Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Propaganda Wars: Militant Islam versus the Islamic State in Syria

Propaganda Wars: Militant Islam versus the Islamic State in Syria

In the past two and a half years, the uneven progress of armed rebellion against the Syrian regime has produced rebel infighting. Militant Sunni Muslim groups evolved new strategies to gain and control resources to keep the fighting going, and in doing so, also developed alternative visions and authority structures as individual fighters both in Syria and from outside sought to join whichever group was best able to absorb them. The global jihadi movement, which has come to be known primarily by its foremost proponent, al-Qaeda, established its presence in Syria by the end of 2011, going by the name Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front, JN), and focusing on the overthrow of the Assad regime, much as the previous generation of jihadis had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. As Faisal Devji has pointed out, the broad vision of al-Qaeda and its particular stream of global jihad did not establish a functioning state but rather expressed abstract goals, even when it was involved in local affairs.


One of the very ingredients for success then, was the appeal to piety and its other-worldliness that resists getting bogged down in day-to-day material struggles. The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and its offensive against JN and other rebel groups throughout 2013 followed by its establishment of a Caliphate in June 2014 has proved to be thus a boon and a bust for global jihad: now jihadis have somewhere to go if they want to be part of the Islamic State (IS), but on the other hand, creating a state with living subjects who may or may not share in the IS vision may undermine the purity of the original ideology.

Interestingly, advocates of IS claim that it has a better organizational structure and control of resources than JN ever had. JN originally claimed the exact same thing with respect to the moderate rebel institution they accused of corruption, the Free Syrian Army. Jihadi groups in competition with each other must convince potential fighters and donors that they are both militarily successful and materially responsible, and capable of fully providing for the jihadi soldier’s existence through a range of difficult circumstances. The IS regime, unlike JN, tends to assume that foreign fighters will end up staying on to live in its territory and create families. This fact can be seen in a number of aspects of their propaganda, including the typical “rite of passage” for foreign nationals to publicly burn their passports.

Opponents of the Islamic State, however, point out that their fighters appear to be more interested in enjoying basic earthly pleasures and material objects rather than in praying, fasting, and carrying out the obligations of religious jihad. One account on YouTube said to be affiliated with the militant Islamic organization Ahrar al-Sham, accuses IS fighters of slacking off in the jihadi struggle, and abusing their free time (al-faragh). In the video, backed up by a jihadi anthem (nashid) a montage of photos attributed to pro-IS Twitter accounts shows a cake designed with the black flag of the Islamic State, smiling young men playing pool in a café, and a jihadi flashing a jar of the popular hazelnut spread, Nutella. There are many images of IS jihadis sitting around eating and drinking, and generally smiling and enjoying themselves instead of fighting, praying, or doing other “acceptable” jihadi activities.           

At first, IS social media warriors seemed to embrace this image, knowing that social media is by nature sensationalist. So fighters coming to join the previous incarnation of IS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham often bragged of living out a “five star” jihad, employing the Twitter hashtag “#5StarJihad.” Images that emerged from this meme included pictures of villas, swimming pools, and various chocolates and foods considered “luxury” items. Already by early spring of 2014, these images were waning in popularity, and it can be assumed that IS leadership wanted to stop the outflow of opportunistic jihadis, some of whom joined JN after growing disillusioned with IS and its constant battles against other jihadi and moderate rebel groups. The end of this trend did not stop pro-IS individuals on social media from gaining headlines in recent months for various non-jihadi activities, ranging from posing with cats to expressing dismay along with the rest of the world over the untimely death of American comedian and actor Robin Williams.  

One of the biggest ways that a jihadi can slander a rival group or individual is to accuse them of “chasing the dunya [world],” meaning to seek this world and its material pleasures instead of those of the afterlife. Indeed, the doctrinal roots of Wahhabism and contemporary salafi-jihadism go back to Ahmed Abu Hanbal, who was notorious for his piety, which as Nimrod Hurvitz notes, implies strong will in the face of persecution and a refusal to give into moral temptations of excessive materialism. Social media was set ablaze for a few days following the first speech of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, who appeared to be sporting the “James Bond” Omega watch costing thousands of dollars. In this case, instead of promoting the image of a cash-loaded Caliph, the social media minions of the IS argued that it was actually an “al-Fajr” Swiss-made watch designed to tell the times for prayer, and offering a compass to orient oneself towards Mecca, and costing around $430.      

Rival jihadi groups must boast of their material bounty and aspect of good living along the path of Allah, in order to attract fighters into their ranks. Moreover, the Islamic State now has the added pressure of trying to attract whole families to live in the shadow of their “Caliphate.” In order to do so, not only do they have to send out the message that fighters are well armed, but also generally well equipped, well fed, and their wife and children (or future children) will also be cared for and protected. A Canadian recruit for the IS spoke in a video published by al-Hayat Media Center, one of their dominant media organs, saying to future jihadis, “Your families would live here in safety, just like how it is back home.”*     

Nevertheless, in addition to constantly accusing each other of being trained, funded, or otherwise supported by either the CIA or the Mossad, the Salafi groups in Syria, in particular, tend to accuse each other of trying to make a profit off of the devastating civil war—see, for example, this. The oilfields were particularly contentious, in northeastern Syria, as most of the smaller groups did not actually have the technological know-how to extract and transport the oil in a safe or highly lucrative fashion. The Victory Front was the first group to advertise its consolidation of the Syrian oil fields in Raqqa province in 2013. In particular, the leader of JN, Abi Muhammad al-Jawlani, believed that a self-sustaining organization with strong control of resources was the key to victory over the Assad regime. So it was surprising to many rebel organizations to see how quickly and violently the Islamic State worked to drive out JN and take over the oil fields and refineries. Before the recent US-led bombing of many of these centers in late September it was estimated that IS was netting around $3 million a day from illicit oil sales. Such profits enabled IS to pay fighters more than other groups. One Syrian defector from IS recently told a reporter that he was able to make $600 a month, which is something he had never dreamed of before the Syrian civil war.

Before the US-led coalition bombing of Syria, it seemed that JN was trying to distinguish itself from IS and appeal to outside donors. This can be seen in the fact that they allowed Qatar to publicly negotiate the release of American journalist captured in 2012, Peter Theo Curtis, one week after IS gained new notoriety by beheading James Foley. However, the bombing campaign inside Syria which targeted JN as well as IS triggered reactions from the JN leader accusing Arab states supporting the bombings of assisting Jews, Persians, and Romans, and warning other rebel groups not to cooperate with the campaign in any way. On the other hand, the campaign targeted IS-held oil refineries and fields, potentially limiting the self-sufficiency of IS for the near-term may weaken the appeal of the Islamic State by depriving it of one of its claims, namely, the monopoly on prosperity.


Dr. Joel D. Parker is a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and North African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and tends to employ a multi-disciplinary approach to contemporary Syria, propaganda, radical politics, jihadi ideology and music, and youth movements in the 20th century. Hebatalla Taha and Linda Dayan also contributed to this article.


*Such accusations emerge in anti-JN propaganda by IS targeting the spiritual leader of JN, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani. One comment charges specifically, “Abu Mariya al-Galaxy [sic] only wants to increase his power in Der ez-Zour, because there are oil fields and gas plants in Der ez-Zour. Abu Mariya chases a dunya.” One respondent, and JN defender, pointed out the irony that the misspelled name al-Galaxy instead of al-Qahtani was probably because of an auto-correct program from a Samsung Galaxy smartphone.