The matter of the Black Banners and Benghazi

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.

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