Islamist growth in Syria inflates fears in Jordan
ZARQA, Jordan — When Syria's civil war erupted in 2011, Jordanian authorities seemed happy that local Islamists left to fight Syria President Bashar Assad's regime.
“At the beginning, if you go to the border with your AK-47 and you are caught, you are supposed to get five years in jail,” said Munief al Samara, a Jordanian doctor and self-proclaimed jihadist. “But we just got a week and we were out.
“So we realized they want us out of the country.”
That changed, he said, when two al-Qaida-affiliated groups, Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, began “trying to establish the Islamic Caliphate and the Islamic Shariah” — an Islamic state with Islamic law — in northern Syria.
“Now it is very hard to cross, and those who are caught will be sentenced from three to five years in jail.”
The change reflects the worrisome turn of Syria's conflict.
The popular uprising against the Assad family's four-decade dictatorship has dissolved into a brutal war by the regime and its Iranian proxies against weakened local rebels and a flood of Islamist fighters from abroad, including unknown numbers from the United States.
The growing Islamist presence in Syria worries many Middle Eastern nations, none more than Jordan, a key American ally.
With more than a million war refugees crammed into camps along its border with Syria, the Hashemite Kingdom is concerned about battle-hardened extremists coming home, eager to fight.
‘Mother of all battles'
Samara sits in a spare medical clinic he operates in an industrial center, 15 miles northeast of Jordan's capital, Amman. Syria, he said, is “the mother of all battles. … That is why we find this big number of Europeans there.”
Like many jihadis, Samara is a Salafi, an arch-conservative Islamist.
He said he has “never seen this spirit of jihad before” and hopes it “will be the nucleus of the coming Caliphate and will spread to Jerusalem … and other places, God willing.”
Jordan, a relative oasis in a region on fire, has begun prosecuting fighters who return from Syria. Its parliament adopted a controversial anti-terrorism law that critics think will be used against political foes.
“The situation is getting complicated, and things are getting worse because the crisis in Syria is taking so long,” said Hassan Abu Hanieh, author of a definitive book on Jordanian jihadists.
“Until now, there aren't any signs that the Salafi jihadis are targeting Jordan,” he said, “but that doesn't mean they are not going to target Jordan — it just means that is not on the table now.”
Samara claims 800 to 1,000 Jordanians have fought in Syria.
“We know … the Jordanian participation is significant compared to other conflicts in the past,” Hanieh said. Many hold “high-profile … leadership-level positions” — as they did in Iraq's insurgency less than a decade ago — which “makes it more complicated for Jordan.”
Samara can recite the names of Jordanians with key roles in Syria's war. Many are from Zarqa, the Jordanian birthplace of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al-Qaida leader who behind deadly attacks on U.S. forces and Shiites in Iraq until 2006.
Of the roughly 140 jihadis arrested returning from Syria, Samara said, 40 are from Zarqa.
Split among Islamists
Samara said he belongs to a Jordanian jihadi faction that follows Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi, an influential theorist who cautioned against directly attacking the state.
The group hasn't attacked in Jordan, he said, “Not because we accept that this is a good government but because we don't yet have the means to establish what is obligatory on us, as Allah ordered us to establish the Shariah everywhere we can.”
His explanation reflects what Hanieh said is a split among Islamists: Some favor spreading Islam, while a more “globalized” faction spreads violence.
Samara described the division as a “revolution” within the movement.
It exploded into warfare between the two main Islamist groups in Syria, forcing al-Qaida chief Ayman al Zawahiri to call for reconciliation.
One of the groups, ISIS, imposes Shariah law in areas of Syria it controls, including traditional Islamic punishments such as forcing Syrian Christians to pay a tribute tax called the Jizya, and lopping off thieves' hands.
“In order to implement laws like these, all the needs of the people must be met first,” Samara said, a bit dismissively.
But he believes the warring factions heeded Zawahiri and their infighting has lessened: “The honest and true ones will follow what Sheikh Ayman wants.”
‘We are ready'
Jordan, like other countries in the region and in Europe, is trying to figure out what to do about the jihadi threat, according to Hanieh.
“Given the hard economic situation in Jordan, the absence of political reform, the regional chaos and the unresolved Palestinian case, if the state's security grip is weakened … the Salafi jihadis will emerge,” he predicted. “The only thing that is keeping them down right now” is Jordan's security apparatus, which is considered the region's best.
Jordan's new anti-terrorism law is crucial to deal with returning jihadis, government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani said.
But Rula al Hroob, chairwoman of the Jordanian parliament's freedoms and human rights committee, called it “a big setback.”
Hroob believes Salafis and other jihadis pose an enormous regional threat because “they want to take us back to the Dark Ages,” but the new law “is needlessly broadening the scope of what is a terrorist act. We don't need that at all; we are violating human rights and freedoms.”
Hanieh agreed that the new law can be used to classify anyone as a terrorist, and he worries that might persuade more Jordanians to join the jihadis.
Instead of investigating or arresting more-moderate Salafis, he said, the government should try to engage them politically.
Samara insisted that the Salafi jihadist movement is strengthening, here and regionally.
Since Egypt's military ousted Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsy as president and jailed his followers, “we believe that thousands — if not millions — of Muslim Brotherhood members will turn to (us),” he said.
No matter what Jordanian authorities do to them, “the more these trials become harder, the more we will have the best qualities of mujahedeen,” he said.
And nothing will stop them from fighting in Syria:
“As long as there is a way, we are ready.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent.