Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Jordan strategy against the Islamic State: a blowback effect?

Jordan- Islamic state
Jordanian security forces and relatives of Sergeant Hisham Aqarbeh, a member of the anti-terrorist unit who was killed in an attack yesterday, attend his funeral in the town Birayn, north of the capital Amman, on August 12, 2018. Photo AFP

On the 23rd of March 2019, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared victory over the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) after six months of raging combats and the expulsion of the jihadists from their last remaining stronghold in the eastern town of Baghouz, in Syria.

Despite this apparent success, uncertainty remains as per the future of IS returnees in their respective homelands. Jordan in particular seems to be under serious security risks, according to Emily Przyborowski, a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council.

In the international arena, Western states, in particular the United States, have long seen Jordan as a stable country in a volatile environment, in addition to a reliable ally in the “war on terror”. However, according to the Soufan Center, although Jordan has been at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic State, it also constitutes one of the largest source of foreign fighters for the terrorist group, with around 3,000 individuals who have joined IS since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

As they will start ebbing home, equipped with a destructive ideology and battlefield experience, they will be likely to recruit and train new followers.

In the last years, the Jordanian kingdom has shown signs of weaknesses and experienced several terrorist attacks. In December 2016, IS claimed an attack on Karak Castle, a well-known tourist destination in which seven policemen, two Jordanian civilians and one Canadian tourist were killed.

More recently, in December 2018, Jordan minister of foreign affairs has blamed Syrian refugee camps for being the hornet’s nest of radicalization. Nevertheless, this declaration erases Jordanians’ vulnerability to extremism. Just a few months before, in August 2018, five nationals and IS sympathizers carried out an attack in the city of Al-Salt, killing 4 security officers and injuring 20 civilians.

Besides, according to a poll conducted in September 2014, only 62 % of the Jordanian population considered the Islamic State to be a “terrorist group”. Another striking figure is that only 31% believed members of Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, were “terrorists”.

For researcher Anne Speckhard, the causes leading Jordanian foreign fighters to join jihadist groups are diverse and complex. Based on her interviews with several jihadists, she notes that poverty, unemployment and resentment at bad governance and corruption are some of the most significant factors they cite to justify why they have joined the Islamic State. But it does not stop here. Many foreign fighters have also mentioned their religious duties to defend their Sunni coreligionists against what they perceive as a brutal Alawite regime in Syria.

The kingdom has taken in response several counter-terrorism measures to mitigate the security threat domestically. It has stiffened its border security rules between Jordan and Syria to fight the smuggling of weapons, ammunitions, and drugs – a traffic that had increased by 300% in 2013 alone. It has also enhanced its surveillance system to defend itself against the infiltration of IS fighters, including installing a network of radar and surveillance towers to detect the location of potential infiltrators several kilometers far off the border. Furthermore, the country has campaigned against terrorism and arrested more than 100 citizens considered as alleged supporters of terrorism. It has tightened its grips on mosques by pushing imams to condemn religious extremism while also suppressing any discourse deemed critical of the coalition against the Islamic State. The government’s interventionism has even manifested itself through the publication of suggestions for Friday sermons.

However, despite these efforts, Jordan is still failing at addressing the root-causes of jihadism. Moreover, 2014 amendments to anti-terrorism law broadened the definition of terrorism and toughened the penalties for offenses such as “disturbing Jordan’s relations with a foreign state”. For Human Rights Watch, qualifying peaceful criticism of foreign rulers as terrorism appears as a significant threat against freedom of expression.

Additionally, Jordan’s strategy to endorse Salafi clerics in order to counter the appeal of the Islamic state may backfire and instead amplify radicalism. The release of two of the most notorious Salafi-jihadi clerics from jail in 2014 and 2015 offers an illustrative example of this strategy’s limits. In September 2014, Jordan court cleared of terror charges Abu Qatada Al-Filistini, a radical preacher who had qualified a few weeks before the murder of the American journalist James Foley by the self-proclaimed Islamic State as “un-Islamic”. Early in 2015, Jordan state security prosecutor also ordered the release of Abu Muhammed Al Maqdisi, an influential Jihadi cleric, also known for being fiercely critical of the Islamic State, with the hope to encourage him to speak against the jihadi group. This seems to have occurred after the Islamic State captured and burnt alive the Jordanian pilot Muadh Al-Kasabeh in Raqqa in February 2015, during the US-led military intervention against the group. Although, according to jihadi sources, Jordan authorities had freed the cleric before the murder of the pilot.

In any case, both Abu Qatada Al-Filistini and Abu Muhamed Al-Maqdisi are far from being moderate clerics. Both of them have long endorsed Al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. According to an analysis by the Carnegie Middle East Center, Al Maqdisi came to the defense of the Islamic State in September 2014, when a Saudi Cleric considered that the group had broken away from Islam. In another statement, he also asserted that “the crusade against Islam and Muslims in Syria and Iraq had begun with the support of the apostates”, thereby referring to the military intervention against the Islamic State by the US-led coalition.

According to researcher Emily Przyborowski, even if Jordan has taken several steps to criminalize the enrolment of individuals in a terrorist organization and the glorification of such groups, this focus on the most visible aspects of extremism has prevented the country from “proactively engaging in ideological competition”. In March 2018, Jordan has taken further steps and inaugurated with the US State Department a new counter-terrorism training center in the South of Amman, to considerably increase the country’s capacities in fighting terrorism.

For the retired CIA officer Emile Nakhleh, Jordan’s close military and security partnership with the United States is not sufficient to fight Jordan’s exposure to terrorism, especially if the Kingdom does not work relentlessly to expunge endemic corruption.

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