When an armed assailant seized control of a café in downtown Sydney on Monday morning and forced two hostages to hold a black flag with Arabic script up to the window, many observers were quick to claim that ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State that now dominates about a third of Iraq and Syria, was involved. The flag proved it!
It’s not that simple. Islamic groups, terrorist and otherwise, have adopted many different flags with Arabic script on them over the years. In August, members of the Kurdish community mistook a Palestinian flag with Islamic declarations on it for the ISIS flag, resulting in a violent fight. Over the summer, a New Jersey resident was pressured to take down a black flag bearing the shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith (“There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God”) after someone reported it to the Department of Homeland Security. The Jersey man had flown the flag for 10 years, and insisted (correctly) that it had nothing to do with ISIS. The ISIS flag features the shahada, but most flags with the shahada on them are not ISIS flags. In Sydney, the “ISIS” flag in the window was actually a simple black flag bearing the shahada.
Many Islamic flags look alike for a reason. “It’s not a coincidence that bin Laden made Al Qaeda’s flag black,” former FBI agent Ali Soufan writes in The Black Banners, his history of the fight against Al Qaeda. As Soufan notes, an Islamic hadith says that horsemen bearing black flags will ride from the historic Islamic city of Khurasan toward Jerusalem on the eve of the apocalypse: “Black banners will appear from the East and they will kill you in a way that has never before been done by a nation.” Many Islamic flags—especially those of militant groups—are black in reference to this hadith. Because of this—and the fact that few Westerners can read Arabic—it’s easy to mix up Islamic flags, extremist and otherwise. Here’s a brief guide (although it’s important to note that many Islamic militant groups use more than one flag):
1. Jabhat al-Nusra:
Jabhat al-Nusra is an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Its flag includes the white inscription at the top of the flag, which is the shahada, or the Islamic declaration of faith. Underneath the shahada is the name “Jabhat al-Nusra” in Arabic.
2. ISIS, or the Islamic State:
ISIS’s flag features a handwritten, rougher version of the shahada. The top line reads: “La ‘ilaha ‘illa-llah,” meaning “There is no god but God,” and the white seal reads “God Messenger Mohammed.” The script is much less elaborate than other flags with similar messages. The white seal is meant to resemble the official seal of the Prophet Muhammad, though experts have debated what the seal actually looked like.
Al-Shabaab, an extremist Islamist group based in Somalia, uses a war flag that is the same as the one used by ISIS, though their “administration” flag uses the opposite colors—black inscriptions with a white background.
3. The Taliban:
The Taliban chose a white flag with a black inscription of the shahada when it took power over Afghanistan in 1997. There is some controversy over whether the flag was green, though most sources use the white flag now.
4. Al Qaeda:
The black flag with a yellow inscription and circle has been identified as belonging to a coalition of groups in the Islamic State of Iraq, which merged with Al Qaeda in 2004. It was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to Jihadism: Online Discourses and Representation by Rüdiger Lohlker. Al Qaeda still uses this flag, though it sometimes uses white instead of yellow.
5. Caucasian Emirate:
The Caucuses Emirate began after Chechen separatists failed to defeat Russian federal forces in multiple conflicts in the 1990s. The group practices radical Salafism and hopes to establish an independent Caucauses Emirate under Shariah law. Many smaller groups exist under the banner of the Caucuses Emirate. The flag resembles the official flag of Saudi Arabia, including the shahada and a sword, but uses black as its background color.
6. Official Flag of Saudi Arabia:
The flag of Saudi Arabia, officially adopted in 1973, also features the shahada: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” It is green because it was rumored that green was Muhammad’s favorite color. The sword represents the founding dynasty of the country, the House of Saud, and its military victories.
The flag of Hamas, the largest Palestinian militant movement and one of its two primary political groups, features the shahada on a green background. Hamas is a Sunni Islamist group, and is designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.
9. Boko Haram:
Boko Haram, the radical Islamist militants in Nigeria known for kidnapping hundreds of young school girls in Chibok, have a symbol which features a simple black Islamic flag bearing the shahada atop an open book and crossed guns. The logo appears in videos purportedly released by Boko Haram, where the large black flags also appear in the background. Boko Haram sometimes carries black flags with white inscriptions on top and a white circle below similar to the ISIS flag, making it challenging to assess whether or not the group has an official flag.