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The Sydney Gunman’s Failed Message

A radical Islamist seized hostages in a café yesterday in Sydney, Australia. Sixteen hours later police shot him dead. At least two of his captives died and several others are seriously injured.

Shortly after he took over the café, he forced some of the hostages to hold a black flag up to the glass for news cameras to photograph. It is known variously as the black standard, the jihad flag, and the Salafist flag. It’s similar in some ways to the Saudi flag. It’s also similar to the black flag of the Abbasid caliphate.

Anybody who flies it is potentially dangerous.

Salafism is a relatively recent Islamic ideology (less than 150 years old) that arose as a reaction against 19th century Western imperialism in general and the liberal Western ideas that began percolating into the Middle East at the time, which was not ruled by Western imperialists but mostly by the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire.

Salafists wish to remove all modern “innovations” from Islam and to bring back the 7th century version as practiced by Mohammad. They also wish to build a caliphate—a state—based on the 7th century model. Some of them would be content to do this non-violently, but others are a little less, shall we say, patient.

So an individual won’t necessarily be violent just because he’s a Salafist—especially not in the Persian Gulf region where their numbers are huge—but Al Qaeda and ISIS are the armed wings of the Salafist movement.

When the Australian gunman forced his hostages to hold that flag up to the glass, he was identifying himself as a Salafist. But no one in media seemed to know what that flag is. Reporters just described it as “a flag with some Arabic writing on it,” as if it’s just some random flag from anywhere that could have meant anything.

The guman sent a message, but it wasn’t received. And we know he was monitoring the news in real time. He was directly across the street from an Australian news channel. He wanted attention, but he was not getting the attention he wanted. Reporters couldn’t even figure out who he was when he clearly identified himself and his ideology.

Hours into the standoff, he demanded an ISIS flag in return for the release of one of the hostages. CNN anchors wondered aloud why, if he wanted an ISIS flag, he didn’t just bring one with him in the first place. But he did bring a Salafist flag. He must assumed that at least somebody would recognize it and explain it to the audience. I recognize it because I’ve been working in the Middle East for ten years, but news anchors are generally not experts in anything in particular except presenting information on television. They’re generalists.

Would the standoff have ended better if the man had more quickly succeeded in delivering his initial message without all the mounting frustration of being misunderstood? Probably not. Obviously, since he took hostages at gunpoint, he was not from the non-violent wing of the Salafist movement. Nevertheless, it’s time for Westerners who aren’t Middle East experts to know who the Salafists are and what they’re insignia looks like. They’ve been at war with us now for a long time.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

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