Michael Totten

Al Qaeda’s Flag Flies in Benghazi

Earlier I recommended watching Vice magazine’s The Rebels of Libya, and I hope everyone did. The guys at Vice produce some of the best video journalism around.

After the program aired, Sherif Elhelwa, their fixer in Benghazi, filed a disturbing story for the Web site. An Al Qaeda flag—the black flag that says “There is no God but Allah” above a full moon—is flying from the courthouse in Benghazi.

Earlier this week, I went to the Benghazi courthouse and confirmed the rumors: an al Qaeda flag was clearly visible; its Arabic script declaring that “there is no God but Allah” and a full moon underneath. When I tried to take pictures, a Salafi-looking guard, wearing a green camouflage outfit, rushed towards me and demanded to know what I was doing. My response was straightforward: I was taking a picture of the flag. He gave me an intimidating look and hissed, “Whomever speaks ill of this flag, we will cut off his tongue. I recommend that you don’t publish these. You will bring trouble to yourself.”

He followed me inside the courthouse, but luckily my driver Khaled was close by, and interceded on my behalf. According to Khaled, the guard had angrily threatened to harm me. When I again engaged him in conversation, he told me “this flag is the true flag of Islam,” and was unresponsive when I argued with him that historically Islam has never been represented by a single flag. The guard claimed repeatedly that there is no al Qaeda in Libya, and that the flag flying atop the courthouse is “dark black,” while the al Qaeda flag is charcoal black. To many locals, it’s a distinction without a difference. One man approached me with a friendly warning: “I recommend that you leave now; [the Islamist fighters] could be watching you.”

Al Qaeda doesn’t control Libya, but it’s obviously present and coming out of the shadows. And there’s no chance whatsoever that Al Qaeda will participate in elections and lose gracefully. If Libya’s authorities don’t do something about this, and fast, they—and we—should expect hell.