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Al Qaeda's kinder, gentler image makeover

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst, and Jennifer Rowland, Special to CNN
July 31, 2013 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
Al Nusra fighters stand ready to fight Syrian regime forces near Aleppo in April. Al Nusra has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda.
Al Nusra fighters stand ready to fight Syrian regime forces near Aleppo in April. Al Nusra has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Al Qaeda posting feel-good videos, holding ice cream eating contests, tugs of war
  • They say al Qaeda and affiliates want to win "hearts and minds," but the groups have failed
  • Writers: Al Qaeda fighters in Syria try sugar and spice tack, but in Iraq they kill civilians
  • New image will not win over people appalled by murder in the name of Islam, they say

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Jennifer Rowland is a program associate at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- An al Qaeda-produced video posted on a website in early July opens with uplifting images of smiling Syrian children and jovial old men listening to speeches delivered by al Qaeda militants.

The video seems startlingly out of place on a website usually devoted to serious young men learning to fire machine guns, bloodshed and graphic images of civilian casualties purportedly caused by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Instead, the video, featured on a site aligned with al Qaeda, shows a Jordanian member of al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria insisting that his group's poor image is just a myth propagated by Western media. He says: "The international channels try to twist the picture and portray the mujahedeen as bloodthirsty, as distanced from the people -- that they reject the people and don't love them." As the Jordanian militant speaks, young Syrian boys crowd around him.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters have set up "Advocacy Tents" in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, where the jihadists can "educate the people on our point of view."

In another apparent attempt to soften its image, al Qaeda members in Syria held something akin to a town fair. Another al Qaeda video produced in Syria surfaced online in July, this one showing an al Qaeda-organized ice cream-eating contest in Aleppo.

Around the same time, an Arabic-language news outlet, Aleppo News, published a video of a tug-of-war between members of the two al Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups fighting in Syria. In the video, crowds of young boys and older men cheer on the members of al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda and its regional franchises understand they need to try to win the "heart and minds" of the local population; something they have generally failed to do in the past and something that the leaders of these groups have come to understand is a major problem.

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In documents recovered in Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, bin Laden and his top advisers privately criticized the brutal tactics of al Qaeda in Iraq, which had provoked a tribal uprising known as "the Sunni Awakening" that almost destroyed al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate in 2006 and 2007.

Now, al Qaeda in Iraq and in neighboring Syria are experiencing a revival, a revival at least somewhat fueled by al Qaeda learning from some of the mistakes it made during the previous decade in Iraq.

This is significant because al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, al Nusra, is widely considered to be the most effective rebel force fighting the Assad regime, and the group pledged allegiance to the leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in April.

But videos of al Qaeda militants playing tug-of-war or joking with members of the local community are hardly signs of moderation.

Al Qaeda's Syrian branch releases lengthy and passionate sermons dedicated to denouncing Shi'a Muslims as apostates who should be killed.

And although some al Qaeda fighters in Syria might be engaging the public with ice cream, games and conversation, their colleagues in neighboring Iraq continue to launch bloody attacks on civilians.

On Monday, at least 50 people were killed in 15 separate car bomb attacks in Baghdad. Many of those bombings are believed be the work of al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate.

In all likelihood, al Qaeda and its allied groups are doing too little, too late, in their quest to win the public's hearts and minds.

The group's senior leaders recognized the dangers of killing too many Muslim civilians as far back as 2005, when Zawahiri reprimanded the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for alienating the Iraqi people with indiscriminate violence.

And the majority of Muslims around the world reject violence in the name of Islam, particularly in the form of suicide bombings. This is unsurprising, given that al Qaeda's violence has primarily claimed Muslim lives.

It will take a lot more than ice cream socials to undo that damage.

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