The polarisation of Jordan's jihadi scene

The polarisation of Jordan's jihadi scene
4 min read
06 January, 2017
Comment: Amman has long fought against armed groups, and with growing support for the Islamic State group in Jordan, that fight is a long way from over, writes Mona Alami.
Counter-terrorism operations are complicated by Jordan's fragmented militant environment [AFP]

Last month's clashes in Karak, Jordan, between Islamic State group militants and security forces come on the heels of a series of attacks by the armed group on the Hashemite Kingdom's security interests.

The Arab country - which has long struggled with jihadist threats - appears to be bracing for a new phase of instability as IS comes under increasing pressure on its home turf in Iraq and Syria.

Following the December 18 Islamic State group attack in Karak, pro-IS social media users posted messages celebrating the onslaught, according the Israel-leaning MEMRI research institute. In these messages, IS threatened it would continue to attack Jordan, assassinate King Abdallah and target the administration, security forces and any clerics who cooperate with the government, as well as westerners.

In 2015, IS published a video, Message to Our People in Maan, featuring the "un-Islamic" and "traitorous" Jordanian regime. Since 2014, the confrontation between the organisation and the Hashemite kingdom has been on the rise with at least five attacks taking place in the past year.

The latest in Karak pitted gunmen against security forces, killing 10 people and injured 34 more.

Jordan faced its first jihadist wave in the 1990s, when a number of jihadist intellectuals and militants who fought alongside al-Qaeda returned home



These attacks highlight several new trends: the capability of IS to tap into a pool of home-grown jihadists, a growing affiliation of jihadist youth to IS and the decline of the traditionalist hold of more pragmatic figures such as Abu Mohamad Maqdissi and Abu Qatada.

Jordan faced its first jihadist wave in the 1990s, when a number of jihadist intellectuals and militants who fought alongside al-Qaeda returned home. Among many, a more notorious example is provided by Abu Mussaab Zarqawi who was behind the triple Amman bombings that targeted three of the city’s luxury hotels, killing at least 57 people.

Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006, was influenced by Maqdissi, but disagreed with him on a reliance on suicide bombings and stoking inter-Muslim sectarian fires.

According to Marwan Shehadeh, a Jordanian expert of Islamic groups, there are about 5,000 to 6,000 jihadists in Jordan.

"These include ideological followers who are not necessarily affiliated to the organisation," he explained. Shehadeh said some 2,500 to 3,000 Jordanians had gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. Jordanians dominated the former Nusra Front, now Jabhat Fateh Sham (JFS), with the likes of Eyad al-Toubasi, known as Abu Julaybib, as the former security and Sharia leader of Nusra, alongside Bilal Khuraysat, known as Abu Khadjia, and others.

Yet JFS appears to be losing the battle of Jordanian hearts and minds, with many jihadists tilting apparently in favour of IS. Shehadeh attributes this to JFS' more "national" approach - resulting in an ideology less defined than that of IS. 

IS narrative on the other hand is clearer from an identity perspective. "IS is the only Islamic group that was able to build a 'caliphate' and imposed the sharia," he said. "The caliphate is an inspiring idea for the conservative youth."

In addition, IS victories in Iraq and Syria and its capability to withstand an international coalition there also appeals to many Jordanian jihadists. 

Another factor also increased IS recruitment of Jordanian youth travelling to fight in Syria - increased security measures at Jordan's border with southern Syria (where Nusra, now JFS, was active) forced would-be militants to instead take a circuitous route through Turkey. Crossing through Turkey meant that Jordanians ended up in IS territory, a situation that also applied to Lebanese youth.

This polarisation within the Jordanian jihadist scene further complicates the counter-terrorism task of Jordan security services



In such a framework, the discourse of "realists" or "pragmatic jihadists" such as Abu Mohamad Maqdisi and Abu Qatada appears to be eroding - while the voice of neo-Zarqawis carries seemingly further. The rift between these two wings has grown with the IS-Nusra rivalry and the death of Jordanian pilot Moas Kasasbeh, who was burned alive by IS in February 2015. 

Maqdisi sided with JFS and worked for the liberation of Kasasbeh. In return, neo-Zarqawis accused Maqdisi of capitulating to government pressure, labeling him "the sheikh of darkness", according to Salafi sources.

This polarisation within the Jordanian jihadist scene further complicates the counter-terrorism task of Jordan security services. They face a difficult and sensitive responsibility as the Hashemite kingdom appears to be bracing for more attacks from IS in the near future. 

Mona Alami a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic council covering Middle East politics with a special interest in radical organisations. Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami