On an August morning in 2014, someone noticed a black flag hanging outside a rundown duplex in suburban New Jersey. He could not make out its Arabic, but he recognized the design from horrific news reports about ISIS, in which masked jihadists fought under the banner to realize their dark vision of God’s rule on earth. Alarmed, the passerby sent a picture of the house and its flag to a friend, who promptly tweeted it and informed the Department of Homeland Security.
What ISIS Really Wants
The flag’s owner, Mark Dunaway, had converted to Islam a decade prior, he explained to the police when they arrived, and he flew the flag to mark Muslim holidays. “Every Muslim uses that black flag,” he said. “You’ll find it in any mosque in the world.” Still, he took it down. “I understand now that people turn on CNN and see the flag associated with jihad, but that’s not the intention … at all. It says, ‘There is only one god, Allah, and the prophet Mohammed is his messenger.’ It’s not meant to be a symbol of hate.” Dunaway, like many Muslims and even Middle East experts, did not know that the flag had been designed by ISIS in 2006. He and others were confused because the Islamic State had used terror and Twitter to advertise its brand, and Islamic tradition to obscure its meaning.
Before the group declared itself the caliphate reborn that summer, it had been ambiguous about the flag’s meaning and the cause it represented. Was it the flag of an Islamic state, or the flag of the Islamic state—the caliphate that had once ruled land from Spain to Iran and whose prophesied return would herald the end of the world? The Islamic State encouraged the second interpretation but let the global community of jihadists read into the flag and the “state” what they would. The group’s cause proved so compelling among jihadists that in 2014 the organization supplanted its former master, al-Qaeda. The spread of the flag, then, traces the spread of an idea and chronicles a major changing of the guard in the global jihadist movement.
When the Islamic State first announced itself on October 15, 2006, it had no flag of its own. It was not until January 2007 that al-Qaeda’s media distribution arm, al-Fajr, released a picture of the Islamic State’s new flag. Anonymous authors affiliated with the Islamic State explained its design, quoting passages from Islamic scripture and historical accounts. “The flag of the prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, is a black square made of striped wool,” according to one account. Another describes Mohammed “standing on the pulpit preaching” surrounded by fluttering black flags. “On the flag of the prophet was written, ‘No god but God, and Mohammed is the Messenger of God.’” The flag even had a name: “the eagle.”
Although the authors acknowledged other reports of green, white, and yellow flags, they concluded the Islamic State’s flag would be black, because most of the reports about Mohammed mentioned a black flag. The authors were equally confident when explaining the banner’s text. “What is written on the flag is what is written on the flag of the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him.”
half of all Muslims in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia expected the imminent appearance of the Mahdi. And why wouldn’t they, given the revolutions sweeping the Arab world? The signs that herald his coming have only multiplied since. A great sectarian war tears Syria asunder. Iraq is in chaos. The “infidel” West has invaded. The “tribulations” are too awful and apparent to brook mundane explanations.
This article has been adapted from William McCants’s new book, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.