Recent days have seen a spate of stories about a mysterious flag appearing in Benghazi, Libya: a black banner that reads "No god but God" in distinctive white lettering with what could be a reproduction of the Prophet Mohammad's seal underneath.
"Were it not for the deficiencies of reporting on Libya in the mainstream Western media," writes John Rosenthal in the National Review, "the appearance of al-Qaeda flags in the capital of the anti-Qaddafi rebellion should come as no surprise." Writing for Vice, Sherif Elhelwa reports that he even saw the flag flying atop the famous Benghazi courthouse that became a hotbed of resistance in Muammar al-Qaddafi's waning days, and that his efforts to find out why it was there were met with suspicion and threats.
Some observers are concerned its appearance presages a growing al Qaeda presence in the country. Others question whether the flag is actually that of al Qaeda, noting that some nonviolent Islamist groups like Hizb al-Tahrir use a similar flag -- and that they, like al Qaeda, are simply following oral traditions about the design of the Prophet Mohammad's battle flag.
The picture of the flag in question in Benghazi is unclear, but it resembles that of al Qaeda Iraq's umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which is not identical to those used by other Islamist groups, nor is it necessarily a faithful reproduction of the Prophet's battle flag. When the ISI adopted the flag, it issued a statement in 2007 explaining its design. In the statement, the group relates oral traditions portraying Mohammad's battle flag as either black or white (other traditions say yellow) with the words "No god but God, Mohammad is the messenger of God" written on it. The ISI chose black for its flag because most accounts say the Prophet's flag was black, and chose the Muslim testimony of faith because many accounts said it was written on the Prophet's flag.
For the second half of the testimony of faith, "Mohammad is the messenger of God," the ISI reproduces the Prophet's seal. They contend that the seal's design is preserved in Ottoman manuscripts and its three-lined text, "God/Messenger/Mohammad," is mentioned in oral traditions about the Prophet. They have added this seal to their flag, they explain, because some Muslim scholars say that it appeared on the Prophet's flag.
The ISI ends its explanation by expressing its hope that the people of Iraq will adopt the flag when they go out to aid the Mahdi, an allusion to a messianic figure who will appear at the end of times to lead the final battle against the infidel and establish God's rule over the entire Earth. According to a number of traditions, the Mahdi will carry the black flag when he comes from the east.
Many supporters of al Qaeda have adopted the ISI's flag as their own and use it as an emblem for the wider jihadi movement. Its appearance in Benghazi certainly raises questions about the sympathies of some within the movement that ousted Muammar al-Qaddafi, adding to widespread reports of fighters sympathetic to al Qaeda among the rebels.
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.
What follows are some examples of similar flags popping up across the region over the last few months.