ISIS jihadists: A thorn in Jordan’s side
Zarqa - Jordan has no time to worry about the return of Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists from battlefields in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. It is already happening and the state is quietly addressing how to deradicalise them, correct their thinking and reintegrate them into society.
Security officials and social workers, who have been involved jointly in a “rehabilitation programme” that will soon be ready to deal with ISIS jihadists sneaking into the country, acknowledge that the process is arduous and may take a long time to be effective. However, they agree that it is better to take the lead than have jihadists settle in and take matters into their own hands.
“We can’t afford to take our sweet time to come up with smart and effective preventive measures because we will be overwhelmed by a sea of militants domestically and abroad,” said political commentator Mohammed Adeeb.
“We have to read the pathway ahead of us carefully and move vigilantly with plans we have as the jihadists are already in our midst.”
One Amman-based counterterrorism official pointed out that, of the 2,500 Jordanian jihadists who joined the fight in Syria and Iraq since 2012, at least 500 were killed in battle. Approximately 500 others returned to Jordan and the bulk of them were questioned and remain under security surveillance. The rest are believed to still be abroad.
However, the official admitted that there may have been some who slipped in without being noticed, adding to fears of sleeper jihadist cells in the pro-US Muslim country.
“Despite stringent security vetting, some Jordanian jihadists may have found their way into the country, posing as Syrian refugees,” the official said, insisting on anonymity, saying he was not allowed to be identified in keeping with the nature of his job.
The official pointed to a covert domestic study by a Jordanian security department that showed Jordan has the largest per capita concentration of jihadist fighters in the world — 315 per 1 million people — compared to 280 in Tunisia, 107 in Saudi Arabia, 46 in Belgium, 18 in France and four in Egypt.
He also pointed to a recent survey by the Jordan-based Strategic Study Centre that showed that 40% of Jordanians asked said that the al-Qaeda-linked former Jabhat al-Nusra, now operating under the name of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, fighting in Syria was not a terrorist group.
Linda Maayah, a Jordanian journalist who has reported on militant movements in the region since the 1990s and is involved in studies on trends and socioeconomic profiles of fighters, said three cities in Jordan were known to be bastions for militants.
“In an orderly fashion, the largest number comes from Zarqa, followed by Maan in the south and Salt in the north-west,” she said. Those areas are breeding grounds for militants since most of their unemployed youth — frustrated by a lack of opportunities, no money, no jobs and can’t afford to marry — have time to communicate with jihadists abroad and meet local contacts who recruit them.”
She pointed out that state studies she was part of showed that a majority of Jordanian fighters joined the battle in Syria and Iraq to “wage an obligatory and legitimate jihad” to defend fellow Sunnis. In the case of Syria, that battle was against a Shia-affiliated Alawite regime and in Iraq against a pro-Iranian Shia government that loathes Sunnis and had ostracised them.
Maayah said the returning Jordanian jihadists are reminiscent of those who returned from battle alongside Afghanistan and Pakistan against the former Soviet Union in 1991. One of their early attempts was a horrifying plot to coincide with Jordanian celebrations of the millennium New Year. The plot was foiled and its members were arrested.
The US-based global humanitarian aid agency MercyCorps said in a recent study that the fighters’ socioeconomic profiles are diverse and that poverty or lack of employment were not the reasons they travelled to Syria.
It stated that Zarqa, a mining city east of Amman and the hometown of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was killed in a US drone attack in June 2006, had the smallest unemployment rate in Jordan for three consecutive years starting in 2013.
Since the rise of Islamic militancy and religious groups in the region, starting with Shia-Iran spreading its influence ten years ago, the Jordanian government has pressed ahead with preventive measures to combat the jihadist ideology.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs is running workshops to promote moderate Islam in cities such as Zarqa but the plan is proceeding slowly, hindered by insufficient financing.
“It has been recognised that at least $70 million are needed to fund such a programme, which we don’t have to cover it all at this point,” said Religious Affairs Minister Wael Arabeyat. He said his ministry had embarked on partial funding to help the programme advance.
The Jordanian counterterrorism official said other measures included ceasing construction of mosques and assigning moderate preachers to the tens of thousands of those that already exist.
“They preach tolerance, avoid radical speeches and condemn militancy,” he said, admitting that this specific move may prove futile since surveys show that the bulk of fighters in Jordan are not radicalised or recruited in mosques but on the internet or by word of mouth through relatives, friends or old contacts.
Other moves include continuous crackdowns on the Salafi Jihadists, an underground ultra-extremist group banned in Jordan. It is thought to include 3,000 individuals, one-third of whom are believed to have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq.