Jordan and the ISIS Threat

Blog | April 10, 2017


Jordan, a country founded in 1921, has, in its short history, been at the mercy of regional trends and ideologies over which it had little control. Its most recent regional adversary—both ideological and political—is the Islamic State. While the Islamic State appears to be nearing defeat militarily, owing to the increasing efforts by the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, the transnational terror group might pose a more severe threat to the Hashemite Kingdom once its forces are defeated on the battlefield and dispersed.

Radicalization and Jordan’s Internal State of Affairs

For many years the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Islamic Action Front, was the strongest and most organized opposition group in the kingdom. But, in the beginning of 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood faced the most severe crisis in its history. Status weakened, it has largely been supplanted by more militant Sala jihadists, the natural allies of entities such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.

According to the Islamic State, Syria and Iraq are Dar al-Tamkin (the “enabling region,” i.e., one that allows for the organization’s expansion) en route to Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria), an entity that also includes Jordan. Nonetheless, the immediate threat to Jordan is not conquest by the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, but rather a slow subversion of the Jordanian state within its own borders by these terror groups based in Syria and Iraq. This problem will become more acute once Islamic State forces, defeated on the battlefield and severely lacking in territory, return to Jordan and begin to implement insurgency and terror campaigns as seen in Iraq prior to 2014.  

Is Jordan vulnerable?

The Islamic State’s interests in the Jordanian Kingdom are rooted in the internal vulnerabilities of the Hashemite monarchy, which rules on the basis of a delicate balance of power between the various Jordanian tribes.

The sizable influx of refugees from Iraq and Syria, which threatens the economic and social order in the country, is liable to upset this delicate balance. Jordan is currently home to over 650,000 refugees, which amount to 10 percent of the population.  

According to a poll published in September of 2014 by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, only 62 percent of Jordanians view ISIS as a terrorist organization. In fact, more than 1,500 Jordanians have reportedly joined the Islamic State over the last two years.

The Islamic State and Jabhat Al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) have found a base of support in Jordan’s Salafist population as well as the country’s poorest areas. Economically depressed regions like Rusayfa, Zarqa, and Ma’an have become a fertile breeding ground for Jordanian jihadists looking to extend the chaos of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Zarqa and terrorism

Zarqa, an industrial city with a population of 800,000, is best known as the birthplace of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group that later became the Islamic State. In his early years, Zarqawi was a petty criminal in Hai Masoum, a mostly-Palestinian neighborhood before becoming Iraq’s terrorist mastermind.

Hard-line Salafist groups have succeeded in gaining ground in Jordan, particularly in the country's poverty pockets of which Zarqa is one of the worst—the governorate of the city has the second-highest rate of unemployment anywhere in Jordan.

According to Amer Sabaileh, a Jordanian researcher who was raised in the same neighborhood as Zarqawi, things have gotten worse in many respects there despite government attempts to prevent youth from joining jihadist groups. Over 60 of the population is under 30, while the official youth unemployment rate (ages 15 to 24) stood at 28.8 percent in 2015.

As a result, the city of Zarqa continues to serve as one of the central points in the region for furnishing foreign fighters to the Islamic State and the recruitment of young Jordanians —encouraged vicariously  by religious authorities.

Within Jordanian society, religious leaders are playing a prominent role in shaping public debate and perception. While forbidden from giving overt support to what is considered terrorism, they are quite free in what they can say and some of them are followers of an ultra-conservative stream of Islam preaching Jihad. Their extremist position was exemplified in January 2017, when Jordan's Religious Affairs Ministry dismissed 15 mosque preachers for their refusal to pray for Jordanian troops killed fighting ISIS-inspired militants.

Nevertheless, as of now, Salafi-jihadists in Jordan remain a small group. Estimates are between 5,000-10,000, although quantifying their size is difficult. Oraib Rantawi, the director of the al-Quds Center for Political Studies, a think tank in Amman, recently said: "It's not just about the military or security approach. (…) We are good enough at that already. But with the second track—to create generations of Jordanians who are immune to the extremism wave—we are not good at all.”

Time and again, the Islamic State has shown an ability and willingness to adapt its ideology and carry out its plans through independent or loosely connected groups and cells while still fulfilling the Caliphate’s agenda. Jordan is not immune from these mushrooming, semi-independents groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.  

As ISIS is fighting for its survival in Iraq and Syria, it is likely that what we will see more independent terror groups with ties to the Islamic State emerging in Jordan and the wider Middle East. Countries such as Jordan will need to be ready to effectively combat these groups, eliminate their safe havens and drain their support base through a combination of economic, political and military means. Without addressing some of the root causes—including Jordan’s poverty and high unemployment rates, as well as religious indoctrination—these efforts are bound to fail in the long run.

Lucrezia Savasta is a PhD Student in Political Science and a Research Assistant Higher School of Economics—National Research University in Moscow.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.

Photo: "Petra, Jordan" (CC BY 2.0) by eviljohnius