Tom Joscelyn's recent report on former Guantanamo detainees at Long War Journal had line that stood out to me:
The former detainees make their appearance in front of the flag used by the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq’s political front, according to an account by Agence France Presse.
AQAP's black flag may share elements with the ISI's black flag, but I would caution anyone from making a direct operational connection between AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (see here) and AQ in Iraq, based in part upon the use of common elements in their flags. Obviously, there are other connections, just not this.
The key element of both flags is the round "seal" in the middle. This seal has its source in history and tradition. It's considered an accurate representation of the personal seal used by Mohammed in letters to foreign leaders. I'm sure it's authenticity has been argued in the past, but that's not the purpose of this post. It is safe to say, however, that authentic or not, it has nothing to do specifically with Salafist-Jihadist groups like AQ. For instance, the same element is seen on many Harun Yahya publications.
There's a lot to be said about AQ's use of this traditional symbol of Islam, but it isn't just a group-specific phenomenon. As a matter of fact, ISI had to justify the use of the flag they designed. I'll leave the question of whether ISI's justification is sound to the students of fiqh. Among the questions that analysts could explore: why have some AQ groups decided to adopt the seal and others not? Does this say anything about the evolution of the group's "vision"? Etc.
On a related note: A former homeland security technology expert was on a talk radio show the other day promoting a TV show. He seemed like an amiable guy, but he used a word that grates against my medievalist's sensibilities. He used the word "symbology" to discuss some representative aspect of the war on terror. He's not the first. I think I've heard at least a dozen people use that word in the context of the study of jihadi imagery.
It's not "symbology;" it's semiotics. Yes, "symbology" kinda sorta exists as an academic discipline, but any academic who studies signs and symbols will most likely publish in journals on semiotics (or art history), will present at conferences on semiotics, etc.
If you're interested in the study of symbols, browse through Getty Institute's Guide to Imagery series. It is an absolutely essential collection of books that bring the symbols of Western civilization to contemporary viewers. For most of the history of the West, most people were illiterate. The whole body of civilization thought was communicated through images. In this context Western symbolism matters. It carries in it a body of cultural knowledge that is lost when viewers can no longer "read" the images as they were intended to be read. If you've ever been in front of a work of art and asked the question: what does that mean? Getty's collection will probably have the answer. I hope Getty dedicates at least one book to Islamic art.
If you're interested in how semiotics is applied for a general audience, the book I suggest is Mellinkoff's The Devil at Isenheim: Reflections of Popular Belief in Grunewald's Altarpiece.