How Syria’s Jihadists Win Friends and Influence People

Daveed Gartenstein Ross And Phillip Smyth, The Atlantic
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Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Phillip Smyth, The Atlantic
Aug. 23, 2013, 8:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Groups like al-Nusra are turn­ing to char­ity stunts and ser­vice pro­vi­sion to en­sure they have a loy­al fol­low­ing even after As­sad.

As the mel­li­flu­ous sounds of a ji­hadist nasheed — an Is­lam­ic chant — washed over the ex­cited spec­tat­ors, two lines of bearded salafists, in­clud­ing masked fight­ers, stared each oth­er down. The crowd, which in­cluded dozens of chil­dren, broke in­to cries of Al­lahu Ak­bar! Al­lahu Ak­bar! Then it began.

The two rival groups pulled the thin, well-worn rope with all the strength they could muster. Des­pite great ef­fort, the out­come was in­ev­it­able: the group headed by the man in an open-collared, purple-striped shirt was over­powered. The crowd erup­ted in­to cheers and more cries of Al­lahu Ak­bar! as their op­pon­ents tri­umphed in the tug-of-war match.

This con­test, held at a “fun day” ori­ented to­ward chil­dren that the al-Qaida-af­fil­i­ated Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and al-Sham hos­ted in Ju­ly, is rep­res­ent­at­ive of a broad­er phe­nomen­on. Syr­i­an ji­hadist groups have been busy not only fight­ing the re­gime, but also erect­ing state-like in­sti­tu­tions and pub­li­ciz­ing their own char­it­able acts. This strategy is de­signed to en­hance their pub­lic im­age and to co-opt im­port­ant levers of power. While there have been not­able con­tri­bu­tions ex­amin­ing dawa, or mis­sion­ary ef­forts, un­der­taken by salafi groups in the post-Ar­ab Spring en­vir­on­ment (such as An­sar al-Sharia in Tunisia), Syr­i­an ji­hadists have much more ca­pa­city to take over tra­di­tion­al in­stru­ments of the state while at­tempt­ing to win con­verts to their cause.

The first char­it­able ef­fort pub­li­cized on­line by Syr­i­an ji­hadists was car­ried out by Jabhat al-Nusra, a group best known in the U.S. for its con­nec­tions to al-Qaida. In Au­gust 2012, Nusra pos­ted a video of a con­voy that it drove around to feed vil­lages in east­ern Syr­ia. Loaded with cu­cum­bers, to­ma­toes, canned products, rice, pota­toes, cook­ing oil, bread, and oth­er staples, their trucks could be iden­ti­fied by small pa­per signs bear­ing the group’s name, as well as the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s char­ac­ter­ist­ic black flag. The pos­ted video also fea­tured car bomb­ings and oth­er acts of vi­ol­ence, all over­laid by a nasheed. The nar­rat­ive struc­ture of the video de­pic­ted these acts of char­ity as an in­trins­ic part of ji­had.

Pro­vi­sion of aid has been a con­stant for Nusra and oth­er Syr­i­an ji­hadists. In Decem­ber 2012, for ex­ample, Nusra bagged and sup­plied bread for Deir al-Zour’s starving res­id­ents. The video that the group re­leased of its pro­vi­sion of ser­vices demon­strated the grow­ing bur­eau­crat­iz­a­tion of Nusra’s aid ef­forts: by that point, it had es­tab­lished Qism al-Ig­hatha, or the Re­lief De­part­ment, which was charged with such ef­forts.

With this aid ap­par­at­us, Nusra has been able to con­sist­ently pub­li­cize its pro­vi­sion of ser­vices, in­clud­ing of­fer­ing health care to the needy. Sim­il­arly, the Syr­i­an salafi force Ahrar al-Sham has a sec­tion on its web­site ded­ic­ated to its own so­cial ser­vice ef­forts, with con­stant posts doc­u­ment­ing its work. It’s worth not­ing that this pub­li­city isn’t al­ways in­dic­at­ive of con­sist­ent de­liv­ery of ser­vices: vari­ous hard­line groups have been known to post their ef­forts to so­cial me­dia im­me­di­ately, even though they only rep­res­ent sporad­ic as­sist­ance to the com­munity. So­cial me­dia may in this way serve as a force mul­ti­pli­er that makes their char­it­able ef­forts seem more power­ful than they really are.

Re­gard­less, since Nusra’s es­tab­lish­ment of its Re­lief De­part­ment, it has been able to di­ver­si­fy the as­sist­ance it provides. For ex­ample, the group has been in­volved in trash col­lec­tion, and it has even re­leased a video show­ing off its brand-new fire truck.

