How Syria's Jihadists Win Friends and Influence People

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

A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra rides a motorcycle along a deserted street in Deir al-Zor. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

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-Qaeda-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-Qaeda. 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.