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Young Jordanians find purpose fighting in Syria Open in fullscreen

Mohammed Abu Rumman

Young Jordanians find purpose fighting in Syria

Many Jordanian activists have joined jihadi ranks [al-Araby]

Date of publication: 3 November, 2014

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Young men joining armed jihadi groups in Syria are often labelled as ignorant or vulnerable, but many are signing up to fight for more ideological reasons.

Jihad al-Ghubn was a Jordanian who died last week in Syria fighting for al-Nusra Front. He was known as Abu Jihad Shaarawi, his nickname coming from the Shaarawi chewing gum factory in which he used to work. The young man would cram his pockets full of gum, and the name stuck.

His death is not an isolated case. There have reportedly been thousands of young people leaving seemingly very ordinary backgrounds in Jordan, only to cross the border to fight in Syria's war.

Most have chosen to join jihadi groups such as al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS). What made Ghubn different was his background as an activist for political and economic reform in Jordan, a career which brought him close to a broad range of political groups, from leftists to Islamists.

In truth, Ghubn's story is an opportunity to challenge the superficial stereotypes and misconceptions rife among Jordanian political elites about the motives and social backgrounds of these young men who have joined armed groups in Syria.

Misconceptions abound

One often hears reasoning from people in these circles - often close to the ruling elite - making facile characterisations to explain the departure of would-be fighters.

They claim that the emigrants have low academic attainment and face tough socioeconomic conditions such as poverty and unemployment. While these experiences might apply to some who crossed the border to fight in Syria, it is certainly not the case for all. Any study to explain their motives needs another explanation, one that digs deeper into the situation in Jordan and the region.

Ghubn's friends told us he had fallen on hard times - but reviewing his activities in Jordan does not give one the impression that it was simply economic matters that radicalised him. Ghubn had been involved in Jordanian grassroots movements from the start of their recent activities - demanding political reforms, which generally speaking is a middle class phenomenon in Jordan.

He threw himself into each activity and event organised by the reformists, said engineer Akram al-Hammoud, one of Ghubn's friends in the movement.

Hammoud spoke at length about the views Ghubn held before he went to Syria. Ghubn was at times close to the Muslim Brotherhood, said Hammoud, and at others close to the left-wing Popular Unity Party.

"One day, you would find him passionately discussing a book written by an Islamist thinker, and on other days it would be a book by a Marxist thinker," Hammoud said.

When the reformist movement withered, Hammoud said that Ghubn thought about joining the Jordanian army, wanting to do something patriotic for his country. He was also interested in working in the media.

There was nothing to suggest that Ghubn harboured Salafist-jihadist tendencies.

According to the engineer, there was nothing to suggest that Ghubn harboured Salafist-jihadist tendencies, the ideology espoused by al-Nusra Front, whose banner he died fighting under. In fact, Ghubn was reportedly overjoyed when he was accepted to study Arabic literature at the University of Jordan, so naturally, everyone was surprised when they heard a few weeks later that he was in Syria, and had joined the jihadis.

Motives in question

Why was this twenty-something man making such a big leap from calling for democracy and reform, to enlisting in an Al-Qaeda-linked organisation that equates democracy and pluralism with apostasy? Was he jumping from one extreme to another? Or was his ultimate fate simply the outcome of a young man's quest to probe his identity and answer some of the existential questions he faced - in a charged and tumultuous local and regional climate, full of conflicting ideological and political ideas, and influences?

Most likely, the answer lies closer to the second possibility; the young activist probably did not feel he was making a full ideological about-face. He might have believed that he had finally found an outlet through which he could fulfil his dream of fighting for a solid cause, after his prospects in the pro-reform movement came to an end - and when protests could no longer galvanise street support, largely due to a public horrified by the brutality and violence in the region.

At the same time, Ghubn saw an opportunity to join a project that was military in nature, giving him the opportunity to defend the oppressed of Syria. Finally, he was able to live another dream - to become involved in media work - when al-Nusra Front gave him a role in its propaganda department. 

If you were to look at Ghubn's social media profiles from his days in Nazzal, east Amman, you would find that he was initially a "moderate Islamist", closer to the Muslim Brotherhood than the Salafist-jihadis.

One of his friends, who is still alive, dropped out of university during his first year to join al-Nusra Front. His pictures on Facebook show his transition from a clean-shaven young man nearly a year ago, to a baby-faced radical donning a thick beard.

Leaving Nazzal

The "Nazzal District Group" is just the tip of the iceberg. Outside the neighbourhood, we find more stories about young men who went to fight in Syria. In Al-Salt, north of Amman, a group of youths also dropped out of university and joined the IS group.

Some of these would-be fighters had been pursuing highly respectable degrees - engineering, medicine, and business administration. The recurring story here is that their parents would one day receive a call from the Turkish-Syrian border, when their children would bid them farewell before crossing the line. In most cases, the parents had never suspected for a minute that their children could end up being members of Syrian and Iraqi terrorist organisations.

In Jordan, the State Security Court is struggling to cope with hundreds of cases involving young men returning from Syria, or who had failed to travel there but face charges of joining terrorist organisations. Some are ideological militants, while others do not have any previous affiliations with jihadi groups; many had only recently become religious.

But these young Jordanians have something in common: they were all looking for something which they could not find with their families in their homeland but received in the embrace of al-Nusra Front and IS.


This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Al Araby Al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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