BEIRUT — The jovial tug o’ war and children’s ice-cream-eating contest wouldn’t look out of place at any town fair. But the family festivities in the battle-scarred Syrian city of Aleppo had a surprising organizer: al-Qaeda.
The media arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda affiliate, has been churning out videos featuring community gatherings in Syria during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as the group battles to win hearts and minds. It is a far cry from the organization’s usual fare of video offerings, which includes public executions.
The attempt to soften Islamic State’s image comes as it struggles to win support in the areas of Syria that are outside government control. Many residents view the group as a foreign force more concerned with imposing Islamic law than with fighting against President Bashar al-Assad and his allies.
“They are well aware that people out there on principle don’t like lots of foreign fighters coming in to fight jihad in their country. They are aware they need to reassure people their presence isn’t negative,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. “Ramadan parties and ice-cream-eating competitions are one localized example of that. Whether they will be successful remains to be seen, will depend on other armed groups and how they portray them.”
Islamic State has rapidly risen to prominence in Syria since emerging in April. Analysts say the group, which includes established jihadist factions that now fight under a common banner, comprises 2,500 to 3,000 men nationwide. It is most influential in Aleppo and its countryside to the north, in Idlib and in Latakia.
The group, however, is facing increasing isolation as others try to distance themselves from Islamic State’s hard-line tactics.
In Aleppo, which has seen a year of horrific fighting, Islamic State has been working to expand its influence. But it was the target of protests this month after imposing a blockade on a key checkpoint that divides
rebel-held and government territory.
Anger built as the attempt to choke government-held areas of supplies prevented residents and food from passing through, causing severe shortages and increasing prices at the beginning of Ramadan. Aleppo was already facing a massive humanitarian crisis, and the blockade only worsened conditions.
Some rebels complain that headline-grabbing events such as the recent assassination of a moderate rebel commander, which was blamed on Islamic State, have withered support for the opposition. Hard-line Islamist fighters have also harassed residents for not adhering to strict Islamic codes.
“They give all of us a bad name,” said Mohammed Faizou, a rebel from the Islamist Ansar al-Din Battalion in coastal Latakia province, where Islamic State has a significant presence.
In the face of growing discontent, Islamic State’s efforts to improve its reputation have included Ramadan food distribution, residents of Aleppo say. Copies of leaflets circulated by Islamic State in Azaz, near the Turkish border, describe Ramadan Koran-reading competitions, with daily cash prizes amounting to 10,000 Syrian pounds (the equivalent of about $95).
In many of the group’s videos, a curly-haired Islamic State member, who introduces himself as Abu Waqas from Tunisia, entertains the crowds. In one, he dons a glitter-covered eye mask as he describes the day’s competitions and games. In another, filmed at an Aleppo event last week, he oversees two children racing to eat ice cream with their hands tied behind their backs.
He also works the crowd at an Aleppo tug o’ war event. Three bearded, middle-aged men for team “Islamic State of Iraq and Sham” take on another for Jabhat al-Nusra, a closely linked rebel group that is designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
Children later pile in and both sides end up declaring victory.
But the videos are also used to spread Islamic State’s core message. In one, Abu Waqas explains Islamic State’s reason for coming to Syria: “to establish the laws of Allah.”
“Who among you refuses the laws of Allah?” he asks the crowd. “No, of course not, we are all Muslims.”
Children shout “God is great” as the speech turns to deeply sectarian rhetoric lambasting “dirty Shiites.”
“We stopped them in Iraq, and now we’ve come for the Nusayreen,” he said, using a derogatory term for Alawites, the offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs.
Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.