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.

Page 1 of 3 | Next page