Research note originally commissioned November 2015
The recent attack in Jordan that left several dead, including two Americans and a South African, has brought the potential for radicalism in Jordan into focus. So far, the kingdom has managed to maintain relative stability in the region and weather the conflicts on its borders. Jordanians are one of the largest group of foreigners to have gone and fought in Syria, although so far there has been relatively little radical activity domestically. In underprivileged tribal towns in the southern desert of the country, where unemployment is high and corruption and nepotism create barriers to opportunities, support for radical ideologies is strong. The tribes there are closely linked with local Salafists.
Since ISIS made an alliance with Sunni tribes in Iraq, the perception of the group in Jordan has begun to change, with it being seen increasingly as a protector of Sunnis. Many of the Jordanians who have gone to fight in Syria appear to have been motivated by a desire to protect Sunni women and children. The glamorization of the conflict combined with unresolved domestic inequalities make for fertile breeding ground for radicalization. ISIS now appears to be focusing energies on destabilizing Jordan, following a similar pattern to other Middle Eastern and North African countries where it has a presence. The Jordanian security forces’ harsh crackdown may only be fuelling the resentment that can lead to radicalization.
The recent attack in Jordan by an army officer in an internationally-run training camp that led several dead, including American and South African subcontractors, has drawn focus to the potential for violent, Jihadist attacks in Jordan.
Jordan has enjoyed relative stability in the region and has managed to weather the conflict on its borders, while taking in more than one million refugees.
However, Jordanians make up one of the largest groups of foreign fighters in Syria and the appetite for radical activity is growing.
The perpetrator of the recent attack was a member of one of Jordan’s privileged tribes that make up the backbone of the military and government, rather than from a minority or underprivileged group. This stokes fears that radical ideologies have infiltrated many levels of society.
Indeed, many, if not the majority, according to some studies, of Jordanians going to Syria to fight had white collar jobs before going and universities are strong recruiting grounds for fighters.
Many recruits who have come from Jordan were apparently motivated by the desire to protect Sunni women and children. In social media content, the conflict in Syria is glamourized in Jordan and the suffering of ordinary Syrians is highlighted.
Opinion towards ISIS has grown more favourable since the group formed an alliance with Iraq’s Sunni tribes, driving the perception that the group is a protector of Sunnis.
Jordan’s southern tribes have close links with Salafists. Salafists make up a sizeable group fighting in Syria, not to say, however, that all Salafists support violence.
Inequalities, corruption and nepotism lead to frustration and are one big driver of recruitment. Ma’an, a tribal town in the southern desert, is one of the key towns for recruitment. In Ma’an unemployment among those in their 20s is believed to be around 30%. After riots in Ma’an in the summer of 2014, the town was found covered in pro-ISIS graffiti and flags.
Joining a militant group is seen as offering a path to greater social standing; this is significant in places where options are limited.
Other sites of radicalization include the towns of Salt and Zarqa. Zarqa is the home town of al-Zarqawi, former leader of Islamic State in Iraq. After his death, interest from ISI towards Jordan dropped. However, ISIS’ strategy now appears to hope to eventually undermine the Hashemite Kingdom and lead to a Sunni uprising there.
Thus far, despite the numbers who have gone to fight, there has been relatively little activity in Jordan, with the authorities brutally suppressing any unrest. The brutality of the suppressions itself may fuel further unrest however, with videos on social media of Jordanian security forces firing indiscriminately in civilian areas.
Another issue is those of Palestinian descent in Jordan who do not have Jordanian citizenship. Palestinian refugees were long a disadvantaged group. Problems persist since a person whose father is not a Jordanian national cannot become a Jordanian citizen, consequently there are 360,000 people in Jordan who are effectively state-less. They face police harassment and few opportunities and consequently are a target for radicalization.
Increased Jordanian support in attacks on ISIS could lead to more attacks in Jordan. Currently, radicalized Jordanians are concerned more with activities in Iraq and Syria but this could change if the Jordanian state is seen as an enemy of ISIS. This is most likely what ISIS is in fact hoping for. At the funeral of the perpetrator of the recent attack, the attenders are reported to have chanted anti-American slogans. While Jordanian-US relations are good at a state level, the perception that the US is an enemy to Muslims has increased among the general public.
Over the last year, according to one study, the percentage of the general public in Jordan who are concerned about extremism has risen from 54% to 62%.
The government’s heavy clampdown on Islamists, including the more moderate political Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, may risk creating greater resentment towards the monarchy and support for radicals.
The key to combatting radicalism in Jordan would be for the Jordanian state to do more to address domestic inequalities and the nepotism that creates obstacles to advancement. In addition, engaging with and encouraging peaceful, community groups that wish to provide support to Syrians could be a way of directing frustrations in a more positive direction.