In Syria, al Qaeda's regional offshoot — the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — is striking fear in the hearts of government supporters and pro-democracy rebel groups alike as it tries to take the lead in the country's bloody revolution.
But the group is trying to improve its image and win over Syrians with a new secret weapon: Ice cream.
The media arm of the al Qaeda affiliate is cranking out videos showing community gatherings in battle-scarred Syrian cities, such as Aleppo, in which party-goers enjoy friendly tug-of-war matches and kids square off in hands-free ice-cream-eating contests during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
"They are well aware that people out there on principle don't like lots of foreign fighters coming in to fight jihad in their country," Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center, tells The Washington Post. "They are aware they need to reassure people their presence isn’t negative."
Many Western observers did not find al Qaeda's "fun day" amusing. Rebecca Lee Sanchez at Global Post thinks this gathering, hosted by the extremist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, only shows that al Qaeda is not very convincing when it tries to show a human side. "Games and contests that, in any other setting, might seem sweet and light-hearted — evoking distant, childlike memories for adults who long for the bygone days of their youth — here appear slightly more dismal," she says.
Jilly Reilly at Britain's Daily News called it a shameless propaganda display. As Reilly puts it, al Qaeda must be desperate if it thinks silly games (for boys) and public Koran readings (for girls) are going to make people forget about its sectarian attacks and mass murder.