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 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 8:17 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT