Jordan on collision course with jihadists
Researchers could not agree on one description to define relations between Jordan’s political establishment and the country’s jihadist Salafist movement due to the complex nature of the ties.
The first signs of jihadist Salafism in Jordan surfaced in 1994 when the government revealed the existence of a clandestine political movement called Bey’at al-Imam and two of its main leading figures — theorist Isam al-Barqawi (aka Abu- Mohammed al-Maqdisi) and his disciple Ahmad Fadel al-Khalayleh — were imprisoned. Khalayleh became infamous as an action-oriented and charismatic leader in the movement under the name of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before being killed by a US air strike in Iraq.
No precise information about the size of the jihadist Salafist movement in Jordan exists.
Most estimates set the number of its members at 5,000-7,000, about 2,000 of whom joined the ranks of al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.
The movement finds a wider base in Salafist ideology, which is more widespread and influential in Jordanian society, with its different schools of thought and orientations such as the traditionalist school, the reformist school and the action-oriented school. A map showing the spread of Salafism in Jordan would easily include all districts in the kingdom, with particular concentrations in poorer neighbourhoods of cities such as Amman, Irbid and Az-Zarqa, plus additional zones around Maan, As-Salat and Al-Mafraq.
Even though a number of the international leaders and figures of jihadist Salafism are Jordanian, the various phases of the movement’s development in Jordan remain tied to events in the wider region.
During the 1970s, jihadist Salafism and Wahhabi Salafism received a financial and moral boost from the liberation of oil prices and the Iranian revolution. Then came the period of the internationally backed jihad in Afghanistan, followed by the US invasion of Iraq and the creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, until reaching the “Arab spring” and the onset of the Syrian crisis.
The culmination of this last phase is marked by the Islamic State’s appearance as the latest “version” of the jihadist organisations and certainly the most extreme and bloodiest.
Jordan used three different approaches in dealing with the Salafist movement.
The first was an iron-fist policy against all those who represent a direct threat to its security, inside the country or abroad. It was in this context that Jordan provided US officials with intelligence information that led to the death of Zarqawi and rounded up many of the movement’s leaders following violent confrontations with jihadi Salafists in Az-Zarqa in April 2011. The last security operation against the movement took place this month in the form of a pre-emptive strike against the ISIS-linked Irbid cell.
Under the second approach — the cohabitation policy — the movement commits not to harm Jordan’s security and stability while tribes in some regions play a role in deterring their followers and containing their activities.
The third approach — the soft containment policy — targets non-violent Salafist schools of thought, with the possibility of using their growing influence to create a serious competitor to the ambitious Muslim Brotherhood and confronting growing Iranian influence in the region.
Jordan will need several years to discover the effects of Salafist trends on its society and culture. It will then realise the damage caused by these movements to the country’s spiritual, political and social fabric. Extremism and arrogance are the major challenges facing the Jordanian state and society, coupled with a deepening socio-economic crisis that threatens the country’s security and stability.
The recent operation against the Irbid cell represents a turning point. Relations between the regime and the Salafist movement moved from cohabitation to confrontation and are expected to worsen in light of the existential threat facing the movement’s al- Nusra Front and ISIS as a result of harsh air and ground operations, the ongoing political process in both countries and Jordan’s increasing involvement in the war against terrorism.
Jordan will once again have to be ready — perhaps soon — to deal with those returning from Syria and Iraq.