No, that wasn’t an al-Qaeda Flag over Benghazi

I asked a Libyan scholar about the silly urban legend going around that an “al-Qaeda” flag flew from a government building in Benghazi recently.

Here is what he said:

” I looked up the mentioned flag, it appears to be a black flag with the shahada [Muslim profession of faith] in it. A black flag goes back all the way to the prophet, and the addition of the shahada makes it a Jihadist flag. There have been Jihadists in Libya from day one, and they fought against Qaddafi. But is Al-Qaeda, as in the global network taking over? No.

Between Tripoli and Benghazi, Benghazi has been the center of Islamist activities, and since the beginning of the revolution they’ve had more time to organize. But they’ve not overwhelmed Benghazi and the more radical of them have limited support despite their vocal presence.

The struggle among the big coalitions is mainly between 1) the “Muslim Brotherhood Lite,” 2) Libyan nationalist conservatives (as represented by Abdel Rahim Al-Keeb– though he’s not the leader of this current); and 3) the “Muslim Brotherhood Heavy” represented by Sheikh Ali Al-Salabi and Abdul Hakim Belhaj.

Smaller but still important are the liberals. Mahmoud Jibril, Ali Tarhouni, and Mahmoud Shammam represent the liberals. There are also some leftist liberals.

And of course, there is the tiny faction of Jihadis, who raised the flag in Benghazi.

Salabi and Belhaj, formerly more radical, now want to exit the Jihadi tent. And the end of the revolution has made it less necessary to talk Jihad per se. The square facing the court house in Benghazi is no longer the site of the Friday prayers, so that in itself is causing some diffusion, and represents an attempt to temper the religious rhetoric that dominated the period when the fighting was still going on.

In essence the percentages, as to people’s political alignments, have not changed. But everyone is more demonstrative now (including showing the ability to cause havoc) as ideological and regional jostling begins in earnest.”

Most journalists and Western pundits don’t know much about the actual currents of Libyan Islam now becoming vocal in Libyan politics, and as they used to say in the baseball stadiums, you can’t tell one player from another without a program. This indigenous scholar’s program should be taken seriously.

Moreover, the black flag as a symbol is not a monopoly of al-Qaeda. Revolutionaries raised a black flag in the medieval Abbasid Revolution of 750 AD.

As for jihadis equalling “al-Qaeda,” that is also ridiculous. The Mujahidin who fought the Soviets in the 1980s were jihadis. Ronald Reagan called them “Freedom Fighters” and the “equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers.”

We knew all along that a small group of jihadis fought Qaddafi brigades in the revolution. But there is no evidence that they were a core group or that you can just write off the Libyan revolution as “al-Qaeda,” as Muammar and Saif Qaddafi said.

What this informed observer is saying is that a miniscule group of jihadists put up that flag, in the chaos of the post-revolutionary period, but that they are highly unrepresentative of politics in Benghazi.

It would be as though the small group of Tea Party members who support Occupy Wall Street raised a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag over Zucotti Park. It would not indicate that the Tea Party was taking over the OWS movement, only that they are one small vocal faction within it.

8 Responses

  1. Dear Juan, that flag has a white circle below the script, which is not common and often referred to qaidists (although generally the script and the circle are in yellow). A “shahada flag” is very common (as for example the saudi flag). It is more “salafist” in general than “qaidist” in particular. So that flag does not mean “qaidists” rule Libya, that’s true. However I have some concerns

  2. The involvement of jihadists in the Arab Spring uprisings is not a bug, it’s a feature. It’s wonderful that jihadists have joined into a coalition with nationalists and secular liberals and moderate Islamists. It’s wonderful that they are becoming involved in electoral politics.

    Providing a peaceful, democratic path for the more militant Islamists to pursue their agenda – an alternative to the al Qaeda route – is an important reason for liberal democrats to support these uprisings.

    “Hey, Zawahiri, how many corrupt governments have your bombs toppled? Because our crowds have taken down three.”

  3. The flag I’m curious about is one I’ve seen a couple times, but haven’t been able to find any references for. It has three horizontal segments, Blue atop green atop yellow (almost as if to indicate water, the green coast, and the desert). And laid over all three, vertically, a red symbol that looks like a mirrored greek psi, or three-prong pitchfork with prongs at both ends.

    • Eric, the flag you are talking about is the flag of the Berber or Amazigh nationality. They are an ethnic minority in Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria and are the remnants of some of the indigenous (originally non-Arab) culture. Gaddafi tried to stomp them out or pretend they did not exist. That flag was banned under his regime.

  4. Who would stand to benefit the most by the proliferation of rumors of “Al Qaeda” flags, sounding the alarm re the presence of Al Qaeda in Libya? Why would an oil analyst on the payroll at Platts have such a keen interest in Al Qaeda in Libya?

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