The U.S. Army portion of the insignia of U.S. Northern Command, created after the 9/11 attacks “to defend and secure the United States,” includes a silhouette of a mosque.
This might seem odd. But it really isn’t.
The official description of ARNORTH’s insignias at The Institute of Heraldry, the Army organization charged with keeping track of such things, specifically uses the term “mosque” to describe the appropriate components of the design, leaving no room for debate about the symbolism.
Just how did this little bit of trivia come to be? The Army is a storied organization, tracing its history back more than 200 years to the 1775 establishment of Continental Army. Its units are similarly storied and all have official documents called “lineage and honors certificates” that outline the basic chronology of the unit back to its official origins.
Between these official histories, meticulously prepared by the Army’s Center for Military History, and the approved insignias and other regalia outlined by TIOH, individual units figure out things such as what patch they can wear on their uniforms.
But according to the CMH, the Army didn’t begin to try and formalize these histories until the 1920s. The methods by which the histories are decided remain obtuse, complicated and subject to significant change. However, the process is formal enough that units need to have the proper documentation before being allowed to fly unit colors or wear patches.
A good example of what can happen if things go wrong came in 2012, when the Army decided to rename the 6th Air Defense Artillery Brigade as the 30th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, a process known in the Army as “re-flagging.”
But someone found out that CMH had never actually figured out the previous unit’s history. The error was only discovered when the unit commander requested a new unit flag, or “colors,” to replace the one that had worn out—and had the request rejected. As far as CMH was concerned, his unit did not exist.
It remains unclear what colors the unit had been using for the previous 24 years.
So it was by a similar process that, in 2006, the Army re-designated Fifth U.S. Army as ARNORTH. Unlike re-flagging, a re-designation means that the unit in question can keep the insignia and other regalia of the previous unit—so long as TIOH agrees.
As a result, ARNORTH was subsequently authorized to wear an insignia that was first designed in 1943 for what was then Fifth Army, created in French Morocco in December 1942 following the U.S. invasion of North Africa.
The mosque motif in the insignia is reflective of this North African history, although what became Fifth U.S. Army subsequently moved to the continental United States, eventually becoming a training organization before becoming ARNORTH.
The history of the U.S. in Morocco, however, did not end there, and to this day the partnership between the militaries of the two countries is quite strong. America conducts a major training exercise with the Moroccans every year called African Lion. In 2013, the U.S. approved more than $31 million in foreign aid and is requesting $32 million in 2014.
In November, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda Dory testified told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that Morocco was “among the first Islamic countries to condemn publicly the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001” and “share[s] a long history of bilateral relations [with the U.S.] that is enduring and expansive.”
Still, not everyone has been thrilled by the symbols in ARNORTH’s insignia. Lt. Col. Robert Gowan, the Deputy Chief of Public Affairs at ARNORTH said he was “not aware of any direct criticism about our patch or our distinctive unit insignia” sent to the unit, but that negative remarks had been made on “social media.”
Searches on the Internet reveal concern about hidden meaning in ARNORTH insignia and logos well beyond the mosque symbolism. Conspiracy theorists have suggested that ARNORTH’s larger logo, showing North America in orange on a light blue background, indicates a plan for a “North American Union” administered by the federal government and the U.N.
With the storied history behind the insignias and the continuing and positive relationship with Morocco, it is unlikely that ARNORTH will want a design change any time soon. Gowan said he did not “take any issue with it” and “appreciated the historical reference.”