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
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT