Jordan is in the eye of a storm as armed Salafist and jihadist brigades, as well as al-Qaeda militants, are pouring into the country from all sides. The dangers of the “Arab Afghans” that existed a quarter of a century ago — when Iraq was turned into a terrorism-export “factory” after it came under occupation — remain etched in the memory of the people and officials.
This old-new danger is deepening with the political and security chaos plaguing the region. Winds of change blew through the Arab world in 2011, reshaping the map of regional and international alliances, and pushing about a thousand Jordanians to join armed jihadist organizations in Syria.
A stone’s throw from the border villages in the north, the brigades of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) wander across the borders between Syrian provinces and the Iraqi province of Anbar on the border with Jordan, setting their eye on the Levant.
In Yemen, various extremist groups are threatening the Gulf region, its backyard and strategic core. The tide of terrorism stretches out to the west, all the way to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and the Sinai Peninsula near Aqaba at the tip of the Red Sea.
A third wave sweeps across Sudan, through the Egyptian gate, all the way to the Sinai, where armed clashes broke out between the Egyptian army and extremist groups.
How will Jordan and neighboring countries deal with these terrifying scenarios, such as the potential creation of an emirate in southern Syria or eastern Iraq by ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, or the possible return of hundreds of militants to the their countries of origin, in the event stability is restored in Syria?
So far, amid these intertwined movements of terrorism, Jordan continues to stand in the face of what officials call “radical Islam.”
Today, Jordan is using its diplomatic weight and the influence of its intelligence apparatus to mobilize the sporadic efforts of regional and Western countries, banking on its bilateral relations and its security services to protect itself from the rampant surge of extremist militants.
However, the fight against these forces and takfiri extremist groups that are fomenting sectarian discord among Muslims and other religious communities, will only be viable through the establishment of a regional and international system operating at different levels and axes, with protective, defensive, operational and intelligence strategies.
Officials hope to set the basis of an institutional, professional action that falls beyond the framework of the normal bilateral or trilateral cooperation.
Jordan has experience in the fight against terrorism, since Afghanistan became fertile soil for the first generation of extremist and takfiri groups, the second generation flowing from Iraq and the third generation of armed Islamic groups active in Syria.
After the triple bombings in Amman in the fall of 2005, Jordanian intelligence launched a [counter-terrorist campaign] led by the Knights of Justice unit in collaboration with the 71st Counter-Terrorist Battalion.
Among the declared operations inside the Iraqi border was the arrest of Ziad Karbouli, a member of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006. The following month, intelligence data and information led to the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the militant leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Jordan quickly started fighting this tide, as it realized the extent of danger emanating from the Syrian side.
During the past six months, Jordan’s security apparatuses have been taking action to alert friendly countries and strategic allies, through unannounced visits and meetings with security strategy makers and implementers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE.
According to diplomats, Jordan has sounded the alarm in European capitals and Washington. Jordanian Interior Minister Hussein Hazza al-Majali has been visiting several countries for this purpose, accompanied by senior security leaders.
Opportunities and challenges
There are some objective conditions that tip the balance in favor of Jordan, which has been occupying for weeks one of the non-permanent seats of the UN Security Council. This provides an important platform for action to be taken at the international level.
Majali is one of the most active Arab interior ministers, who are scheduled to hold a meeting in Marrakech in March.
This meeting is likely to provide a platform to make a fateful decision and mobilize members of the Arab League. In parallel, Jordan, along with other Arab countries that are deploying the same efforts and enjoy close relations with the West, ought to develop an integrated strategy to deal with this imminent danger, through immediate, medium and long-term goals.
It is in the best interest of Jordan and moderate Arab countries to take such measures. This will also be to the advantage of Europe, the United States and other countries. Estimates indicate that about 500 Jordanians are involved in the war raging in Syria, of which more than a hundred Salafist jihadists have been killed.
There are hundreds of other Jordanians who are willing to head to Syria, save for the financial and strategic hardships. Had the border not been under control, many of them would have infiltrated the country, as is the case on the Iraqi and Turkish borders. This is especially true since the Turkish government has been encouraging [the fighting in Syria] out of its distaste for Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its desire to expand its influence.
Jordanians currently constitute the most prominent al-Qaeda leaders in Syria, and they have already occupied these positions in al-Qaeda in Iraq.
There are also Jordanian leaders in both Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. The official in charge of Sharia in Jabhat al-Nusra is a Jordanian who holds a doctorate in Islamic law from the University of Jordan. Officials in the military wing of Jabhat al-Nusra in the southern areas are young Jordanians, according to Jordanian political analyst Mohammad Abu Rumman, a specialist in Islamic organizations.
Moreover, the most prominent Salafist jihadist theorists in the world and influential members of the Salafi jihadist factions in Syria are also Jordanians.
Sadly, poverty, unemployment and oppression are driving hundreds to join the ranks of al-Qaeda and its offshoots. Most of those infiltrating Syria are joining one of al-Qaeda’s factions, namely Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS.
The problem is that al-Qaeda is fighting and killing for different motives. The organization’s operations are based on an agenda that is far from that of other revolutionary forces, including the Islamic ones.
Other important factors provide motivation: the state of frustration and disappointment; disintegration of the middle class; social and economic pressures; rampant unemployment; intellectual vacuum; political stalemate; and the dwindling reformist and moderate forces that are able to provide cultural, intellectual and political alternatives.
This land, which created the jihadist movement, is currently producing a generation of Jordanian youth who are extremists in another sense. They are victims of the spread of drugs in universities and the emergence of strange phenomena in a society that is plagued by destitution, deprivation and a sense of injustice. These phenomena are also the result of the official political and economic policies that have come to exhaust the middle class, destroy the reformist moderate movements and create the adequate climate for “extremism” and widespread violence.
What is required, first and foremost, is to acknowledge the scale of the dangers threatening the new generations, as well as the social and cultural collapses. The policy of “burying one’s head in the sand” ought to stop.
Thousands of European-nationality holders — mostly from North Africa, be they educated or marginalized — currently make up a significant part of thousands of deluded fighters in Syria. They often reach Syria through the Turkish, Iraqi and sometimes Lebanese border, backed by a sovereign and security cover or by influential militias. The United States, which suffered from the threat of terrorism in the early 2000s because of its unfair policies in the region, controls the majority of international bank transfers. In addition, it has nationals of Arab and Asian roots involved in the mujahideen brigades.
In this regard, Egypt witnessed several events, such as the discussions held with the armed jihadist prisoners, before a number of them escaped from prison following the first revolution that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
For its part, Jordan has been through other experiences, be it in terms of awareness by starting dialogue with jihadist prisoners, or in terms of proactive and defensive security.
The Interior Ministry has launched a program to contain jihadist ideology. The program was applied on 27 inmates in 2007 and on 32 in 2008. The project includes religious lessons and interviews with scholars and imams to fight this ideology, through dialogues and by holding sessions of psychological counseling and social rehabilitation, according to officials. Participants in the first sessions ended up getting rid of the hard line of thought, whereas most of the participants in the 2008 sessions proceeded in the same direction.
Today, the government is considering reviewing its curriculum and launching overlapping programs that focus on youth, schools and universities. The programs will focus on communities that provide an adequate climate for jihad, including marginalized camps and areas where poverty, ignorance, deprivation, injustice and the declining prestige of the state and democracy are prominent.
Amid the launch of campaigns aimed at fighting roadside vendors of takfiri books and stores that sell takfiri tapes, the Ministry of Islamic and Holy Affairs recently started to tighten its control over imams and preachers in mosques who deliver speeches driven by extremism, isolation and atonement.
Years ago, an anti-terrorism regional center emerged in the Hashemite Kingdom, and several countries benefited from its programs.
Jordan can lean on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries affected by Salafist jihadism. For instance, Saudi Arabia is trying to clamp down on money collected from donors and private associations to support jihadists in the Arab world. And there is hope that both Qatar and Turkey will reconsider their official policy of arming and funding militant groups in Syria and facilitating the entry of weapons and deluded warriors.
Finding and implementing extremist ideas became easy in the midst of the political chaos that beset the region and the conflict of regimes and apparatuses on the Syrian arena.
“Let us acknowledge that all Arab countries, without exception, are facing the threat of armed jihadist terrorism and the takfiri ideology that goes against democracy, political and religious pluralism, moderate Islam and the values of humanity and tolerance,” a Jordanian official said.
The alternative is to impede the networks created by militant groups, as well as the cross-border danger that they constitute. Jordan should be the obstacle to the communication between extremist groups of North Africa and their counterparts in other countries in the region.
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