Islamic State has already taken over significant areas of Iraq and Syria. Jordan abuts both—and could be the next target.
“Is Jordan going to be next?” That question has been asked many times during the Arab revolutions. It is asked now, though in a different context: is Jordan the next target for Islamic State? Yet when IS decides to target Jordan—and it is “when”, not “if”—it will do so from inside the country, not across the borders.
Recent statistics published by the Economist show that Jordan contributes the highest percentage of jihadists going to Syria. The magazine reported that more than 2,000 fighters had left Jordan to fight with the extremists, yet Jordanian experts think the number exceeds 3,500.
A few weeks ago a pilot and officer, drawn from one of the most powerful Jordanian tribes, died during the seizure by IS of a Syrian military airport. His acquaintances and young male peers of his tribe consider him a martyr. Some may never have been interested in politics, yet his courage and dedication to what he believed in have given them an example. That is how IS and salafists more broadly recruit all that support in Jordan.
Three years ago experts and Jordanian intelligence estimated that about 3,000 salafists were active in the country. Now they are talking about 7,000, excluding those in Syria and Iraq—not to mention the tens of thousands of unorganised supporters or the rapidly swelling pool of hundreds of thousands of potential sympathisers evidenced by Jordanian social media. Even some writers and public figures say that IS is the only vehicle to remove the regime in Amman.
A comparison with Pakistan helps, despite its different historical trajectory. These two close allies of the US face the possibility of becoming failed states because of their corrupt regimes and the violent salafists they contain.
The Pakistani state is not able to rule over the tribal areas, where the Taliban are dominant, and the whole country is descending gradually into chaos. This is a cumulative result of years of activity by the jihadists under the eyes of the Pakistani government and army, which supported them and encouraged them to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets.
In Jordan the salafists were, one way or another, allowed to work and recruit openly and move to Syria to fight the regime there. It will not be long before there will be tribal lands and cities in Jordan where the government can't control anything. The tribes in Jordan feel a deep despair stemming from years of misery. Some activists in the tribal areas will collaborate with the devil to get rid of a corrupt and inefficient regime.
There are, though, some differences. In Afghanistan it was only after beating the Soviets that the US and Pakistan started working against the jihadists. In Syria the US and its allies said they wanted to support the moderate opposition forces to fight both the regime and the extremists. On the ground we saw the remains of the Free Syrian Army collaborating closely with Jabhat al-Nusra, the branch of al-Qaeda, before they both lost land and fighters to ISIS, which became IS.
IS is just waiting for any kind of unrest, likely to happen anytime due to the accumulated anger and despair, with the leadership of Jordan busy making money for itself rather than solving the country's problems.
Many Jordanian jihadists began with al-Nusra, already a violent militia, and ended up in IS, a more extreme and brutal organisation. Even Jordanian intelligence long supported a "military council" led by a pro-Jordanian Syrian dissident officer in south Syria, Ahmad al-Ne'meh. The salafists were getting men and weapons through Jordanian borders under the cover of al-Ne'meh. A famous salafist leader, Abu Sayyaf, talked to the press on a near-daily basis about the Jordanians fighting in Syria—where they had fought, what they had achieved, who had died. Many “martyrs” received huge funerals.
Today the Jordanian authorities try to use the traditional ideological leaders of al-Qaeda (like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi) against IS but they do not understand that al-Qaeda and its al-Nusra offshoot share roots and an audience with IS. Different formations of the same material, they are both very dangerous.
In Pakistan, what started as official support for the jihadists led over the years to the latter exercising strong leverage inside the army and Pakistani intelligence. It is happening again in Jordan. After about 30 years of complex work with these paramilitaries, many intellegence officers have become sympathetic with salafist currents—and maybe more than sympathetic.
Al-Qaeda started with a Jordanian godfather, Abdullah Azzam. He represented the point where the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), salafists and al-Qaeda meet. Azzam, the Egyptian Sayyed Qutub and the Pakistani Abu al-A'la al-Mawdody are the icons for the new generation of jihadists and for a wide range of young people in the MB.
Experts say that in times of pressure and despair many young people exit the brotherhood towards the jihadist stream and some continue to al-Qaeda or IS. This is happening in Jordan, albeit still on a small scale. It will also happen in Egypt following the overthrow of the MB from power.
So many Jordanians live in miserable conditions. Entire cities, especially in tribal areas, lack investment and employment. Ma'an in the desert south, al-Salt in the middle, Rusayfa and Baq'a near Amman and other cities already appear as if ruled by the jihadists.
Another important factor is the doctrinal extremism rallying the whole region. Jordanians are almost pure Sunni and there is no history of any clashes with Shia, yet hostility against the latter is very high, thanks to the Saudi media and widely followed sheiks. This atmosphere is very conducive to recruiting young people for jihad in Syria against the "Alawi" regime. Many young Jordanians talk, through Facebook and chat rooms, about killing “heretic” Shia.
During the wave of Arab revolutions, most Jordanians feared for the stability of their state. Demonstrations calling for reform were neither violent nor large. But anger is accumulating because of the corruption of the regime, encapsulated in the luxurious and sybaritic life of the king and queen, in sharp contrast with the very poor lives of ordinary Jordanians. If the anger ever exceeds the fear, the extremists will capitalise.
Jordanian officials wanted to sustain the alliance with the US and Saudi Arabia, and that included giving space to the Syrian fighters. They were allowed to gather in Jordan, get training and return to Syria, whether through the Jordanian border with southern Syria or via Turkey and northern Syria. The allies hoped this would strengthen the moderates.
Yet the extremists are dominant in Syria and have extended their purview to Iraq. Many trained in Jordan are now fighting with IS. Jordanian intelligence believes it has some control over these salafists, especially Jabhat al-Nusra—but then so did Pakistani intelligence vis-à-vis the Taliban. Jordanian intelligence also seeks to market its role as a security agency. This implies having a (controlled) danger to exploit—except that it has really become uncontrolled.
Now, why would IS engage Jordan? In fact it will wait for a time: it does not want to encounter such a relatively strong army as Jordan possesses. Still, it surprised everybody by smashing the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq. Complicated calculations arise here. IS has usually avoided battles which consume its energy and concentrated on easy captures, especially oil wells and cities which can provide funds, yet it did take al Tabaka military airport, for example.
But oil is just a short-term target on the road to the final goal—an “Islamic state” for the whole region. IS will avoid Jordan for some time but eventually will encounter it. Some Jordanian IS fighters have already appeared on YouTube, burning their passports and threatening the king that they are coming!
How? Abu Sayyaf said it: IS will not need to move to Jordan. It has supporters all over the country, not only in Ma'an as the media like to simplify. Jordan also has about 1.5 million refugees from Syria and Iraq. They are frustrated and hopeless. So IS is just waiting for any kind of unrest, likely to happen anytime due to the accumulated anger and despair, with the leadership of Jordan busy making money for itself rather than solving the country's problems.
IS might change the tactic in Jordan. It might not try to occupy land but rather to weaken control over some important cities, like Azraq, Zarqa, Rusaifa, Irbid, Salt, Tafil and Ma'an. Amid explosions and unrest, with the police and army exhausted over several months, IS could then seize a foothold in one or two cities—more bricks in the wall of the fortress it will try to construct against the counter-offensive by the US president, Barack Obama, and his regional allies.