Accessibility links

Hearts, Minds, And Teeth -- Nusra Hands Out Tooth Twigs In Syria Propaganda Push

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

The photos show smiling militants from Nusra's Uzbek-led battalion Katiba Sayfullah Shishani handing out the "miswak sticks."

The photos show smiling militants from Nusra's Uzbek-led battalion Katiba Sayfullah Shishani handing out the "miswak sticks."

Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, has published a series of propaganda images showing its militants handing out "miswak sticks" -- or teeth-cleaning twigs -- to Syrians in the northern part of Aleppo Province.

The photos were shared on the social network VKontakte on August 12 by Nusra's Russian-language media wing, White Minaret.

They show smiling militants from Nusra's Uzbek-led battalion Katiba Sayfullah Shishani handing out the twigs, which according to some hadith -- collections of statements attributed to Muhammad -- were recommended by the Muslim Prophet.

The "religious toothbrushes" were wrapped in colorful propaganda pamphlets and given to people in cars and on motorbikes passing through Nusra checkpoints in northern Aleppo.

A large poster at a checkpoint in a photo reads, "Judgment is for none but Allah."

Among the militants pictured handing out the propaganda packages is Abu Ubaida al-Madani, Katiba Sayfullah's ethnic Uzbek "emir," or commander.

According to White Minaret, the aim of the exercise was to "call the local population to Islam and to explain the norms of Shari'a law."

One of the most powerful rebel groups in the Syrian conflict, Nusra has carried out far grander missionary efforts, known as dawa, than this small effort. Indeed, the Al-Qaeda affiliate was the first in Syria to publicize its charitable efforts online, with an August 2012 video showing it driving a convoy loaded with food to feed villages in eastern Syria.

The "religious toothbrushes" were wrapped in colorful propaganda pamphlets and given to people in cars and on motorbikes passing through Nusra checkpoints in northern Aleppo.

The "religious toothbrushes" were wrapped in colorful propaganda pamphlets and given to people in cars and on motorbikes passing through Nusra checkpoints in northern Aleppo.

Compared with Nusra's past efforts, Katiba Sayfulla's dawa exercise, consisting of only pamphlets and tooth-cleaning sticks, seems rather feeble.

Nevertheless, even this small skirmish in Nusra's wider battle for the hearts and minds of Syrians is significant amid a rapidly changing balance of power in Syria's north and northwest.

The dawa effort, and the propaganda photos of it that White Minaret shared, are intended to communicate that Nusra militants -- even foreign ones like those of Katiba Sayfullah -- are welcomed by local Syrians -- and, of course, that Nusra respects these locals.

The photos are also meant to show that Katiba Sayfullah, which frequently asks for donations from its supporters via social media, is important enough to carry out its own dawa event and that it cares about the religious lives of Syrians.

Anti-Nusra Sentiment?

The dawa exercise follows signs of discontent among some Syrians in Aleppo Province against Nusra rule.

Residents of Al-Atareb city in western Aleppo demonstrated against Nusra on August 10, calling for the Al-Qaeda affiliate to leave the town and release detainees, pro-opposition news website All4Syria reported.

Russian-speaking Nusra militants from Katiba Sayfullah strongly condemned the demonstrations, accusing those who took part in them of being "pro-American," which Nusra considers a slur.

The Usud al-Harb VKontakte page, which is run by a Nusra militant who says he is from the southern Russian city of Volgograd named Abu Rofik, slammed the Atareb demonstrators, accusing them of being supporters of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army faction Harakat Hazm.

Hazm dissolved itself in March following bloody clashes with Nusra.

"God is with us, and you will be annihilated, God will punish you," said Abu Rofik on August 12, addressing the Atareb demonstrators.

Abu Rofik accused the residents of Atareb of ingratitude.

"[Nusra] is distributing foodstuffs, gas, water, electricity and manages thing in the very best way and these creatures support the infidels," Abu Rofik opined. "But thank God the other groups support Nusra's position against the pro-American groups."

Katiba Sayfulla's attempts at dawa and its criticism of "pro-American" supporters come hot on the heels of Nusra's announcement that it will abandon its frontline positions against the Islamic State (IS) group north of Aleppo. That move was a response to an announcement by Washington and Ankara that they supported the creation of an "IS-free" safe zone along the Syria-Turkey border.

As it shows off its goodwill and proselytizing efforts among local Syrians in Aleppo, Katiba Sayfulla accused the U.S.-led coalition of killing civilians in an air strike against Islamist rebels including Nusra in northern Syria this week.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

Subscribe

Show comments

XS
SM
MD
LG