One of the more bizarre re­cent turns—bizarre, that is, to out­siders—is the afore­men­tioned “fun day” for kids that the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and al-Shame hos­ted. In ad­di­tion to tug of war and oth­er ath­let­ic con­tests, they handed out Te­le­tu­b­bies and Spi­der­m­an dolls to the chil­dren in at­tend­ance.

Syr­i­an ji­hadist groups have also in­creas­ingly come to take on the func­tion of states as they dom­in­ate loc­al pro­vi­sion of ser­vices. One lead­ing-edge ex­ample is how they took over the bread in­dustry in Aleppo at the end of last year. Bread is a vi­tal staple in Syr­ia, but even more so in a time of armed con­flict, when food sup­plies are tight and baker­ies have been tar­geted.

In Decem­ber 2012, rebel fight­ers took con­trol of Aleppo’s four ma­jor grain com­pounds. Nusra be­came the be­ne­fi­ciary of the Free Syr­i­an Army’s fail­ures: As bread short­ages es­cal­ated, res­id­ents widely be­lieved that FSA was steal­ing flour. Nusra stepped in­to this gap and took over bread dis­tri­bu­tion. Not only did they dom­in­ate the in­dustry this way, but they also used the op­por­tun­ity to tout their own vir­tues. One Nusra of­ficer boas­ted to the BBC that Nusra’s “repu­ta­tion for dis­cip­line and hon­esty” promp­ted Syr­i­ans to want the group in charge of ser­vices.

Nusra has made sim­il­ar in­roads in­to oth­er vi­tal in­dus­tries. In May, the Tele­graph noted that the group had seized oil wells around the city of Raqqa. Oth­er rebels have charged that Nusra has car­ried out as­sas­sin­a­tions to main­tain its dom­in­ance in the oil sec­tor. Ever since, Nusra has been re­fin­ing the crude oil and is able to make a profit of around $10,000 for each tanker load they sell. But the group has also been hand­ing out gas sup­plies in Aleppo to demon­strate its gen­er­os­ity.

At the far end of the spec­trum, rebel groups have gained full con­trol over the city of Raqqa, with salafi groups play­ing a dom­in­ant role. Nusra has also taken hold of Syr­ia’s largest hy­dro­elec­tric dam, which is loc­ated near Raqqa. The As­so­ci­ated Press noted that after this cap­ture, Nusra-linked rebels “now con­trol much of the wa­ter flow in the coun­try’s north and east.”

Nusra cur­rently con­trols the town of Shadadi. In Ju­ly, one of its com­mand­ers told the Guard­i­an, “Go and ask the people in the streets wheth­er there is a lib­er­ated town or city any­where in Syr­ia that is ruled as ef­fi­ciently as this one. There is elec­tri­city, wa­ter, and bread and se­cur­ity. In­shal­lah, this will be the nuc­le­us of a new Syr­i­an Is­lam­ic ca­liphate!” Nusra even has spe­cial teams that de­liv­er food to res­id­ents and run the group’s own clin­ic.

This is in­dic­at­ive of the strategy that Syr­i­an ji­hadists are ad­opt­ing at this point in the con­flict. To be sure, it’s prob­lem­at­ic to be­lieve that all fight­ers in groups like Nusra will re­main wed­ded to the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s ideo­logy. Many align with it be­cause of its strength; some fac­tions cur­rently aligned with ji­hadists may move away from these ideals. While some fight­ers will surely dis­en­gage, it would be equally wrong­headed to be­lieve that the lead­ers of these ji­hadist groups will simply mod­er­ate when their war against the As­sad re­gime ends. Thus, we should pay close at­ten­tion to the soph­ist­ic­ated meth­ods of dawa, so­cial ser­vice pro­vi­sion, and gov­ernance that ji­hadist groups have de­veloped. The groups will re­tain such meth­ods, and oth­er ji­hadist groups will learn from their tech­niques.

For Nusra, pub­lic opin­ion is para­mount. A re­cent Nusra video de­picts a stray dog gulp­ing down food that sits atop sand­bags at a Nusra check­point. An RPG-7 and a PKM ma­chi­ne­gun are propped against the sand­bags, and Nusra’s black flag flut­ters in the back­ground. The mes­sage, tout­ing Nusra’s char­ity and be­ne­fi­cence, is un­mis­tak­able.

Re­prin­ted with per­mis­sion from the At­lantic. The ori­gin­al story can be found here.

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