Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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.

Syrian photographer documents destruction
Report: al Qaeda missile manual found

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT