Al-Qaeda faction in Syria hands out Teletubbies and Spiderman dolls

August 13, 2013

A YouTube video posted from Aleppo on August 8 shows members of the al-Qaeda-allied ISIS handing out Teletubbies. (YouTube)

An al-Qaeda-allied group in Syria has enlisted Tinky Winky in its fight for hearts and minds of Syrians.

One of al-Qaeda's fatal mistakes in Iraq during the war there was alienating the Iraqi people, who turned against the group that had killed so many civilians and imposed severe Islamist rule. Now, as al-Qaeda-allied factions are pushing into Syria, they're endeavoring to project a softer, fuzzier image. That's recently included, for example, a family fair in rebel-controlled Aleppo, complete with ice cream eating contests and sermons about jihad.

Now al-Qaeda's campaign for Syrian hearts and minds apparently includes toy give-aways, some of them a bit surprising for a group dedicated to total war against Western culture.

The Washington Post's Liz Sly, toward the end of a recent must-read story documenting al-Qaeda's growing influence in Syria, surfaced a video posted from Aleppo over the weekend that showed another jihadist family fair. Here it is:

The video showed a gathering there for the Eid al-Fitr religious holiday, held by the al-Qaeda-allied faction Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The group, whose name is abbreviated as ISIS because it uses the traditional word "al-Shams" for the Levant, changed its name from al-Qaeda Iraq just a few months ago. The event appears to be a combination of al-Qaeda sermonizing – mostly to children – and a toy giveaway.

The toys that this al-Qaeda group set aside to distribute include Spiderman dolls and, remarkably, Teletubbies. Sly recognized Po and Tinky Winky, the latter of whom became a minor villain among American religious-right groups in the late 1990s when Rev. Jerry Falwell suggested the purple Teletubby was gay.

Presumably, al-Qaeda does not follow Falwell's sermons or they would not have included this particular toy in their Eid celebration. Sly was alerted to the video and its Teletubbies cameos, she says, by a Twitter follower with the username @HamudiMD. It was earlier surfaced by Aymenn Al-Tamimi of the Middle East Forum.

The bizarre intersection of al-Qaeda and Teletubbies is a strange twist, but part of a deadly serious story. Communal outreach and organization makes it easier for these groups to establish, and potentially entrench themselves within, bases of local support. That will require more than free toys but, if successful, it could have worrying implications for the group's ability to stick around in Syria.

The rise of ISIS in Syria is no laughing matter. Here's Sly on the group's distinctively cruel and deadly approach to the war in Syria:

With its radical ideology and tactics such as kidnappings and beheadings, the group has stamped its identity on the communities in which it is present, including, crucially, ­areas surrounding the main border crossings with Turkey.

Civilian activists, rival rebel commanders and Westerners, including more than a dozen journalists and relief workers, have been assassinated or abducted in recent months in areas where the Islamic State has a presence.

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Caitlin Dewey · August 13, 2013