ISIS jihadists: A thorn in Jordan’s side

Sunday 14/08/2016
Jordanian security forces secure Hakama street during a raid in downtown Irbid, north of Amman.

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.