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Al Qaeda Is Making Nice With Civilians in Syria

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The organization cut ties with ISIS extremists, and now Al Qaeda's slightly less militant wing, Jabhat Al-Nusra, is fighting fiercely for Syrian hearts and minds

 

Over three years, the conflict in Syria has transformed from simple anti-government protests into a bloody sectarian civil war. But it’s not just a conflict fought with guns, tanks and bombs. It’s a full-on hearts-and-minds propaganda battle being waged on YouTube and other social media platforms.

 

Activists and rebels have produced thousands of videos, ranging from shaky cellphone images to slick documentaries, as part of their PR campaign against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Combat videos have also served as valuable recruitment tools for foreigners wishing to join the jihad in Syria. Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, the most potent fighting force among rebels, has a large social media presence represented by official accounts, as well as supporters overseas. Up to now, the group and its rival jihadi battalions have regularly uploaded gruesome videos and pictures of battles, beheadings and long convoys of armed men.

But in a shift in strategy, last summer Jabhat al-Nusra supporters started the Hemm News Agency. It promotes Nusra’s efforts to enforce Sharia law in areas under its control by focusing on the restoration of public works—hospitals, water plants and roads—and giving food to the hungry. In other words, Hemm News pushes a softer image of what life under strict Islamic law is like for Syrians. Jabhat al-Nusra: We’re nice guys, really.

In one of the outlet’s first videos, from last July, Hemm Agency went for the low-hanging fruit of propaganda visuals by showing Nusra fighters handing out candy to children during Ramadan. In another, masked fighters engage each other in a friendly snowball fight. And in one of the more professional-looking videos, conveyor belts churn out steaming hot bread from an oven in a Nusra-run bakery.

Vocativ reached out to Hemm News Agency to discuss their operations but received no reply.

The agency takes its cues from the “winning of hearts and minds” strategy often used in wars, where opposing factions compete for the support of the local populace by offering basic goods and services that have been disrupted by the war. Another Jabhat al-Nusra-affiliated media outlet promoted itself last summer by showing a family fair put on by the group and its former ally, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In it, the group holds an ice cream eating contest, and there’s even a tug-of-war between Nusra and ISIS members. Less than a year on, the two groups are now more or less in a state of open warfare with each other.

Despite a paltry showing of just 75 tweets since last July, the Hemm Agency’s Twitter account has gathered more than 10,000 followers. Its first tweets came on July 7, 2013, when it laid out its simple mission statement: to “document the lives of the mujahideen [holy warriors]” and to impose Sharia law across greater Syria, with help from the locals. Many of the videos end with a hadith, sayings from the Prophet Muhammad, which scholars use to interpret the Quran.

 

Hemm News also uses the text and image sharing website justpaste—an easy-to-use favorite of hackers for data dumps—to release statements and videos, which are then published on its social media accounts.

 

One video from last month shows a primary school for boys in the southern city of Dera’a, operated by Jabhat al-Nusra. After showing pre-teen boys exercising in a courtyard and studying the Quran, the nasal voice of a boy, perhaps no more than 10 years old, rings out as he leads the call to prayer.

The revolution started in Dera’a three years ago this week, after regime security forces arrested and tortured over a dozen young children who had scrawled anti-government graffiti inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in the town. Today large parts of the Dera’a Governorate are under the control of various jihadi groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies.

 

 

With at least 140,000 people already dead, and the country divided into fiefdoms controlled by a mix of jihadis, Iranian-backed militias and the regime, the situation there somehow manages to turn darker with each day. Despite their best efforts, a few videos of kindly works by Jabhat al-Nusra is unlikely to convince anyone that life in Syria for citizens in downtrodden areas is going to improve anytime soon.

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Guest Wednesday, 11 December 2019