Photos have emerged online that apparently depict Islamic State members in Syria distributing food boxes stolen from the UN's World Food Programme, rebranded with the ISIS logo.
The Islamic State may think of itself as something of a latter-day Robin Hood—but instead of taking from the rich and giving to the poor, it's stealing from charity.
As reported by Vocativ, photos have emerged online that apparently depict men in ISIS-branded trucks handing out food to displaced Syrians near Aleppo. In some of the photos, the logo of the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) ration boxes can be glimpsed beneath taped-on photocopies of the ISIS flag.
"WFP is extremely concerned about this as we try to understand the circumstances surrounding the incident," WFP senior spokeswoman Abeer Etefa told MUNCHIES by email. "At the moment, we are not sending any more food supplies to these areas because our partners cannot operate independently."
The photos posted to Manbar, an image-hosting site often used by ISIS, are titled "The Distribution of Zakat"—referring to practice of providing for the poor. Zakat, or alms-giving, is one of the five pillars of Islam.
The text accompanying the images posted on Manbar says that the food was distributed in Qurmuz Ali village, near Dar al-Fath, to displaced people from the city of Al-Safira. The WFP claims that it last reached the nearby village of Dayr Hafir in August; the following month, ISIS militants raided warehouses maintained by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent—a partner of the WFP—where undistributed food rations may have been stored.
In the photos, an ISIS manifest lists bulgur, oil, and rice, along with food boxes. Etefa noted that the boxes contain staple items like pasta, tomato paste, sugar, canned food, and salt.
"WFP condemns this manipulation of desperately needed food aid inside Syria. We urge all parties to the conflict to respect humanitarian principles and allow humanitarian workers including our partners to deliver food to the most vulnerable and hungry families," said Muhannad Hadi, WFP Emergency Regional Coordinator for the Syria crisis, in a press release.
Due to the extremely volatile conditions in ISIS-controlled areas, the WFP has not been able to verify the authenticity of the photographs, nor account for how much food might have been obtained. "We are not sure about how many undistributed rations were obtained by ISIS as we lost communication with the staff of our partner on the ground and are unable to contact them," Etefa said. "This is the first time that partner warehouses which store humanitarian supplies, including WFP food, have been raided by ISIS."
Controlling resources such as food is a key element in ISIS's long-term strategy in the region. In Iraq, the group has seized farmland that produces as much as 40 percent of the country's wheat, according to the UN. The independent news organization Syria Direct reported last year that ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra began distributing bread in the Syrian region of Deir ez-Zor because it is an "essential ingredient in gaining popular support."
Despite the raid last year in Dayr Hafir, the WFP does not plan to change its operations in the region. "We are not operating in areas where partners are not able to work freely and independently," Etefa said. "There should be no implications on our operations in Iraq or Syria."
In December, the WFP announced that it would suspend its operations feeding Syrian refugees in neighboring countries due to severe funding shortfalls. A successful donation campaign, however, allowed the organization to resume food assistance to refugees. "All our operations are up and running but with reduced funding," Etefa said. "We had to provide refugees in neighboring countries with only 70 percent of the value of their food vouchers to meet the urgent food needs of displaced families inside Syria with a reduced food ration."
To donate to the WFP's Syrian refugee food voucher program, visit wfp.org/syria.