, in the west, the way we mock the old guy with tattered coat and “end is nigh” banner).

So our analysis (and our reading of any materials concerning apocalyptic expectation, including my own posts here on ZP) needs to be alert, but not excited.  Neither overstating, nor overlooking, a matter of considerable significance.

4 Responses to “The matter of the Black Banners and Benghazi”

  1. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Charles,
    Your illustration is the cover for Charles Hill’s Trial of a Thousand Years. Seems Hill is finding something of a home here:))

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Scott:
    And yes, that’s probably where I first saw it.  But then again, it’s also on the cover of Winston Churchill’s The River War, Philip Warner’s Dervish, and Michael Asher’s Khartoum
    Apparently, it’s by Robert Talbot Kelly.

  3. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Charles,
    My copy of The River War doesn’t have a dust jacket and I don’t have/haven’t read the other two—thanks for the source.

  4. Lexington Green Says:

    The painting is called, most awesomely, The Flight of the Khalifa after his Defeat at the Battle of Omdurman.  Robert Talbot Kelly is a new minor artistic deity for the pantheon.  

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