When the images of the Boston Marathon bombers first appeared on TV, one of the things that caught my attention was their hats. The one alleged bomber was wearing a black baseball cap with white markings; the other, a white baseball cap worn backwards with black markings. The white baseball cap, in particular, seemed an odd choice to me. If I had wanted to blend in with a crowd, the last thing I would have put on my head would have been a white hat! The bomber’s white baseball cap practically glowed. I don’t know if I’m the only one to experience this, but seeing the black and white baseball caps of the two bombers brought to mind the black banners with white Arabic writing that frequently form the backdrop in jihadist videos. We now know the identity of the bombers: two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Muslims of Chechen descent. As I watched the recurring images of the bombers on TV, I wondered (pure speculation, I know): Could it be that the Tsarnaev brothers were making some kind of statement with their black and white baseball caps? Or did the two bombers pull the two caps in question out of their hallway closets without a thought as they headed out the door to the Boston Marathon?
Black flags with white Arabic letters have come to be called “al-Qaeda flags.” The Arabic inscription on the flag is Islam’s shahada: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” Sometimes there’s a white disc on the flag as well which represents the Seal of Muhammad; at other times there are crossed swords. On some flags, the Arabic inscription and disc are yellow.
Although we’ve come to associate black flags with today’s jihadists, black flags go back to the earliest days of Islam. When Islam’s Prophet Muhammad went into battle, he carried a black woolen banner known as ar-Raya. The Quraysh tribe from which Muhammad was descended had as its flag a black banner with an eagle in the centre. Perhaps influenced by this, Muhammad chose a black banner, minus the eagle, as his standard. Muhammad and his men also used a white flag that they called al-Liwaa. The type of raid or battle in which he and his followers engaged seems to have determined which colour of flag, black or white, Muhammad carried. For instance, Muhammad and his men carried a white flag when they conquered and entered Mecca. After Muhammad’s death, some of his successors continued to fly a black flag. The flag of the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258) was black.
Black flags feature in a hadith (reported saying of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad) that has been embraced by jihadists. This particular hadith, believed by many Muslims to be prophetic, reads, “If you see the black 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.” Khurasan, sometimes spelled Khorasan, refers to modern-day northeastern Iran, parts of Central Asia, and Afghanistan. The appearance of warriors from this region bearing black war flags is a sign that the appearance of the long-awaited Mahdi is imminent.
The belief in the coming of an end-time saviour-figure, the ‘Mahdi’, is almost universal among Muslims, whether Sunni or Shia, although Sunnis don’t identify the Mahdi with the hidden Twelfth Imam of the Shias. The Mahdi’s arrival, Muslims believe, will usher in an age of social transformation. The Mahdi will be a direct descendant of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima. He will be the final caliph, i.e., Allah’s vice-regent on earth. He will lead a world revolution that will establish a new world order, an Islamic order, throughout the entire earth. Some will submit willingly to his authority. Those who don’t will be conquered by the Mahdi aided by the warriors with the black flags.
Did the Tsarnaev brothers see themselves as part of the Mahdi’s army? This would seem to be the case with the aspiring bomber, Chiheb Esseghaier, the Tunisian national recently arrested in Canada for plotting to bomb the railway line between New York City and Toronto. Esseghaier had posted a black flag with the shahada on his Linkedin page. For us in the West, the sight of a black flag should set off a red flag, for it announces: The warriors with the black flags from the east are here. And some of the warriors even wear baseball caps.