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
updated 10:43 AM EDT, Wed July 31, 2013
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
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT