Jordan combats the Islamic State by addressing domestic grievances

Since the Islamic State spectacularly took over Mosul in early June and declared an Islamic Caliphate on Syrian and Iraqi land, many Jordanians have worried that they will be next.

Since the Islamic State (IS) took over Mosul in early June last year and soon after declared an Islamic Caliphate on Syrian and Iraqi land, many Jordanians have been worried that they will be next. According to a poll published in September 2014 by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, 65 percent of Jordanians see IS as the biggest threat to Jordan’s stability.

This fear is not unfounded. Jordan has long been an exporter of jihadi fighters – IS itself evolved out of a group founded by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Footage of IS fighters tearing apart and then burning their Jordanian passports, as well as threatening to slaughter King Abdullah II, only confirms that Jordan, and its leader, are in their sights. An estimated 2,000 Jordanians are currently fighting in Syria, and many of them are doing so under the banner of IS. In response, the government pushed through a controversial anti-terror bill earlier this year, which broadens the definition of terrorism to include “joining or attempting to join”, the “direct and indirect funding” of, and “attempting to recruit” for “any armed group or terrorist organisation in the Kingdom and abroad”. This makes it impossible for Jordanian fighters to return to the country without facing prosecution.

In June, in response to IS advancing to within a few kilometres of Jordan’s 180km border with Iraq, the government deployed about 100 Special Forces and Air Force personnel to the Iraqi side of the border. While in theory IS might attempt to seize border crossings as it tried to do in Lebanon, the group is highly unlikely to be successful given that Jordan’s borders are protected with state-of-the-art technology, as well as about 40,000 Jordanian army personnel and 1,000 American troops brought in to fend off threats from the war in Syria. Since late April 2014, Jordanian authorities have also implemented a new security campaign along its borders, no longer allowing unidentified persons to cross. Given the length of its borders with Syria and Iraq, however, it will be impossible to seal them off entirely.

IS and Jordan’s Salafi movement

More worrying to the Jordanian regime is the level of support IS might enjoy among Jordanians inside the country, particularly those belonging to the large underclass that is heavily concentrated in Amman, Irbid, Zarqa, and Ma’an. For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front was the most prominent opposition group in Jordan. Following the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, however, there has been an increase in support for more radical groups, including for both the Quietist Salafi and Salafi-jihadi movements in Jordan. Quietist Salafis represent a much larger proportion of Salafis in Jordan, but the rise in jihadi rhetoric among Salafis is a worrying trend. While Islamist groups in Jordan have long enjoyed the support of Palestinian-Jordanian communities in Zarqa and elsewhere, support for such movements has risen, particularly amongst East Bank Jordanians – who have traditionally been the king’s most loyal supporters. This reflects the hollowing out of the regime’s social base after two decades of economic liberalisation policies, as well as the perception in Jordan that the traditional Brotherhood is a Palestinian-oriented organisation.

The Salafi-jihadi movement, however, is split on its support for IS. Some have rejected its announcement of an Islamic caliphate, which they regard as a “rush job”, “forced”, and “illegitimate”. For example, the spiritual leader of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Jordan, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, has attacked IS, accusing it of killing Muslims and criticising its declaration of an Islamic caliphate. Maqdisi was released from jail on 16 June 2014, days before he made his statements, raising questions about a possible deal between him and the Jordanian authorities. Some have claimed that he was released only after he had been persuaded to issue two fatwas declaring followers of IS “deviants” and telling them not to carry out attacks in Jordan (although his release did coincide with the end of his jail term). More recently, al-Maqdisi has spoken out against IS’s tactics of kidnapping and beheading aid workers and journalists, claiming that these victims are messengers and helpers that should be protected.

A group of Salafi-jihadis, including two of the movement’s leaders, Irbid’s Abu Mohammad al-Tahawi and Ma’an’s Mohammed al-Shalabi (better known as Abu Sayyaf), openly attacked al-Maqdisi for his criticism of IS. Abu Sayyaf accused al-Maqdisi of defending “the regime and its security arm”. Even so, Abu Sayyaf and others are quick to deny any organised IS presence in Jordan, stating that support for the group amongst many Salafis in Jordan remains purely ideological. This did not stop the government from cracking down on the Salafi movement’s hard-line elements in June 2014, arresting over 100 and referring over 40 members to the country’s state security court since the beginning of last year.

More recently, the government imposed new rules on the country’s clerics in an effort to curb jihadist rhetoric in Jordanian mosques. The government is demanding that preachers refrain from making any remarks inciting violence against the royal family, leaders of neighbouring Arab states, the United States, and Europe, and has also warned preachers against using sectarian, jihadist, or extremist rhetoric. The government is rewarding preachers who adhere to these new guidelines through government salaries of about $600 a month, as well as other perks including religious workshops and travel assistance.

Domestic disturbance in Ma’an

However, the emphasis on the religious motivations of IS’s supporters tends to obscure the many grievances that have motivated fighters to join the militant group. A history of government oppression, marginalisation, and the absence of basic services have also played a part in the emergence of IS in Iraq and Syria. For this reason, another concern for the Jordanian government is how IS’s strategy of preying on existing grievances could play out in Ma’an, a city 200km south of Amman, where citizens have long-standing grievances towards the regime. There, a number of protests took place between April and July last year, and more recently in October, which included a small group of protestors waving IS flags and chanting their support for the Islamic State. Since then, IS militants operating in Syria have allegedly released a series of messages, including a video in May announcing their solidarity with the people of Ma’an and referring to the city as the “Fallujah of Jordan”.

Political troubles in Ma’an go back to 1989, when protests first erupted over the removal of bread and fuel subsidies. The protests then spread to Karak, Salt, and Amman, which eventually resulted in the lifting of martial law and the reinstatement of parliament. Since then, however, residents of Ma’an have complained of political and economic marginalisation at the hands of the central government and of being shut out of jobs in phosphate and cement production, the region’s two main industries. The city has an unemployment rate of 20.6 percent, much higher than the national average, as well as the highest poverty rate in the country, at 24.1 percent. Tensions also exist between residents and the gendarmerie, with at least ten people having died in clashes at the hands of police in the 2013 alone, according to human rights activists.

Both residents and the local government in Ma’an have stated that national and international media are exaggerating the threat of IS there, claiming that while the group may be trying to recruit potential members, no formal organisational structure exists. They warned, however, that this situation might change if heavy-handed policing continued. Mohammed Abu Saleh, a political leader in Ma’an who helped organise the anti-government rallies, has told media that heavy-handed actions by Jordanian security forces are “suffocating” the population. “The only state services we get are riot police”, he said. “The city has been forgotten. There are no jobs, no development, no dignity.” As in Fallujah and Mosul, growing frustration could lead some to use the threat of IS to send a message to the central government.

The need for a political approach

Despite the rising popularity of jihadi rhetoric in some circles, and the growing frustration in parts of the country, the vast majority of Jordanians do not aspire to carry out jihad in Syria or elsewhere and are appalled by the violent tactics IS have adopted since their rise to power. According to an opinion poll carried out by the Center for Strategic Studies, an overwhelming 89 percent of respondents reject the ideologies of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, and IS. Additionally, for over a decade, Jordan has hosted a consistent influx of refugees from Iraq and Syria, who serve as a constant reminder of the risks of rocking the boat. Given the country’s professional army, strong state institutions, and homogenous population, its challenges are not the same as those that allowed IS to prosper in Syria and Iraq. The major risk for Jordan is that the regime might respond too forcefully to existing threats and thereby alienate and radicalise significant segments of its population.

Of the nearly 60 states who have joined the American-led coalition against IS, Jordan is a country whose participation is particularly critical. Beyond the “local” legitimacy that Jordan’s involvement brings to the campaign, the country has also proved to be an indispensable ally – from deploying fighter jets to providing support and training to Syrian rebels. This involvement has undoubtedly brought criticism from opposition elements in the country, both secular and religious.Abu Sayyaf, among others, has called the campaign an attack on Islam, and at the beginning of September 2014, 21 members of Jordan’s parliament sent a memo to its speaker rejecting the Kingdom’s participation.  

But while Jordan has an important role to play in the fight against IS, it should not fight the battle through security and military means alone. After all, the fight against IS is fundamentally a struggle between inclusive and pluralistic approaches to governance and violent and exclusionist ones, and it is at the political level that the battle against IS will be won or lost. At the regional level, Jordan’s role should be to support a political process in Iraq that tries to address the underlying causes that have led to the rise of radical groups like IS. Domestically, the government should work towards sustainable peace and security by addressing long-term problems of inequality, poverty, and development in the country, which is as essential as monitoring borders and keeping a watchful eye on potential jihadis.

Saleem Haddad is the Conflict and Security Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at Saferworld.

This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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