SYRIA

Jihadists in Syria wage a propaganda war – against each other

 Since they gained control of the central Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah and its suburbs, jihadist rebel groups have been fighting a propaganda war against one another to mark their territory and draw as many supporters as possible into their ranks. This battle for influence is evidenced by the enormous posters displayed throughout the city, which are starting to annoy the population.

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An enormous poster from the jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham in the city of Ar-Raqqah reads: “We are a nation that God honoured with Islam; if we seek honour elsewhere, God will punish us”.

 

 

Since they gained control of the central Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah and its suburbs, jihadist rebel groups have been fighting a propaganda war against one another to mark their territory and draw as many supporters as possible into their ranks. This battle for influence is evidenced by the enormous posters displayed throughout the city, which are starting to annoy the population.

 

Ar-Raqqah fell to the rebels on March 6. It is the first provincial capital controlled by the rebels after more than two years of fighting in Syria. The new rulers have been striving to make it into a model of what a post-Assad Syria could look like.

 

The city was captured by several jidahist groups, notably the al-Nusra front and Ahrar al-Sham.

 

The Al-Nusra Front inaugurating a new regional religious committee on March 9.

“There is not a single wall without a poster, banner, inscription, or graffiti”

Abu Bakr is a Syrian opposition activist.

 

Everything started when members of the Al-Nusra front began distributing memory cards [for cell phones] to residents. These cards contained jihadist hymns urging listeners to join the group. Then, several other groups, like Ahrar al-Sham, copied them. The technique worked well – crowds of people showed up to collect these free memory cards.

After the hymns, the jihadist groups starting sharing videos of military operations meant to recruit new members. Then, they realized the population could be won over by meeting its needs. So they began to focus on social issues [including medical assistance, food aid, picking up trash, opening Islamic schools, and so on].

 

Each group created communications committees throughout al-Raqqah. So, in each neighbourhood, you can find committees representing many different groups. Sometimes they’re even set up in the street. These committees have launched poster campaigns throughout the city.

 

These posters have spread like wildfire: there is not a single wall without a poster, banner, inscription, or graffiti referring to Islam or glorifying the jihadist groups while calling for people to join their ranks.

 

“How can these groups be so worried over who has the biggest poster, when we are slowly dying here?”

 

An inscription on this advertising space reads: “Reserved for the Al-Nusra front”.

 

These advertising campaigns are expensive. In our region, there is oil, and several jihadist groups have taken over the oil wells. Thanks to this they are able to fund their campaigns.

Even if part of the population is receptive to this propaganda, the residents of Ar-Raqqah are starting to show their frustration over this silly and useless “war”. I saw with my own eyes a passerby yell at a communications office, “Shame on you, if this is your idea of Islam!”

 

People just cannot understand how these groups can be so obsessed over who has the larger poster, when we are slowly dying here, day by day. Residents lack everything here; aid only reaches us in tiny increments. There is no medicine and some zones in the region are still being bombed by the outposts held by the Syrian army [namely the brigade 93 station, the division 17 station, and the Tabqqah military airport]. People feel that it would be better to secure the area before launching propaganda campaigns.

 

Many are suspicious of the jihadists groups’ intentions. Many of the residents of Ar-Raqqah and Tabqqah are former government bureaucrats. Now, they have nothing left, and they see combatants equipping themselves with brand new weapons, brigade chiefs purchasing flashy new cars to show off downtown, and the communications offices engaging in a completely useless propaganda war.

 

A poster campaign by the communications office of the Ahrar al-Sham movement. May 16, 2013.

 

These large posters and banners are not produced in the region, as the remaining local printers are incapable of making posters over a metre or two in height. Some posters are ordered from Turkey or even sent directly by wealthy sponsors from abroad.

There is now a frenzied competition for wall space. There have even been armed clashes over this between the Al-Nusra front and the Free Syrian Army in Tabqah. I have seen inscriptions on walls that stated “Reserved for the Al-Nusra front, not for the Free Syrian Army”, which goes to show the extent of the dispute between the two groups.

 

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Wassim Nasr (@SimNasr).