While Jordan is taking part in the international coalition against the so-called Islamic State, a Sunni extremist organization in Syria and Iraq, the country has been concerned about the spillover of the jihadi threat into its own territories.
Jordan has taken several counterterrorism measures, including securing the borders, arresting potential supporters of terrorism, and tightening control over mosques. The effectiveness of these measures is uncertain. But most disturbing is Jordan’s policy of tacitly backing radical Salafi clerics to counter the Islamic State’s threat. This strategy may reduce the appeal of the Islamic State in the short term, but it could also increase the threat of radicalism in Jordan.
Jordan has been deeply concerned about the effect of Syria’s civil war on its security. The Syrian civil war, and the rise of the Islamic State, could increase the appeal of jihadism at home¬—jihadi groups may target the Jordanian homeland through bombings. Some may argue that Jordan is safe because it has a 97 percent Sunni Muslim majority, so it does not suffer from the sectarian problems of its neighbors. This is true, but in 2005 al-Qaeda in Iraq—the predecessor of the Islamic State—carried out three bombings on a Jordanian hotel. A year earlier, Jordanian security claimed to have successfully stopped a chemical weapons attack by al-Qaeda on Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate. Thus, terrorist groups and sympathizers may still decide to target Jordan given its participation in the anti–Islamic State coalition.
Support for terrorist groups inside Jordan is already worrying. According to a late-September survey, only 62 percent of the population believed the Islamic State is a terrorist group, while only 31 percent viewed members of the Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, as terrorists. Jordanian analysts fear that the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State and the Nusra Front will increase the support for these groups, given the widespread popular resentment of U.S. policies in the region. This is especially true because the United States is fighting the Islamic State, a Sunni group, while avoiding attacks on the root of Syria’s troubles, its president, Bashar al-Assad.
Jordan has taken several steps to reduce the terrorist threat at home. Border smuggling, which increased by 300 percent in 2013 alone, has led Jordan to tighten border security. Jordan deployed advanced border surveillance and troops in the north and also allowed U.S. forces to operate along the Syrian border. On several occasions, the Royal Jordanian Air Force destroyed vehicles coming from Syria. Jordan has also carried out internal security campaigns against alleged supporters of terrorism. Since mid-September, the country has reportedly arrested more than 100 citizens accused of supporting terrorist groups.
The Jordanian government has also tightened its grip on mosques, encouraging imams to condemn extremism, call for national unity, and ban those who criticize the anti–Islamic State coalition. The government has also sought to control the content of religious speech, even publishing suggestions for Friday sermons. Preachers are encouraged to emphasize the need for national unity and human rights, although some other government suggestions avoid politics altogether, and instead focus on mundane topics such as winter safety measures.
Playing With Fire
Most controversial, Jordan has released two of the world’s most prominent Salafi-jihadi clerics from prison, Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini, in the hope that they will help counter the Islamic State’s narrative. To be sure, both clerics have condemned the Islamic State and are building a radical Salafi theological case against the organization.
In audio tapes released while he was still in prison, Maqdisi criticized the Islamic State and accused its leaders of manipulation and lying. In several statements since, Maqdisi claimed that the Islamic State is a deviant group. As one of the world’s most influential jihadi ideologues, Maqdisi’s opinions carry great weight within the radical Salafi community.
Abu Qatada, another veteran jihadi theoretician, has been even more critical of the Islamic State. In a text published while he was in prison titled “The clothing of the Caliph,” Abu Qatada declared that the Islamic State combined the errors of both the Kharijites and Rafida. (Kharijites, or “exiters,” were early Muslims who broke with the mainstream community and the term is today used in intra-Islamist debate to refer to ideological extremists; Rafida, or “rejecters,” refers to those who rejected the caliphates and it is used in a derogatory way to describe Shia Muslims.) Abu Qatada also provided religious evidence for the invalidity of the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s claim to have established a caliphate and argued that Muslims should not abide by its rules. Abu Qatada ended his article by calling the Islamic State a “heretical” movement. More recently, Abu Qatada wrote a statement in which he described Islamic State members as “dogs of hell” and Baghdadi as a “deviant liar.”
However, the Jordanian authorities were playing with fire. These two clerics are not moderates—they simply belong to the rival al-Qaeda stream of Salafi-jihadism. The two have long supported al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front, which is also a target of the coalition airstrikes. Thus, allowing the two to preach their message in Jordan is unlikely to end radicalism, even if they oppose the Islamic State as an organization.
The close relationship between the Islamic State’s version of Salafi-jihadism and the ideology of these al-Qaeda-friendly clerics is exemplified by Turki al-Binali, a Bahraini former student of Maqdisi who is now one of the main clerics within the Islamic State. Describing his many teachers as his “uncles,” Binali claims that Maqdisi was his spiritual “father,” in a sign of how close the two were. Yet, Binali went to join the Islamic State, demonstrating that the ideological roots of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are the same.
Even if Jordanian followers of Maqdisi and Abu Qatada will not join the Islamic State, the two ideologues were undoubtedly building support for al-Qaeda and for Salafi-jihadism in general. As one Jordanian blogger complained, the Jordanian authorities are trying to fight evil with a slightly lesser evil, a policy that can only lead to the strengthening of Salafi-jihadis in Jordan.
Sure enough, Jordan’s strategy soon backfired. In early September, Maqdisi defended the Islamic State when a Saudi cleric declared that the group had broken away from Islam. Maqdisi asserted that despite the group’s faults, he had never criticized the Islamic State for “fighting tyrants, Rafida, or Nusayri (a derogatory term for Alawites), for establishing an Islamic state or for declaring the caliphate.” He added that calling the Islamic State members infidels is wrong because it has thousands of members, some of whom are “honest [and] not extremist.”
Even worse, in a late September statement, Maqdisi argued that “the crusade against Islam and Muslims in Syria and Iraq has begun with the support of the apostates.” He claimed that today’s events have exposed the “tyrants, their regimes, and their apostate armies,” presumably referring to the Sunni Muslim states that are participating in the anti–Islamic State coalition, including Jordan. This was more than Jordanian authorities could handle, so they sent Maqdisi back to prison.
Time to Adjust Strategy
Jordan is right to worry about the threat of terrorist attacks, but its strategy in combating this threat has been flawed. Mosques that are forced to preach the government’s narrative will lose credibility, especially among radicals who should be the target of those campaigns. It is worth recalling that many well-known jihadis were radicalized inside Jordanian prisons, not in the mosques—the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who founded the organization that later became the Islamic State, is a well-known example. Improving prison conditions and stopping radicals from preaching inside prisons could help, while large-scale arrests are more likely to be seen as unjust repression and may inadvertently increase the radicalization of the populace.
Most disturbing is the government’s tacit toleration of radical clerics. Allowing people like Maqdisi and Abu Qatada to recruit supporters for their violent ideology may seem like an easy way to divide jihadi ranks, but such a strategy can easily backfire and it may aggravate the extremism problem in Jordan for decades to come.
Ala’ Alrababa’h is a junior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program.