Jordan and the Challenge of Salafi Jihadists

The pre-emptive security operation against a suspected ISIS-linked cell in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid earlier this month was a rude awakening. That all members of the cell were Jordanians added to public anxiety. While praise of the security forces and Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID) came from all sides, starting with King Abdullah himself, a sense of unease permeates throughout the kingdom. This was the first armed confrontation with ISIS, called Daesh locally, within the kingdom’s borders. Until the Irbid incident, Jordan’s efforts to fight the militant group were centered on its participation in the U.S.-led international air campaign in Syria.

Since the GID published a terse statement on March 2 explaining the circumstances of the Irbid operation, a news blackout was imposed by the State Security Court general prosecutor. Those who were arrested in the operation were being interrogated. The little information that was made public indicated that members of the cell had machine guns, explosive vests, and were planning to hit unspecified civilian and military targets. An earlier raid resulting in the arrest of 13 suspects probably led to information about the militant cell. It was not clear if this cell was linked directly to ISIS or was composed of members sympathetic to it.

The operation raised questions about the growing influence of Salafi jihadist groups in Jordan. One local leader, Abu Mohammed al-Tahawi, had pledged allegiance in 2015 to ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and is now under arrest in Jordan. One of his lieutenants is thought to have been active in recruiting local youth and has managed to escape to Raqqa in Syria.

Public opinion in Jordan has veered sharply against ISIS following last year’s capture and brutal killing of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh. But according to local observers, there is still a small, but not insignificant, number of Jordanians sympathetic to the group. One expert on Islamist movements, Hussein al-Rawashdeh, estimates that there are at least 7,000 Salafi jihadists in Jordan, of which 2,000 are loyal to ISIS. Some 1,300 Jordanians are believed to be fighting for ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.

Jordan’s Tolerance of Salafism

Salafi jihadists groups have been active in Jordan for decades. It is an offshoot of apolitical Salafism that had thrived in the kingdom in the early 1990s. A number of al-Qaeda’s spiritual leaders and lieutenants to Osama bin Laden were in fact Jordanians. The relationship goes back to the years of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the late 1970s. Many Arab fighters within the ranks of the mujahideen came from Jordan. Some, called Arab Afghans, who returned to Jordan in the late 1980s were involved in terrorist plots, arrested, and tried. But the Salafi jihadist movement continued to grow in the 1990s and especially in poverty stricken areas such as Zarqa and Ma’an.

It was not until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that the Salafi jihadist groups in Jordan were mobilized, with many volunteers crossing the border to join a Sunni fight against foreign invaders. And when al-Qaeda turned its attention to Iraq, it was another Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who headed the organization’s subversive activities there. Zarqawi set up the foundations of what later became the Islamic State in Iraq, a precursor to today’s ISIS.

Rawashdeh believes that in the wake of the Arab Spring and as the government attempted to weaken and divide the Muslim Brotherhood in the kingdom, Salafi jihadist groups were let off the hook. The Brotherhood, which is the main opposition in Jordan, led public demonstrations in the kingdom during the Arab Spring calling for widespread political reforms. Although they were largely peaceful rallies, they widened the rift between the regime and the Islamist movement. As public mood reversed, following events in Egypt and Syria, the government retaliated by encouraging dissenters within the Brotherhood and later recognizing a splinter group, the Muslim Brotherhood Society, as a legitimate body.

Salafi jihadists were seen by the government as a counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood, and subsequently benefited from the government’s campaign against the Brotherhood.

Jordan’s softer approach to Salafi jihadists has been evident in its treatment of several cases. Zaki Bani Irshaid, a prominent Brotherhood leader, was sentenced to 18 months in February 2015 for posting an opinion on his Facebook page that was deemed harmful to Jordan’s relations with the United Arab Emirates.

On the other hand, hardline Salafi jihadist leader, Abu Qatada, was acquitted by a State Security Court in June 2014 on terrorism charges, while al-Qaeda spiritual leader Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi was freed in February 2015, after years in prison.

There is concern that Jordan’s attempt to manipulate the Salafi jihadist movement to serve its agenda against the Muslim Brotherhood may have backfired. Analysts at the time had cautioned that disgruntled Brotherhood youth may go underground and join radical jihadist groups as a result of the government crackdown on moderate Islamist movements.

Taking the Salafi Jihadist Threat Seriously

Following the Amman hotel bombings in 2005, Jordan tightened the noose on the main figures of the Salafi jihadist movement and arrested their spiritual leader Maqdisi, only to be later released.

Maqdisi was later instrumental in condemning ISIS’ ideology and methods following its emergence in Syria and Iraq. His views led to a widening rift between al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate and ISIS. The GID had successfully used Maqdisi and others, like Abu Qatada, to undermine ISIS’ growing sympathy among Jordanians, especially Salafi jihadists. This in no way means that Jordan favors al-Qaeda over ISIS. But for now it sees, as King Abdullah said last November, the fight against ISIS akin to a Third World War for humanity.

Following the Irbid operation, Jordan recommitted itself to fighting ISIS—which King Abdullah calls outlaws who have hijacked Islam—both through intensified security measures and ideologically. But the Irbid incident marked an important milestone in that fight. One question that was raised by Islamist experts is whether Salafi jihadists, who had long considered Jordan as a passage way into Syria and Iraq and not a destination or target in itself, have changed their position. ISIS has repeatedly condemned Jordan for joining the U.S.-led coalition and threatened its regime. Some local Salafi jihadists groups have also attacked Jordan’s decision to wage war against ISIS.

