The scariest thing about Islamic State? Its kinder, gentler side.

November 27, 2015
A member of al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant watches men in a "tug of war" contest during an Islamic quiz and games contest in a public square in Raqqa, September 25, 2013. Picture taken September 25, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer  (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT RELIGION SOCIETY) - RTX14110

A member of al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant watches men in a “tug of war” contest during an Islamic quiz and games contest in a public square in Raqqa, September 25, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

The attacks on Paris brought Islamic State’s brutality home to the Western world. Before last week, reports of the group’s atrocities were shocking but easier to dismiss, happening far beyond European borders. The world expressed outrage but largely stood by as the group pushed out recruitment propaganda depicting sex slavery and the brutal torture and murder of its captives. These incidents are horrific, but they overshadow a more insidious, long-term threat: Islamic State’s kinder, gentler side.

Thousands of peace-loving people live in Islamic State-occupied areas and are fed a steady stream of positive propaganda: Islamic State members feeding the poor, and hosting ice cream socials, carnivals, and tug-of-war contests. Islamic State is trying — and in some areas, succeeding — in winning hearts and minds. Left unchecked, its public support will grow, making the group more difficult to defeat in the long run and giving it the space it needs to conduct future attacks like those in Paris and Beirut.

Charlie Winter, of the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, performed a month-long study of Islamic State propaganda. Winter discovered that — contrary to what we see in Western media — over half of Islamic State propaganda shows people going about everyday activities in a peaceful and normal manner.

In many ways, the group serves as a functioning government in the areas it controls, offering services once provided by the Syrian and Iraqi regimes. It collects taxes, picks up trash, runs schools, issues marriage licenses, provides security, and even employs former government bureaucrats to make sure everything runs smoothly. In Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province, Islamic State has issued regulations to protect natural resources and the environment, suggesting that the group is settled in for the long run. Some Syrian citizens under Islamic State control claim that the group’s efforts have helped return some sense of normalcy to their lives, a welcome reprieve from the grueling civil war.

One resident of an Islamic State-controlled city told Time magazine that he originally opposed Islamic State, but changed his mind after it paid for his brother’s wedding, provided him with fuel, and helped fix his neighbour’s house. Islamic State also carefully controls what those under its control can read and hear: outside media and anti-Islamic State messages are forbidden. This is terrifying. Given enough time, this captive audience could eventually determine that Islamic State’s harsh system of rule is worth the veneer of peace and normality, and grow to support the group. This is classic Stockholm Syndrome, but on a much wider and far more devastating scale.

There is precedent for such a transformation. In the 1990s, the Taliban gained considerable public support by establishing law and order in a chaotic Afghanistan. Groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah used charitable acts and social welfare programs to transform themselves from violent fringe groups into political entities with support from wide swaths of the population. Both groups have devoted significant time and resources to social welfare wings, which support schools, libraries, medical clinics, orphanages, food aid, and sports leagues. By 2006, Hamas had enough support to win a decisive victory in Palestine’s parliamentary election. By 2008, Hezbollah had gained control of over a third of Lebanon’s cabinet seats.

It is frightening to imagine that Islamic State could eventually follow this trajectory. Although Islamic State rejects democracy, if it continues to rally public support through works of charity and governance, it could become entrenched in society and be that much harder to defeat. Even the group’s draconian treatment of women may not be enough to stymie public support. For example, women in Afghanistan once enjoyed considerably more freedom than they do today — they wore modern clothes, attended university, and worked in professional settings. The Taliban put a stop to this, but much of the public was willing to see women’s rights decreased in exchange for less violence. History is poised to repeat itself in Syria.

The international coalition against Islamic State invests significant resources to counter the group’s negative propaganda, but not enough attention is paid to debunking the group’s positive messages. Now is the time to address this problem. In just a couple of years, it may be too late.


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The more rights women have, the less well-off society is in general. This is sad, because I generally favor equal rights. But you can’t give equal rights to some groups, because once they are equal they automatically become dominant. A woman who is equal partners in a marriage is actually the dominant member of the marriage, with the male needing her more than she needs him. That is why the US is filled today with poor single independent women and fatherless children. This is the liberal paradigm. Because left to their own devices women would rather be single and alone than married. When women do get married they often experience physical abuse because they don’t respect their husbands, they act like immature spoiled children, and suffer OCPD. Much more than males, women are control freaks. When men are in charge, they take care of women. When women are in charge, they take care of women. No one cares about men, neither women nor men.

Posted by VeryFrankTruth | Report as abusive

Ever notice that the more ridiculous and outlandish a person’s opinions are, the more likely they are to feel the need to give them a crutch with a name like “VeryFrankTruth”.

Posted by Anthony2817 | Report as abusive

“When women do get married they often experience physical abuse because they don’t respect their husbands….”

They don’t experience physical abuse because of what they do or do not do. They experience physical abuse because someone decides that they will physically abuse them. Period.

You can’t see your victim blaming, can you?

Until men stand up and take personal responsibility for THEIR actions and STOP doing the WRONG thing – no matter the justification- there will be no peace in the home. It is better to be alone.

Posted by Sacchiridites | Report as abusive

Wow! A “month long study” on the insidious affects of ISIS on the local populations.
I think ANY person who was unfortunate enough to life under the Assad, Hussein, Ghaddaffi, dictatorships would be able to “survive” under just about any type of “ruler”.

The key word here being “survive”. Food, shelter, then a job(money). Those are most people’s priorities in a 3rd world country ( and a lot of 1st world countries as well).
“Democracy”, “womens rights”, “debate”, “post secondary education”, all take a distant second place when one doesnt know where the next meal is coming from for themselves or their screaming children.
ISIS taxes, garbage collection, electricity, potable water, are merely to stop the grumbling from an already crushed, demoralized, subservient populace.
Give them 25 years of living under trade embargo’s, bank account seizures, travel bans……All they have spare time for is making babies.
Then wait for the young kids start demanding more…….kinda like Iran. Only without the nukes.

Posted by NonVoter | Report as abusive

sounds like Ireland’s Shin Pain

Posted by EdMartin | Report as abusive

If they are so peacful why are so many running away from them?

Posted by zenkick | Report as abusive

This problem is one of our own creation — or more succinctly, of the left’s. When Muslims are strictly kept out of our societies, their worldview and whatever propaganda they have succumbed to becomes effectively academic, from our perspective.

Our “values” should not compel us to harbor such people and accept the inherent risk.

Posted by NJcitizen | Report as abusive

Well, maybe we should quit destabilizing and bombing the region and people would not have to resort to extremism to survive…duh.

Posted by leesamaire | Report as abusive