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Jordanian jihadists active in Syria.

SINCE THE START OF the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, Jordanian foreign fighters have traveled to Syria to fight with the opposition. What began as a small trickle of Jordanian militants has swelled as the conflict evolved from a popular uprising into a civil war of regional proportions. At the start of the uprising, Jordanian jihadists viewed participation in the Syrian war as a religious duty to fight against an autocratic, Alawite regime. Their hope is that the fall of al-Assad will result in the establishment of a Sunni I slamic state. This conviction intensified as the war became increasingly sectarian. Galvanized by the involvement of Iran and Hizb Allah, and the subsequent calls for jihad against al-Assad by Sunni clerics, Jordanian jihadists considered it their obligation to defend Sunnis in Syria. (1)

This article provides background on Jordanian jihadists who have traveled to fight in Syria. It finds that many of these militants have joined the al-Qa'ida-linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, a development that could threaten the security of the Jordanian state. (2)

Jihadist Activity in Jordan

General estimates place the number of Salafi-jihadis (3) in Jordan at a few thousand, some of whom are veterans of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (4) Al-Qavida in Iraq (AQI), for example, was led by the prominent Jordanian jihadist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi, who was killed in June 2006, was responsible for the triple Amman hotel bombings, a terrorist attack that killed 60 people in Jordan in 2005. (5) Moreover, al-Zarqawi's spiritual mentor, Abu M uhammad al-Maqdisi, a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian origin, is a prominent proponent of Salafijihadism in Jordan. (6)

The Jordanian government views Salafi-jihadis as extremists, and tensions between the banned movement and the government are longstanding. (7) In April 2011, for example, 400 Salafi-jihadi protesters demanded the release of prisoners and clashed with police--a demonstration that resulted in the stabbings of four policemen. (8) Various reports suggest that support for Salafi-jihadis is gaining ground in the Jordanian cities of Maan and Zarqa, the latter of which was al-Zarqawi's hometown. (9) Tensions became more pronounced as the war in Syria escalated. In January 2013, Jordanian King Abdullah warned that "the new Taliban we are going to have to deal with are in Syria," adding that it might take two years to clean up the "bad elements," in reference to jihadists in Syria. (10)

In October 2012, authorities foiled a plot targeting Jordan. Jordanian authorities arrested 11 Jordanians who were accused of plotting to bomb shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions in Amman, using weapons and explosives smuggled into Jordan from Syria. (11) The militants reportedly planned to execute their attacks in stages. (12) They first planned to target shopping centers and foreigners in Jordanian hotels. (13) After those initial attacks, they wanted to execute more deadly attacks using powerful explosives on Western diplomatic missions and "vital national sites." (14) Jordanian authorities identified some of the men as belonging to the banned Salafi-jihadi movement in Jordan. (15) Abed Shehadeh al-Tahawi, who leads Jordan's Salafi-jihadi movement, told the Associated Press that he "recognized at least half of the people shown on television.They are members of my group, but they have nothing to do with what is said to be a 'terror plot.'" (16) Although some have expressed skepticism about the plot, the conflict in Syria has clearly stirred up Jordan's jihadist community. (17)

In September 2 013, for example, Jordanian authorities acted again, jailing five Jordanian Salafi-jihadis for trying to join Jabhat al-Nusra. (18) In total, Jordanian authorities have arrested approximately 68 individuals in connection with the war in Syria, 47 of whom are facing trial in a state security court. (19)

Jordanian Jihadists in Syria

Security is tight on the Jordan-Syria border, but it is believed that authorities turned a blind eye in the early months of the revolution, which made it easier for jihadists to enter Syria. (20) In February 2013, for example, the Jordan Times reported the death of a 17-yearold Jordanian who was fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra in Deraa. (21) In August 2013, al-Ghad reported the death of a 29-year-old Jordanian jihadist in Deraa who was also fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra. (22) Thus far, it is estimated that at least 100 Jordanian jihadists have been killed in Syria. (23)

It is not possible to identify the exact number of Jordanian fighters in Syria. Yet Mohammed al-Shalabi, a Salafi-jihadi leader in Jordan, said between 700-800 Jordanians have joined the jihad in Syria. (24) Al-Shalabi, also known as "Abu Sayyaf," told reporters, "As the battle to defend the Muslim nation from the Godless regime of Assad continues, more are willing to join the fight." Other reports place the number at 500. (25)

Among those killed include Mahmoud Abdul Al, the son-in-law of prominent Salafi-jihadi shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi. Abdul Al blew himself up in Deraa in October 2012. (26) In a video commemorating his son-in-law's death produced by the jihadist website Ma'asada, al-Tahawi called for the reestablishment of the caliphate, and urged Salafi-jihadis to rise and defend themselves against the enemies of Islam. (27) He was also blunt in his support for Jabhat al-Nusra. (28) Al-Tahawi spoke about a fatwa he issued stipulating that it is the responsibility of any good Muslim to stop the bloodshed perpetrated by the Alawite regime in Syria. (29) In an interview, al-Tahawi said that "Muslims in Syria have been oppressed by Assad's brutal and barbaric regime; therefore, according to Islam, it is obligatory for any able-bodied Muslim to support his brothers there." (30)

Al-Tahawi's call to action is not an isolated occurrence. In the wake of reports about Iran and Hizb Allah's role in defending the al-Assad regime, other Sunni clerics called on Muslims to join the rebels in Syria. (31) The Salafi-jihadi leader al-Shalabi said, "This jihad is to defend Ahl al-Sunna [Sunni Islam]. It is obligatory. When the war turned sectarian, it became a motive not only for members of the movement but also for the public at large to join the mujahidin, especially after Hizb Allah and Iran interfered." (32) Al-Qa'ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri also called on Sunni Muslims to unite and join the war in Syria. (33)

In the early months of the war, Jordanian jihadists crossed the border in the southern Syrian provinces of Deraa and Reef Damascus. (34) They also had a presence in the eastern and western areas of Syria, including Deir al-Zour, Aleppo and Homs. (35) Hasan Abu Hanieh, an expert on Islamic groups, argued that the Jordanian government at first turned a blind eye to the flow of Jordanian jihadists in Syria, hoping that jihadists in Jordan would enter Syria and die there. (36) Yet as the civil war continued, the Jordanian government began to harden its 230-mile border with Syria, arresting dozens of jihadists trying to enter the war-torn country, and foiled attempts to smuggle arms from Syria into Jordan. (37) These border restrictions prompted Jordanian jihadists to travel to Turkey before entering Syria from the north. (38) The Turkish-Syria border has been used by hundreds of other jihadists who flocked from Libya, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Europe, Chechnya and elsewhere. (39)

The Militant Group of Choice: Jabhat al-Nusra

The vast majority of Jord anian jihadists in Syria appear to be fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra, according to al-Shalabi. (40) Reports of their participation were also revealed in an article by al-Monitor, translated from al-Hayat, stating that the Salafist community in Jordan serves as a lifeline for Jabhat al-Nusra in southern Syria. (41) The report said that jihadists in Syria "rely on gangs that smuggle weapons and people into hot fighting zones in exchange for amounts ranging from $600 to $900 per person, in addition to the fees imposed on weapons, which exceed $400 per gun." (42)

The report also said that Jordanian jihadists--who have experience in conflicts such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and Yemen--lead prominent military brigades in Jabhat al-Nusra. Two Jordanians of Palestinian origin who hail from the city of Zarqa, the hometown of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, helped establish the Nusra Shura council with Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the head of Jabhat al-Nusra. (43) These two militants--Iyad Toubasi and Mustafa Abdul Latif--were among the senior leadership of al-Qa'ida in Iraq. (44) They were active in Syria since the beginning of the war and immediately started operating without publicizing their presence. (45)

Iyad Toubasi, also known as Abu Gelebeb, is married to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's sister. (46) He fought with al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan and Iraq. (47) Abu Gelebeb was the amir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Damascus and Derra, although he was thought to have died in December 2012. (48) Yet subsequent reports suggest he was only injured, and returned to the fighting after receiving medical treatment in Turkey. (49)

After Abu Gelebeb's injury, Mustafa Abdul Latif, another Jordanian, reportedly took charge of the southern front in Jabhat al-Nusra. (50) Latif, also known as Abu Anas al-Sahaba, was close to al-Zarqawi and fought in the Islamic State of Iraq; he was in charge of a services office for jihadists arriving in Syria to fight in Iraq. (51) Al-Sahaba has been operating in Syria since the beginning of the revolution, and he has played a significant role in recruiting and attracting fighters to Jabhat al-Nusra. (52)

Conclusion

The war in Syria has drawn jihadists from all over the world, including from Jordan. The rise of Jabhat al-Nusra and its appeal among Jordanian jihadists will likely present a challenge for Jordanian authorities, especially if al-Qa'ida and its allies continue to expand their presence in Syria.

The Jordanian jihadist al-Shalabi assured that Jordan is not a target for militants. Jihadists, he said, will only target a regime if it attacks its own people. (53) Nevertheless, there is a heightened sense of anxiety in Jordan over jihadist groups, and the Jordanian authorities have arrested dozens of suspected militants, including key figures in the Salafist movement. (54)

Jordanian Salafi-jihadi sympathizers appear to be growing, or at least becoming more vocal, and the movement seems to be gaining ground in Maan and Zarqa. (55) Jihadist black flags have been spotted in Maan where citizens increasingly complain of being marginalized by the Jordanian government. (56) There are also frustrations with the lack of genuine political reforms, soaring poverty and unemployment. (57)

Contrary to some claims that al-Qa'ida's influence has been weakened by the Arab Spring, Hanieh, the expert on Islamic groups in Jordan, argued that there is evidence that al-Qavida has benefited from the lack of successful transition toward democracy in some countries. (58) The military coup that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt has only helped to bolster al-Qavida's narrative. As a recent report from al-Monitor warned, "As the influence of the Brotherhood recedes, especially after recent events in Egypt, the role of Salafist jihadists will increase in the region. Jordan will soon find itself in the epicenter of this emerging phenomenon." (59)

(1) Omar Fahmy, "Sunni Clerics Call for Jihad Against Syria's Assad, Allies," Reuters, June 13, 2013; personal interview, Mohammed al-Shalabi, a Jordanian Salafi-jihadi leader, August 9, 2013.

(2) Personal interview, Marwan Shehadeh, expert on Islamic groups, August 12, 2013; Tamer al-Samadi, "Jordan's Salafists Provide Lifeline to Syrian Opposition," al-Monitor, April 23, 2013.

(3) For the purposes of this article, Salafi-jihadis are defined as Salafists who support the use of violence to achieve their goals.

(4) Personal interview, Hasan Abu Hanieh, expert on Islamic groups, August 13, 2013; Al-Samadi.

(5) Hassan M. Fattah and Michael Slackman, "3 Hotels Bombed in Jordan; At Least 57 Die," New York Times, November 10, 2005.

(6) Osama al-Sharif, "Rise of Local Salafist Jihadists Worries Jordan's Government," al-Monitor, July 3, 2013.

(7) Suha Philip Ma'ayeh, "Salafists Clash with Jordan Police," The National, April 16, 2011.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Al-Sharif.

(10) Alistair Lyon and Suleiman al-Khalidi, "Jordan Staggers Under Fallout of Syria Conflict," Reuters, February 1, 2013.

(11) Ranya Kadri, "Jordan Says 11 Plotted a Series of Attacks," New York Times, October 21, 2012; Jamal Halaby, "Jordan Says it Foils Al-Qaida-Linked Terror Plot," Huffington Post, October 21, 2012.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Ibid. Mohammad al-Najjar, "Jordan Dismantles a Cell That Planned Quality Operations," al-Jazira, October 21, 2012.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Suleiman al-Khalidi, "Syrian Jihadist Spillover Haunts Jordan," Reuters, October 28, 2013.

(18) "Jordan Fights Wave of Syria Jihad With Heavy Jail Sentences," Middle East Online, September 23, 2013.

(19) Personal interview, Musa Abdullat, legal representative and defense attorney for Salafi-jihadis, August 18, 2013.

(20) Personal interview, Hasan Abu Hanieh, expert on Islamic groups, August 13, 2013.

(21) "Teenage Jordanian 'Jihadist' Killed in Syria," Jordan Times, February 28, 2013.

(22) Hassan Tammimi, "Jordanian Salafi from Rusaifa Killed in Syria," al-Ghad, August 4, 2013.

