Jordanian fighters have come to play an important role in the protracted Syrian conflict. Unlike the previous generation of Jordanian jihadists – Al-Qaeda leaders from a decade earlier who professed their belief in a global jihad – this new generation currently fighting in Syria is prioritizing regional and local causes. The outcome of their engagement in Syria will define the vision and goals of this rising generation of Jordanian fighters. Perceived success in Syria will embolden them and likely lead them to seek a more active political role in Jordan – and perhaps to draw attention to the needs and grievances of their communities through violence.
Estimated to number about 5,000 members, Jordanian Salafist-jihadists are only one part of Jordan’s broader Salafist population, unofficially estimated to total 15,000 individuals (according to local journalist and Salafist specialist Tamer Smadi). Jordanian jihadists exist alongside traditional Salafists and Salafist reformers. Until 2011, Jordanian Salafists and the jihadists among them were largely underground, but the protests the country witnessed that year allowed them to surface and gain more visibility by participating in demonstrations.
The war in Syria was another turning point; they witnessed an ideological shift with a new focus on the “near enemy” and are thus attempting to create what they refer to as a “fortified house” (Diyar al-Tamkeen) in Syria. In other words, they are seeking to secure a fortress from which they could expand their activities to other countries by building on the training they acquired.
Today, the Salafist-jihadist movement is a loose group with several influential leaders such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, a prominent sheikh who encouraged Jordanians to fight in Syria in 2012. “I called for any man able to go for jihad in Syria; it is the responsibility of any good Muslim to stop the bloodshed perpetrated by the Nusayri regime,” Tahawi said in June 2012, referring to the ruling Alawite regime in Syria.
The Jordanian Salafist-jihadist community is among the biggest contributors of fighters to Syria. Salafist-jihadist experts believe that about 700 to 1,000 Jordanian jihadists are currently fighting there, roughly comparable to the number of Tunisian jihadists, who make up about 800 of those fighting alongside the rebels in Syria.
The majority of Jordanian jihadists in Syria have joined the Nusra Front, in which two Palestinian-Jordanians, Iyad Toubasi and Mustafa Abdul-Latif, occupy leading positions. Toubasi (Abu Gelebeb) is the emir of the Nusra Front in Damascus and Deraa; he is also the brother-in-law of one of Jordan’s better-known Salafist-jihadists, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and is believed to have fought with him in Iraq.
Abdul-Latif (Abu Anas al-Sahaba) is also a commander in the Nusra Front. Jordanian representation in the Nusra Front is more prominent than that in the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – “due to ideological differences,” says Abu Sayyaf, a leading jihadist figure in Jordan, in reference to ISIS’s extreme views on minority rights and relationships with other Islamist factions.
Syria’s significance for the rising generation of Jordanian jihadists currently fighting on the plains and hills of “Bilad al-Sham” (Greater Syria) is threefold. First, the war in Syria against an Arab despot embodies the recent shift in the jihadists’ priorities, who instead of targeting the West are now focusing their efforts on the “near enemy,” or regional rulers, which could well expand to Jordan. Although those who have returned home to Jordan have yet to organize, the country’s security services have been cracking down on Salafist-jihadists since the beginning of the war in Syria, fearing this very possibility.
Nationwide arrests have targeted between 150 and 170 jihadists as of January. This past December, Jordan’s intelligence services arrested Raed Hijazi, known as Abu Ahmad al-Amriki, who is believed to have ties with Al-Qaeda, as part of efforts to prevent further coordination between local jihadists and Al-Qaeda’s international network.
Second, the concept of jihad emerging in Syria has slowly taken on a Sunni versus Shiite sectarian dimension, reflecting the escalation in hostility between the two branches of Islam since the region’s Shiites have backed the Assad regime. “This jihad is to defend Ahl al-Sunna [the Sunni people]. It became obligatory when the war turned sectarian, especially after Hezbollah and Iran interfered. Hezbollah is the enemy of the Sunna,” Abu Sayyaf says.
According to Smadi, this new rivalry was crystallized in January when local media reported that an attack targeting the Syrian Embassy by ISIS had been foiled (this information was later denied by state agencies). This hostility might also lead Jordanian jihadists to participate in other nearby theaters and across the region in an overall sectarian fight that fits in with their new regional focus. Abu Qatada, a prominent figure within Jordanian Salafism-jihadism who is currently on trial for terrorism in Amman, seems to have endorsed this strategy by justifying suicide bombings targeting Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Nusra Front has claimed several of these attacks.
The third important aspect is the plan to build what they refer to as a Diyar al-Tamkeen. This would serve as a first step in the holy war to achieve and expand their transnational Islamic state based on Shariah. A starting point to achieve that is winning in Syria and then turning back to Jordan to reunify “Bilad al-Sham,” of which Syria is a key part; securing a Syrian base is likely to continue to be a long-term goal. Recent clashes on Feb. 17 pitted an armed group entering from Syria with Jordanian border guards. “These clashes are erupting in the area spreading between Ramtha in Jordan and Deraa in Syria, in a sector known as the Old Custom,” Smadi points out. While military statements only confirmed that the armed group came from Syria, no mention was made of the nationality of the fighters. There are fears among the Jordanian security agencies that these fighters might be comprised of Jordanian nationals, which would have negative implications for the Hashemite Kingdom’s stability.
Like Zarqawi before – whose experience in Iraq inspired his triple hotel bombing in Amman in 2005 – the new generation of Jordanian jihadists will be shaped by Syria. Any successes there could embolden this new generation and encourage them to adopt a more aggressive stance at home. However, unlike during Zarqawi’s time, Jordan has been plagued in recent years by worsening economic conditions, political protests and the influx of a massive Syrian refugee population, which according to the UNHCR totals about 600,000.
Al-Qaeda franchises have always been known to take advantage of situations of political turmoil, and Jordan is no exception. Whether local jihadists decide to exploit the large refugee population and turn these difficult conditions in their favor will depend to a great extent on the crackdown they face in Syria and at home.
Mona Alami is a French-Lebanese journalist who writes about political and economic issues in the Arab world. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).