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In Jordan, ISIL inspires new generation of Islamist militants

The success of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is making the group popular in Jordan, especially among youth.
 Cleric Abu Qatada looks on from behind the bars at the state security court in Amman during a hearing in his case on June 26, 2014. The court acquitted the cleric, who was deported from Britain last July after a 10-year legal battle, of charges of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism. AFP Photo
Cleric Abu Qatada looks on from behind the bars at the state security court in Amman during a hearing in his case on June 26, 2014. The court acquitted the cleric, who was deported from Britain last July after a 10-year legal battle, of charges of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism. AFP Photo

AMMAN // Sporting a trimmed beard, baseball cap and jeans, 20-year-old Ibrahim, who lives in an upscale Amman neighbourhood, does not look like an Islamist militant.

Yet, he is a sympathizer. Every morning he uses his smartphone to browse Al Furqan, an online extremist forum, for news from the heads of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

“I have to see what Al Baghdadi and Al Adnani release,” said Ibrahim, referring to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the group’s leader and Abu Mohammed Al Adnani, the spokesperson.

“I look forward to joining them. I want to be a commander, but I want to finish my studies first,” the university accounting student said, adding that the group prefers educated recruits.

ISIL’s recent seizure of swathes of territory in Iraq has raised concerns in neighbouring Jordan that the group’s victories could encourage the rise of a new generation of Islamist militants in the kingdom.

“We all supported JN and most of the guys used to attack ISIL, calling them murderers,” Ibrahim said, referring to Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian wing. “But now that ISIL took Mosul, we support them. They created a state we have been yearning for and one without borders. But everybody is concerned about the unknown.”

Ibrahim admitted to being afraid of the chaos of regional war, but said he rejects the post-World War I division of the Middle East and wants to see the establishment of an Arab Islamic state.

After initially bolstering its northern border with Syria when the civil war there began three years ago, Jordanian authorities have now increased security along the 180-kilometre frontier with Iraq as well, in an effort to prevent infiltrators from destabilising the country.

“We have taken precautionary measures to control the border and protect Jordan from any danger,” said Jordanian interior minister Hussein Majali.

However, Jordan still has cause for alarm.

Salafi leaders in the country are traditional supporters of Al Qaeda’s central command, led by Ayman Al Zawahiri, who disavowed ISIL for being too extreme for the organisation’s taste.

But experts in Islamist movements warn that ISIL’s victories have caused it to eclipse Al Qaeda and Al Nusra. There are also concerns that ISIL’s successes will push other militants to become more extreme.

“ISIL is appealing to the youth because it more radical and because of the victories it achieved, unlike Jabhat Al Nusra which did not expand,” said Hasan Abu Hanieh, an expert on Islamic groups in Amman. “This has also been reinforced by the fact that ISIL is fighting along sectarian lines. It has struck a sensitive chord.”

“We are seeing a new generation of fighters with no history in jihad who are joining ISIL,” said Murad Batal Shishani, a London-based analyst who specialises in Islamic groups and terrorism issues.

In Jordan’s southern city of Ma’an, small groups of demonstrators, mostly teenagers, have publicly hailed ISIL’s expansion.

In recent weeks, tensions have spiked in the city, Jordan’s second-poorest, with authorities cracking down violently on protests and launching a series of night raids.

“Between April and June, two men were killed during police raids and one during a random shooting,” said Majed Sharari, the mayor of Ma’an, adding that eight others were injured.

Feeling abandoned by the government and with little to do, some of Ma’an’s youth are now finding solace in the slogans and propaganda of radical Islamist groups such as ISIL.

“It is kind of a punishment to the government because they feel they are marginalised and neglected,” said Hasan Abu Hanieh, an expert on Islamic groups in Amman.

Earlier this month, a video uploaded to You Tube showed three ISIL fighters calling on Jordanians to join their ranks and fight the “infidel regime”.

“Let Ma’an be the gateway of change if God’s willing. Ma’an is part of the Levant,” one said.

In April, a group calling itself The Legions of the Martyrs of Ma’an, threatened the Jordanian regime in an audio recording. The recording featured an image of ISIL’s black flag and Jordan’s King Abdullah was called a “taghout”, the Arabic word for tyrant that Islamist militants use when they describe Arab regimes.

“ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra are two sides of the same coin,” said a former security official who has dealt with Islamist groups. “The youth are impulsive and they are high-spirited. When they see ISIL claiming victories and JN regressing, they will throw their support behind ISIL. They are emboldened. Worse is the political and security vacuum on Jordan’s borders, which provides extremists with an opportunity to fill that void.”

The expansion of ISIL comes amid regional uncertainty that is casting its shadow on Jordan. The country is already grappling with a Syrian refugee influx, a yawning budget deficit, soaring public debt and a deteriorating economy, made worse by the interruptions in gas supplies from Egypt.

“ISIL has the money, tools and weapons and they can support any activity in the Arab world,” said Marwan Shehadeh, an independent Amman-based analyst specialised in Islamist groups.

“While ISIL has ambitions to expand, Jordan is not a priority for them now, but the videos they released were meant to send a message to the Jordanian regime: If you support Al Maliki, we will stage attacks,” Mr Shehadeh said, referring to Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki.

Jordan has been anxious about Al Nusra’s rise in southern Syria. Rebel commanders with connections to Al Nusra say the group has at least 33 Jordanian emirs, mostly of Palestinian origin, among the group’s senior ranks there. Many fought as part of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and in Afghanistan.

But the concern is increasingly about ISIL, which, unlike Al Nusra, has ambitions to expand.

Analysts speculate that Jordanian security services will exploit two radical Salafi clerics to turn the groups against each other.

Abu Mohammad Al Maqdisi, a mentor of Al Zarqawi who was released from prison this month after serving a five-year sentence, and Abu Qatada, who was acquitted of terrorism charges this week in one case but faces another trial in September, both support Al Nusra and have openly criticised ISIL.

“We are witnessing the Al Qaeda Spring,” said Mohammad Abu Rumman, an expert in Islamist movements at the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.

“Authorities will work on deepening the rifts between ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra supporters in an attempt to weaken them. This way they will be busy with each other, easing the burden on the security apparatus.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: June 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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