(23) Al-Shalabi made statements to the local media on Salafi-jihadis who were killed, their names and from which city they came. Also see Muwaffaq Kamal, "10 Salafists Enter Aleppo Through Turkey," al-Ghad, October 7, 2013; Muwaffaq Kamal, "The Salafi Jihadi Denies Establishing a Murabitoon Brigade," al-Ghad, September 23, 2013.

(24) Personal interview, Mohammed al-Shalabi, a Jordanian Salafi-jihadi leader, August 9, 2013; "Teenage Jordanian 'Jihadist' Killed in Syria."

(25) "Teenage Jordanian 'Jihadist' Killed in Syria."

(26) Murad Batal al-Shishani, "Jordan's Jihadists Drawn to Syria Conflict," BBC, October 29, 2012.

(27) This video is available at www.youtube.com/ watch?v=Mu5GD1eaRTA.

(28) "Jordanian Salafi-Jihadi Leader Abu Muhammad Al-Tahawi: 'America, You Are The Main Target On The Mujahideen's Agenda,'" Middle East Media Research Institute, December 30, 2012.

(29) Mona Alami, "Calls for Jihad Split Salafist Movement," Inter Press Service, June 3, 2013.

(30) Murad Batal al-Shishani, "Syria Emerges as a New Battlefield for Jordan's Jihadists," Terrorism Monitor 11:1 (2013).

(31) Fahmy.

(32) Personal interview, Mohammed al-Shalabi, a Jordanian Salafi-jihadi leader, August 9, 2013.

(33) "Qaeda Leader Urges Muslims to Fight in Syria," al-Arabiya, June 6, 2013.

(34) Personal interview, Hasan Abu Hanieh, expert on Islamic groups, August 13, 2013.

(35) Ibid.

(36) Ibid.

(37) Ibid.

(38) Kamal, "10 Salafists Enter Aleppo Through Turkey."

(39) Personal interview, Hasan Abu Hanieh, expert on Islamic groups, August 13, 2013.

(40) Personal interview, Mohammed al-Shalabi, a Jordanian Salafi-jihadi leader, August 9, 2013; Lyon and al-Khalidi.

(41) Al-Samadi.

(42) Ibid.

(43) Ibid. Personal interview, Hasan Abu Hanieh, expert on Islamic groups, August 13, 2013; personal interview, Marwan Shehadeh, expert on Islamic groups, August 12, 2013.

(44) Personal interview, Hasan Abu Hanieh, expert on Islamic groups, August 13, 2013.

(45) Ibid.

(46) Al-Samadi.

(47) Ibid. Personal interview, Marwan Shehadeh, expert on Islamic groups, August 12, 2013.

(48) Al-Samadi.

(49) Ibid. Personal interview, Hasan Abu Hanieh, expert on Islamic groups, August 13, 2013; personal interview, Marwan Shehadeh, expert on Islamic groups, August 12, 2013.

(50) Al-Samadi.

(51) Personal interview, Marwan Shehadeh, expert on Islamic groups, August 12, 2013.

(52) Ibid.

(53) Personal interview, Mohammed al-Shalabi, a Jordanian Salafi-jihadi leader, August 9, 2013.

(54) Personal interview, Musa Abdullat, legal representative and defense attorney for Salafi-jihadis, August 18, 2013.

(55) Al-Sharif; Suha Philip Ma'ayeh, "Resentment Rises Towards Jordan's Leaders in Poverty-hit South," The National, January 21, 2013.

(56) Personal observations, Maan, December 2012; Ma'ayeh, "Resentment Rises Towards Jordan's Leaders in Poverty-hit South."

(57) Sean L. Yom, "Jordan in the Balance: Evaluating Regime Stability," CTC Sentinel 6:1 (2013).

(58) Personal interview, Hasan Abu Hanieh, expert on Islamic groups, August 13, 2013.

(59) Al-Sharif.

Suha Philip Ma'ayeh is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She writes news, analysis and features mainly about Jordanian politics, the Syrian crisis and refugees. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy. She is a frequent contributor to The National, an English-language daily based in Abu Dhabi.
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Author:Ma'ayeh, Suha Philip
Publication:CTC Sentinel
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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