Since ISIS emerged in Iraq and Syria, Jordanians were less worried about the external threat that the group posed to the kingdom. Jordan is not a failed country and has an efficient armed forces and capable security structure. It enjoys the strong backing of its Western allies, particularly the United States. In February, President Barack Obama signed into law the U.S.-Jordan Cooperation Act that facilitates sales of defense products and services to the country for three years. The law boosts Jordan’s position as a close ally of the United States, especially in the fight against ISIS.

Washington also deployed Patriot anti-missile systems in Jordan in 2013 along with stationing U.S. Special Forces to help monitor the long borders with Syria and Iraq. In return, Jordan has offered use of its airbases to U.S., French, and Dutch fighter jets. Until late last year, a joint military and intelligence operations room was operating in Amman with Saudi, U.S., and Jordanian participation to coordinate Free Syrian Army (FSA) operations in southern Syria.

The Jordanian armed forces has been especially successful in monitoring the kingdom’s borders with Syria and Iraq, foiling repeated attempts by smugglers and suspected terrorists to cross into the kingdom. Many Jordanians who attempted to cross the border into Syria have been caught and put on trial.

But the worry now is over the existence of dormant cells that could wage attacks from inside the kingdom. While the GID and others remain vigilant, some observers believe that successive governments have erred by looking the other way as Salafi jihadist groups carried out propaganda activities.

One example is that of Mohammed al-Shalabi, better known as Abu Sayyaf. A prominent member and spokesperson of the Jordanian Salafi jihadist movement, Shalabi was arrested and sentenced to death in 2006 for his alleged role in instigating the 2002 Ma’an riots, but was later pardoned and released as a gesture to appease the movement. He has supported some ISIS positions and encouraged Jordanians to join ‘jihad’ in Syria and remains free today.

Poor Performing Economy Fuelling Jihadist Cause

Following the Irbid incident there has been renewed debate over the long-term strategy to battle religious extremism. The government was asked by commentators to review school curriculum and control mosques. Others have called for a cyber-strategy to counter unique recruiting techniques that ISIS uses. But the debate is also touching on other matters as well. The appeal of the ISIS dogma seems to penetrate socioeconomic boundaries. Islamist expert Mohammed Abu Rumman noted that many Salafi jihadist sympathizers and recruits include the middle-class and university graduates and not only youth from impoverished areas.

One commentator, Lamis Andoni, has warned that failed economic policies and continued manipulation of political and press freedoms will put more pressure on various segments of society, allowing ISIS and other groups to attract more disenfranchised Jordanians.

Former Prime Minister Taher al-Masri warned that the threat of dormant ISIS cells in the kingdom was real, and called on the government to intensify its war on terrorism. But he also pointed to the tough economic conditions and the rise in unemployment, particularly among the youth, which could help extremists spread their ideas.

Official figures put the rate of unemployment at about 13 percent last year, while direct foreign investments have receded by more than 28 percent. The kingdom’s economy has been under pressure since 2008 and got worse in the aftermath of the eruption of the Syrian crisis in 2011. Jordan has received thus far 1.3 million Syrian refugees, who have added to the strain on the local economy.

Despite additional foreign aid, prospects for the Jordanian economy do not look good. Former Finance Minister Mohammad Abu Hammour told Al-Hayat newspaper last week that the economy will perform worse in 2016 than last year. According to the minister, overall debt has now exceeded 80 percent of GNP, at about $28.5 billion. He also said that the economy was growing at a slower pace than population growth, which is exacerbated by the addition of Syrian refugees.

Addressing Jordan’s precious economic situation is thus not simply a matter of economics, but now a security matter to stave off the ideological spread of radical Islam.

Next Options

Jordan remains a stable country in the midst of regional chaos. It is not surprising that it is affected by events in the wider neighborhood. While ISIS’ regional threat is receding, thanks to relentless airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, Jordanians know that the long-term influence of its dogma will not disappear anytime soon. As the government ponders ways to offset the group’s toxic ideology in schools, universities, mosques, and elsewhere, it also knows that piling economic and political challenges will not make its task easy. This is particularly true of Salafi jihadists’ continuing influence in impoverished towns and refugee camps.

Should a political deal be found in Syria, the Jordanian government will have to prepare for the possible return of thousands of Salafi jihadist militants. This is an ongoing threat, and the Jordanians are bracing for a confrontation. At least one of those who were killed in the pre-emptive GID raid had recently returned from southern Syria.

Jordan’s challenges with the Salafi jihadist threat are both short-term and long-term. The short-term challenge is the direct threat posed by the presence of radical jihadist groups in Jordan, and the likely return of thousands of radical Jordanian militants currently fighting among the ranks of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Iraq and Syria. The long-term challenge is the battle to uproot radical Salafi jihadist ideology from segments of Jordanian society via instruments of economic and soft power. Overturning Jordan’s downward economic spiral and expanding development to prevent extremists from exploiting society’s most disadvantaged will perhaps be the most difficult challenge.

Jordan will need international, and more specifically American, support to confront both its short-term and long-term strategies. U.S. counter-terrorism expertise is vital in assisting Jordanian security forces to confront the current militant threat. Equally important is U.S. economic assistance to help Jordan address the underlying factors that are leading to marginalization and radicalization in segments of its population. It is imperative that Jordan develop a sustainable economic model where it is no longer dependent on foreign aid. Achieving this will no doubt require internal reforms that the United States and the United Nations can advise and guide. This will also give moderate politicians fresh ammunition to pressure the regime for political and economic reforms.