The flag above, by now, is a very familiar flag to the general public. The flag is used by the Islamic State, the al Qaeda offshoot that now controls vast swathes of land in Syria and Iraq. Thanks to news broadcasts around the world showing the group's propaganda, the flag is now widely recognized as "The Islamic State's flag."
It is necessary to know the importance of such a flag before moving forward. The flag is black, as per Islamic traditions, and includes the Shahada at the top. It reads, "There is no god but God", which forms one half of the most important aspect of Islam. The second half is seen below in what is called the "Seal of Muhammad". From the bottom, it reads, "Muhammad is the messenger of God," thus completing the Shahada. However, another popular form of the "Black Standard" can be seen below:
This flag, which is used by al Qaeda Central, the Taliban, and a slew of other groups, also contains the Shahada. The "Seal of Muhammad", though, is not present. Being that the Islamic State's flag is often seen by the general public, misconceptions can arise when other groups use the same style or a similar style.
Indeed, the style now used by the Islamic State, was first popularized by al Qaeda in Iraq--its predecessor. Since then, it has grown in popularity and several other groups around the world now use this style of flag. The style can be seen in the ranks of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Shabaab, Uqba bin Nafi battalion, Ansar al Sharia Libya, some elements of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, some elements of Ansar Dine and a slew of other groups. The use of such style does not necessarily mean affiliation or affinity with the Islamic State.
The purpose of this article is to provide some examples of groups, although they use a similar flag, are not connected to the Islamic State and in many examples, are direct branches or affiliates of al Qaeda. However, included are some examples where the groups are directly tied to the Islamic State.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is al Qaeda's official branch in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, is known to use a similar style of flag. This group, which has been responsible for several attempted and successful attacks on the West--including the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris--is largely seen as the most powerful al Qaeda branch. It's emir, Nasir al Wuhayshi, is even al Qaeda's General Manager for the entire global organization.
Al Shabaab, al Qaeda's official branch in Somalia, is also known to use this style of flag. Despite being kicked out of its major traditional strongholds by African Union forces, it continues to be a continuous threat to Somalia and neighboring countries--even after the death of its former emir, Ahmed Godane.
Uqba bin Nafi battalion
Uqba bin Nafi battalion is a joint project between al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al Sharia Tunisia. It was originally formed to train Tunisians before sending them to professional camps ran by al Qaeda in Libya, Algeria, and Mali. It has also undertaken several military operations on the Tunisian military and allegedly against the Algerian military. You can read more about them here.
Ansar al Sharia Libya
Ansar al Sharia Libya, which first came to prominence after its involvement in the 2012 terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, is another group that uses a similar flag. While many have speculated that Ansar al Sharia Libya has defected to the Islamic State, there has been no proof of this. Additionally, the group has a long history of ties and connections to al Qaeda. You can read more about this by clicking here. I also recommend reading through the myriad of articles on this exact topic by Thomas Joscelyn over at The Long War Journal. You can do so by clicking here.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda's official branch in North Africa, also has some elements that use this style of flag. The flag, which has been seen by some of its Saharan branches, however, is also used in conjunction with the traditional "Black Standard" style (Ansar al Sharia Libya also does this).
While this is not the official flag of Ansar Dine, members of the group have still been seen flying this style of flag. This would make sense being that Ansar Dine is essentially al Qaeda's local branch in Mali.
Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)
MUJAO, which broke away from AQIM, also used this style of flag in Mali. The group has since merged with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran al Qaeda commander, and formed the al Murabitoon Brigade. The brigade is now openly loyal to al Qaeda. A splinter faction of MUJAO that did not merge still operates in Mali under Sultan Ould Bady. You can read more about MUJAO by clicking here.
MSC is a coalition of jihadist groups operating in the Gaza Strip. The group has been responsible for several attacks on Israel. The group's current affiliation is unknown but it is likely they are still within al Qaeda's sphere for now. They have previously been described as "al Qaeda-linked", but they have recently released statements of support for the Islamic State. However, they also continue to laud al Qaeda. See this Long War Journal article for more information.
Ansaru, a splinter group of Boko Haram, is known to use this style of flag much like its parent organization. The group, which is focused on attacks and kidnappings outside of Nigeria, has praised both Zawahiri and Mullah Omar. In the statement released by the group, they identify Mullah Omar as "emir of the believers." Additionally, several Ansaru leaders have a long history of ties and connections to al Qaeda.
Boko Haram, the violent jihadist group that controls large swathes of northeastern Nigeria, is also known to use this style of flag. While some have speculated that they swore allegiance to the Islamic State, no solid proof of this has surfaced as of the writing of this post. Boko Haram has a long history of al Qaeda ties and connections, including receiving funding from AQIM in the past. However, more recently, its media campaign has increased significantly; this suggests they are at least inspired by the Islamic State's media campaign and at the most being directed by Islamic State media officials.
However, sometimes the flag use does mean affiliation.
Abu Sayyaf Group
Abu Sayyaf Group, a jihadist group that operates in the Philippines, has also used this flag for quite some time. The group used to be loyal to al Qaeda, but is now loyal to the Islamic State. This is likely a recruiting and propaganda move, as the group has been severely degraded over the years by the Filipinos.
Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, also known as Ansar Jerusalem, a jihadist group that operates in the Sinai, has long used this style of flag. However, the group formally pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in November 2014. You can read more on them by clicking here. And by clicking here.
Jund al Khalifa, a small Algerian based jihadist group, also uses this flag. The group came to prominence after beheading Frenchman Herve Gourdel in September 2014. The group, which is loyal to the Islamic State, was led by Abdelmalek Gouri before his death by the Algerian military in December 2014. The group's size is relatively small; some estimates put its membership at 50, but with recent Algerian offensives on the group, it seems likely the numbers are much smaller now.
MSSI, which operates in Dernah, Libya, is a group loyal to the Islamic State. The group became known in August 2014 and is the major Islamic State group in Libya. While some media reports that the Islamic State controls all of Dernah, that seems unlikely as Ansar al Sharia Libya also controls some parts of Dernah. Another group, Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, also controls parts of Dernah.