North Africa, West Asia

The fluidity of identity among Jordanian foreign fighters in Syria

Jordanian volunteers in Syria come from diverse ideological backgrounds that do not necessarily align with the groups they join.

Gregory Waters
22 July 2016
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Family from Homs, Syria, outside a derelict house in Al Mafraq, Jordan, where they fled. Andrew McConnell/Panos/International/ Press Association. All rights reserved. As Jordan is hit by two attacks in one month, the first such attacks since the 2005 hotel bombings orchestrated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the question must be asked: who are the Jordanians fighting in Syria and what threat do they pose to the Hashemite Kingdom?

There are between 2000 and 2500 Jordanians who have traveled to Syria since the outbreak of civil war, with most having joined Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIL. Many of these volunteers had no history of Salafi Jihadist activism but now fight for groups with the very same ideologies they had previously rejected. 

Salafi jihadism, the belief in using violence to create an Islamic government, is not new to Jordan. Yet according to Dr. Mohammad Abu Rumman, a Salafi jihadist expert, prior to the Syrian Civil War there were only 1,500 - 3,000 Salafi jihadists in Jordan. Now that number is nearer 10,000. But the men who now fight under this new ideology did so after specific events occurred in Jordan, not necessarily out of any new-found religious zeal.

Jordan's tribes, the bulwark of the Hashemite Kingdom, have experienced a gradual marginalisation by the government in favor of empowering the Palestinian business elite. Angered by these perceived slights of the government, many settled tribesmen from the cities of Ma'an and Irbid have joined the war in Syria.

Ghazi Bin Muhammad writes in his book, The Tribes of Jordan, that traditional tribal social structure places the Arab nation and co-religionists only ahead of humankind, far less important than family, clan, and tribe. This suggests that there should be little desire for a traditional Jordanian tribesman to travel to Syria to either defend Arabs or create an Islamic State. Indeed, few if any Bedouin or semi-nomadic tribesmen have traveled to Syria. There are many factors that may lead a Jordanian to join Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIL that do not reflect the ideology of those groups. 

The bulk of Jordan’s East Bank volunteers come from the settled tribes whose tribal culture has diluted with increased urbanization and where tribal identity is a looser concept, allowing individuals the freedom to move between familial and religious identities. This battle between tribal identity and religious influence is visible in the city of Ma’an, where the Governor, Ghaleb al-Shamayleh, was quoted as saying “Our youth might say they are sons of Da’ash, but first they are sons of their tribes,” and where Alice Su reported in a September 2014 Al Jazeera article that, “Malik Abdulrahman…said tribal leaders would not allow Da’ash to take hold in Ma’an.”

Yet many settled tribesmen may find their loyalty has shifted to a local fiery imam or to online religious teachings rather than their tribe’s sheikh. Mona Alami of Al Monitor uses the city of Ruseifa as an example of this, arguing that “the expansion of the movement [Salafi Jihadism] in Rusaifa…has been dovetailed by the weakening of tribal traditions and linkage.” Anger towards the government, poverty, and unemployment are all coopted by radical sheikhs who take advantage of the gap that has emerged between tribal sheikhs and their tribes.

Similarly, a core identity of the Muslim Brotherhood is its embrace of nonviolence and participation in electoral politics. Yet some of the Jordanians who have traveled to Syria came directly out of the fracturing fold of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front and have now adopted violence, not electoral politics, as the means of political change. Many Muslim Brotherhood supporters have become disillusioned with their party since the Arab Spring.

In January, 2011, Islamists joined secularists and took to the streets across Jordan, demanding political and economic reforms from King Abdullah II. These demands, however, went largely unheeded and the Brotherhood was left to debate its next move. Infighting, leadership expulsion, and regime meddling have all culminated in an atmosphere today where the hawks are no longer tolerated by the Jordanian government and the movement is split in two.

The failure of the Jordanian Arab Spring and the explosion of the war in Syria represented a unique opportunity for many Muslim Brotherhood and IAF sympathizers. Opposition groups in Syria were succeeding in implementing the same social and political changes that the IAF and Muslim Brotherhood had failed to produce in Jordan.

Most of the men with Brotherhood backgrounds who traveled to Syria were the same men on the streets in 2011 calling for democracy and political reforms. As Dr. Mohammad Abu Rumman explains, “the young people in the Brotherhood saw [the revolution] happen in Syria and what happened to Jordan and they're disappointed from the result of the political reform in Jordan … and they think that maybe they can escape to Syria to find that place where they can find their identity.”

There are many factors that may lead a Jordanian to join Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIL that do not reflect the ideology of those groups. The fact that some volunteers join because of the political and social circumstances in Jordan implies that by reversing those circumstances, such as increasing political representation and restoring tribal culture, de-radicalizing Jordanian foreign fighters may be achievable. However, there will always be a core group that will seek nothing less than the establishment of an “Islamic” state and the overthrow of the Jordanian government.

As long as the chaos in Syria continues, this group will have easy access to training, supplies, and fresh recruits that will enable it to threaten the safety and peace of the Jordanian people. A balanced approach of de-radicalization programs, strong internal security measures, and increased pressure to resolve the Syrian Civil War will be the most effective means of securing Jordan internally.

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