Despite the fact that some Jordanian cities provide a suitable environment for the Salafist jihadist movement, observers underestimate the ability of the Islamic State (IS) to gain a foothold in these cities.
The Salafists in Jordan are divided into two sub-movements, jihadist Salafism and traditional Salafism. Ali al-Halabi, the prominent cleric of the traditional Salafism movement, enjoys an excellent relationship with the state, while Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the prominent cleric of jihadist Salafism, which is a movement that only believes in force as a means for change, does not. Despite each's claim to advocate Salafism, the two sub-movements have differences in political positions, to the extent that each has declared it will have nothing to do with the other.
The growing public support for IS in the Hashemite Kingdom has resulted in support protests, the first of which came after the Eid al-Fitr prayers in 2014 in Zarqa and the second staged recently in Russeifa. These protests raise questions about the inevitable long term risks from the strong support for IS in the provinces, especially in light of the growing poverty, deprivation, misery, lack of infrastructure and economic and social opportunities, as extremist organizations exploit these phenomena to expand and extend their presence by recruiting desperate and unemployed youth.
The estimated number of members of the Salafist jihadist movement in Jordan, from which grew Jabhat al-Nusra and IS, is up to 7,000 and concentrated in the Zarqa governorate, the hometown of IS founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, in addition to the governorates of Balqa, Maan and Irbid.
According to the estimates of the movement’s leaders, around 2,000 members are fighting along with IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. A source close to the movement, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that those who are fighting along IS in Iraq and Syria do not necessarily believe in its ideology. He gave the example of a young man in his thirties, who was partially unemployed and used to paint during the summer, who became an emir and commander of an armed faction fighting the Syrian army in Douma. The young man was not a member of the Salafist jihadist movement for the simple reason that he was not religious. “Confronting extremist ideology, whatever its source, requires addressing the root causes, eliminating poverty and unemployment and then achieving justice and equality,” said the source.
According to a Salafist called Abu Mohammed, affiliated with the traditional Salafist movement, extremist groups first emerge under the name of well-known schools of thought, claiming that they follow the Sunni methodology and appearing as reformers, protectors and guardians of religion. Abu Mohammed indicated that radical ideology seems to be well organized, well rooted and based on evidence, and this why it is dangerous. He pointed to the need to pay attention to enthusiastic youth, who have blurry judgment and are lured by great speeches. He clarified that radicalism is the result of people deviating from doctrine and scholars, and also due to young and foolish people controlling the nation, and that religion is misread and misunderstood. He pointed to the negative and devastating effects of radicals on society.
“Members of radical organizations are killing [non-Muslims] by brandishing swords and weapons, which prevents them from distinguishing between those who deserve to be killed or not,” said Abu Mohammed. He added that this is a major sin and injustice, in addition to radicals committing theft; looting and other wrongdoings; challenging scholars, falsely accusing each other of apostasy and abusing Muslims in word and deed.
Abu Abdullah, a member of the movement, said that the Salafist jihadist movement founded Jabhat al-Nusra, which harbored a large number of religious young men from Syria and other Arab and Islamic countries who were not members or supporters of the Salafist jihadist movement but had a common interest in fighting the Syrian army. He said that IS, which defected from Jabhat al-Nusra over religious differences, is infiltrated by the Syrian regime, adding that IS will not find a “market” on the Jordanian street for many reasons, the most important of which is that it is rejected by the Salafist jihadist movement there.
The first public appearance of the Salafist jihadist movement in Jordan was during a press conference by one of the movement’s members in Yajouz in early April 2011. Three weeks after the conference, the movement was able to mobilize nearly 3,000 supporters to stage a protest in front of the Mosque of Omar Ibn al-Khattab in downtown Zarqa to demand the “enforcement of the Quran and fighting the corrupt.” The protests ended in bloody clashes with security personnel and led to nearly a hundred injured from both sides.
The leading figure in the Salafist jihadist movement, Mohammed Shalabi, also called Abu Sayyaf, confirmed that the movement in Jordan is waiting for the opinion of the nation's scholars to determine its position on IS’ declaration of a caliphate. Abu Sayyaf noted that in order for the movement to determine its position, it is necessary to take the opinion of influential people. He explained that this requires the cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi to take a stance that may be subsequently binding to the members of the movement, pointing out that the pledges of allegiance were made to IS on an individual and personal basis and not based on Sharia.
Abu Sayyaf underestimated the importance and significance of the cheers by some members who support IS, considering them natural. He described the acts of the IS supporters who raised IS flags and chanted slogans in support of the organization and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as merely an expression of opinion and empathy. “Worshipers frequenting the mosques were from various political spectra, such as the Baath [ideology] and the Muslim Brotherhood and others, and this is the case for IS. It has its supporters and its detractors,” he said.
Ihsan al-Otaibi, affiliated with the traditional Salafist movement, finds it unsurprising that whoever answers the call for jihad while being unaware of its provisions; not fully familiar with Salafist ideology, methodology and approach; and not fully controlling his own behavior and passion will wrongfully accuse others of apostasy and will kill and target real Muslims, leaving behind the true enemy of Islam.
Otaibi pointed out the reasons young people are lured by the jihad, most notably the frustrations they experience, the wrongdoings that are protected by the law in their own countries, the global conspiracies against Islam and Muslims, the screams of women and the cries of vulnerable children seeking the help of Muslims and others. Otaibi stressed that the acts of extremists in terms of religious preaching or on the battlefields are not related to Islam or Salafism, asserting that those radicals are astray and commit obscene acts.
“We have been harmed and threatened by these extremists. Indeed, I was personally attacked by two of them,” said Otaibi.
Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly