Jordan, the country that somehow always manages to avoid the attention but is actually a territory with well founded and rooted Salafi Jihadist movement. The Salafi Jihadi movement in Jordan started in the early nineties with members such are Abu Mohammed Al-Maqdasi (one of the most influential Jihadist theorist in the world), Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi an Al Qaeda leader in Iraq until 2005 and finally Sami Al-Aridi also a Jordanian Jihadi theorist who is taking part in Jahbat Al-Nusra operations in Syria. A very peculiar tribal structure of the Jordanian society has contributed to the proliferation of this movement, there are also a couple of other factors and stages which further influenced the development of the Jordanian Salafism.
• Demise of leftist and nationalist ideologies prompted by the second Gulf War. The invasion of Kuwait also led to a division among Arab societies in the Middle East and introduced United States to the region.
• The erosion of the middle class which began with the modernization policies in the nineties, also the global economic trend which was promoting open markets shook many segments of the society and the state itself. The influx of refugees from the Gulf war, especially in Jordan, made the society allot more turbulent. The Salafi movement which represented an alternative to the state became much more attractive to the youth.
• The Jihadist movement also had a surprisingly strong political rhetoric towards the regime, especially criticizing the Judiciary element of the government accusing them of apostasy.
• Rising influence of the CIA in many Arab intelligence services. In the post Cold War era the main objective of the CIA has changed from arming the Jihadist against the Soviets to tracking and suppressing armed Jihadist groups that could present a threat to the Western society. Many Salafi Jihadist groups felt betrayed by these actions.
• The initial establishment stage between 1990 and 2001 was focused on spreading the ideology of Salafism and reducing tensions between the movement and the security apparatus of the Jordanian government. In this stage many members have immigrated to Afghanistan and returned as a well-trained preachers of the Salafi Jihadism.
• Post 9-11 stage where the confrontation with the group became evident because of the US pressure on Jordan and other Arab countries to deal with these extremist groups.
• The Iraq war which prompted open confrontation with the group.
• The Arab Spring stage which allowed Jihadist from Jordan to spread their influence into Syria. At this stage Salafi groups have realized the importance of the youth in the revolution and the possibilities of much wider recruitment.
• Syrian crisis as a final stage attracted larger numbers of Jihadist from Jordan and other parts of the globe to the regional conflict. As some estimates suggest there were more than 2,000 fighters coming from Jordan, many of which were younger men. Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria and ISIS in Iraq were primary destinations for extremists coming from this country.
Social structure of the Salafi movement in Jordan is mainly composed out of people coming from poor environments or families including Sheiks, many of them have Palestinian roots (especially those in the western part of the country). Nevertheless their zeal in preaching radical ideas is immense. Big majority of them have an average level of education but their ability to connect to others and implement such radical ideas is astounding. Though these extremists were scattered throughout the country in the past couple of years, since the escalation of the conflict in Syria, their focus has changed to the city of Irbid which lies in the north near the Syrian border. Many border cities are becoming crossing points for the Jihadist in order to join their brethren in Syria. Deteriorating situation in Syria is becoming a beacon for various extremists not only in Jordan but in the whole MENA region. Terrorist groups, which are in their base the most extreme, that run rampant across Syria are giving a false sense of victory or even security to the younger populations which are eager to join their ranks. Alluring fundamentalist ideologies and fatwas issued by sheiks or imams are usually pushing younger, poorer and less educated generations into the spiral of Jihadism. The security challenges that the Jordanian government needs to tackle will be after the conflict in Syria. Like many other Arab states Jordan treated the Syrian conflict as a possibility to export their extremists and radicals in hope to get rid of them. However not all of them can be K.I.A (killed in action) and many of them will come back with much wider range of violent skills seeking their rightful place as veterans, martyrs or mujahedeen in the Jordanian society.
Evolution of the Arab Spring caused new problems for the Jordanian government, country’s security and stability. Regional developments are hitting Jordan hard mainly because of its geopolitical position. At the moment the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq is becoming the main challenge that the Jordanian establishment needs to grapple with. For many years the Muslim Brotherhood was the main Islamist organization in the country which was a gathering point for Muslims with more fundamentalist views of Islam, sadly in the wake of the Arab Spring the organization quickly started losing its support and the structure began to crumble. Salafism was becoming much more attractive for a couple of reasons:
• Heavy influx of refugees from Syria (to some estimates more than 1 million) was pouring into the country. Huge amounts of refugees left a mark on the economy and the overall demographics of the state (Jordan has a population of around 9 million).
• The Jordanian economy has been struggling since 2005 when the GDP fell for almost 8%. In 2012 with the escalation of conflicts in Syria and later Iraq foreign direct investments also fell from 23% of GDP in 2006 to 5% in 2012. Unwillingness to invest in Jordan is a direct consequence of the turmoil and uncertainty in the region.
• The unemployment rate is higher each year. The younger generations are feeling most of it where average unemployment rate reaches 31%.
• Finally many Jordanians don’t support the government’s efforts in the anti-ISIS coalition. Many of them feel that this is not their war. Furthermore, Salafists members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists strongly oppose the regime’s role against ISIS.
The economy and the refugee crisis is something that terrorists can exploit and use in order to accomplish some of their objectives. It is estimated that around 2,000 Jordanians are in Syria or Iraq fighting alongside Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra. Furthermore in 2014 in Ma’an a Salafist group called “Sons of the Call for Tawhid and Jihad” pledged their allegiance to ISIS. Some security officials are also suggesting that thousands of refugees coming from Syria and especially Iraq could become sleeper cells or have potential ISIS sympathizers. Finally a prominent Jordanian Jihadist, Mohammad al Shalabi a.k.a Abu Sayyaf, threatened the government of Jordan that it isn’t immune to the chaos befalling the region. Despite its proximity and long borders with Iraq and Syria the Jordanian security won’t be jeopardized mainly by the external factors (i.e. direct attack from Islamic State on the Jordanian border), rather the country’s security could be shaken from within. Subversive actions are a common tool for terrorists and radicals who wish to extend their networks and potentially recruit more members. The refugee crisis and worsened economic conditions are favoring these fundamentalists and their ideology. Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra have already found some support in frustrated and disenfranchised Jordanian youth. The influence of these groups is especially strong in poorer areas such are Rusayfa, Zarqa, and Ma’an. The narrative of combating regional authoritarians and western “colonizers” is pushing some people even further to join these radical organizations.
There are two main factors which allowed Jordan to maintain and regulate critical geopolitical situations throughout the years. Firstly the Hashemite Kingdom has a consistent external political support. Regional and global players offer international support for the overall stability of the country because of its geopolitical position and the fear of dire consequences that would ensue if the Jordanian society is destabilized. Secondly the Jordanian state has evolved over the years. Effective central government that has legitimacy over the monopoly to use force within an internationally and domestically recognized sovereign territory, supplemented with the agreement amongst citizens on the limitations of the government, rule of law and political participation. Furthermore the execution of a Jordanian pilot by the Islamic State has propelled a different effect. Instead of fear and terror the Jordanians have rose up against ISIS. The people’s support for the government and its actions against the Islamic State has been widespread after this monstrous execution. Factors such are these give legitimacy to the government and its actions when fighting terrorism that sometimes require implementing unpopular measures that resonate badly in the domestic and international community. The crisis affecting the region will leave its mark on Jordanian society as it has on the entire MENA region. Jordan has managed to pull through various difficulties in the past and there is no reason to think otherwise for this particular crisis.