Why Jihadis are drawn to Khorasan

An apocalyptic hadith inspires extremists across the world. Tragically, chaos in Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban will spur them on.
Iraqi fighters of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units) stand next to a wall bearing the Islamic State (IS) group flag as they enter the city of al-Qaim, in Iraq's western Anbar province.
Iraqi fighters of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units) stand next to a wall bearing the Islamic State (IS) group flag as they enter the city of al-Qaim, in Iraq's western Anbar province. Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images
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On 14 September this year the Moroccan Security Service arrested three men in the Berber town of Errachidia who were affiliated to the Islamic State. They seized USB sticks and mobile telephones, paramilitary uniforms and documents from the Internet glorifying terrorist operations which referred to the far distant Khorasan as the new base for Jihad. When Osama Bin Ladin was forced to move from the Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996, he declared Jihad against America and announced that: ‘thanks be to God, a safe base was found in Khorasan, on the soil of the Hindu Kush where, thanks be to God, the largest heretic power on earth was destroyed and where the superpower myth vanished in the face of the mujahidin’s outcry of Allah Akbar.’ The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) suicide attack on Kabul Airport on 26 August demonstrated the capability and resilience of a terrorist group which has carried out a string of barbaric attacks since its formation in January 2015. What is Khorasan, and why does it matter?

Khorasan is a current geographical entity (the eastern Provinces of Iran) but is also a much larger historical and almost mythical land dating back to the Sassanian Empire which ruled Persia from the 3rd to the 7th century. It incorporated Iran, most of Afghanistan – including the cities of Herat and Balkh – and parts of what is now Central Asia. The exact boundaries are lost in the mists of time, although the Oxus (Amu Daria) river probably marked its northern limits. Not having modern boundaries makes it a place beyond modern conventions of statehood. 

But why does a place that doesn’t really exist have such a pull? The answer lies in the hadith, the sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet Muhammed as written down by his contemporary followers. Khorasan features in the apocalyptic ‘Hadith of the Black Flags’, which states that ‘there will emerge from the Khorasan black banners which nothing will repel until they are set up in Jerusalem,’ or in another version: ‘When the black flags come from Khorasan go to them, even if you have to crawl on ice, for among them is the Caliph from Allah, the Mahdi.’

There is deep history here: the hadith describing an army from the east wielding a black flag was used by the Abbasids in what is now Iran to build support for their revolt in 747 AD against the ruling Umayyad dynasty based in Damascus. Abbasid partisan Abu Muslim organised an underground resistance army in Khorasan to march from the East under the black standard, and the fight began in Merv (current day Turkmenistan), pushing westwards until the Abbasids had conquered all of Khorasan. They continued west into Mesopotamia, crossing the Euphrates in 749 and the Tigris in 750 before taking Damascus that same year. 

There is also resurrected history: when Osama bin Ladin chose to speak of Khorasan in 1996 he was invoking a prophetic and messianic tradition. It was not by coincidence but design that Al-Qaeda flags were black banners with the white text of the Shahada, the Islamic Creed (‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his messenger’). He was creating a new army to march on Jerusalem. His followers believed it.  And – crucially – he probably believed it too. It is not difficult to see why a prophecy describing a Muslim army from the East storming across Arabia and into Jerusalem has long inspired violent jihadists.

The Khorasan hadith sits alongside other apocalyptic hadiths which were reinvigorated by the anti-Saudi millenarian Juhayman Al-Otaibi, who occupied the Kaaba shrine in Mecca in 1979 and announced the coming of the Mahdi, leading to the siege of the Grand Mosque (co-incidentally the same year as the Iranian revolution and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan). The apocalyptic narrative has the same components as Jewish and Christian eschatology: after the Prophet, Muslims would be ruled by a succession of political regimes, just and unjust, culminating in the restoration of the Caliphate. The death of the Caliph would presage the coming of the Mahdi or Messiah. Then the Prophet ‘Isa (Jesus) would appear at the White Minaret of the Umayyid Mosque in Damascus before fighting a mighty battle against the Antichrist at the Gate of Lod (near Ben Gurion International airport). Jesus would win. Thereafter mankind would live as Muslims in a time of serenity before the Day of Resurrection, when all living things would be called before God for Final Judgement. 

As did Christians in the Middle Ages, followers of the Islamic prophecies eagerly monitor a list of signs which foretell the apocalypse. It is clearly impossible to estimate how widely this is believed, but a 2012 demographic study by the Pew Research Center concluded that over 50% of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa, South and South East Asia believed the coming of the Mahdi was ‘imminent’. There were no figures for Muslims living in Europe or North America. In nine of the 23 nations surveyed, over half said they believed the Mahdi would return in their lifetime, (Afghanistan 83%, Iraq 72%, Turkey 68% and Tunisia 67%). Over half of Muslims in seven nations said they expected to be alive to see the imminent return of Jesus, and this was most widespread in Tunisia (67%), Turkey (65%) and Iraq (64%).

Events on the ground over the last ten years have given new energy to the apocalyptic narrative. Critically, much of the action takes place in what is now Syria. With the formation of the Caliphate (2014-19), Islamic State let it be known it was the duty of every Muslim to join the final battle. They named their online magazine after Dabiq, a small town in northern Syria, which features in the prophecies as the site of the showdown between Muslims and their Roman enemies. They too designed a black flag with the Shahada (with simplistic writing to echo earlier script). And the armies with black flags did arrive from Khorasan: Al Qaeda figures previously based in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran moved westwards to Syria. Some of these even became known as the ‘Khorasan Group’. An offensive by the Pakistani army in North Waziristan in 2014 accelerated this migration. A video called ‘The Emergence of Prophecy: the Black Flags of Khorasan’ starts with the hadith and a voiceover that ‘That army has already started its march. They know it and that’s why they demonise as a terrorists anyone who supports Allah.  The Jihad is already in force. No-one can stop that Jihad.’ It is still available on YouTube and was on the playlist of the 2013 Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

So who owns the Khorasan brand now? It still has a strong place in Iranian political tradition and identity, and the Iranian leadership themselves have strong ties in Khorasan. Islamic State Khorasan Province have been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly six years and despite considerable attrition are still capable of operating in multiple parts of the country. The fact that ISKP has an established presence in the northern cities of Mazar I Sharif and Balkh has already raised alarms in Central Asian states, particularly as Uzbek, Tajik and Kazakh Jihadists look for a convenient base now that Syria is no longer available.  According to the Economist, between 2015 and 2018, the US and its Afghan allies killed more than 11,000 Islamic State Khorasan Province members, which indicates the scale of the organisation and its tenacity. After a short lull, ISKP claimed 7 IED attacks targeting the Taliban in Jalabad on 18 and 19 September. Unless the Taliban are able to defeat them quickly, they will draw in more Jihadists.

Interestingly, for the Taliban the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (a nation state) seems to be enough for now. It is as yet unclear the extent to which Al Qaeda will seek to make Afghanistan an active base, but in terms of the prophecies this is almost academic. Followers of the Jihadi narrative the world over will again be watching again for the armies with black flags coming from the east, and asking what it is they should do to help.

Suzanne Raine

Suzanne Raine is an Affiliate Lecturer at the Centre for Geopolitics, Cambridge University, a Visiting Professor at King’s College London, and a Trustee at RUSI. Before that she worked in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, primarily on issues of national security and counter-terrorism.

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