It may not be the vicious killers hundreds of miles away who pose the greatest threat to Jordan, but the angry young men cheering on the jihadis in the country’s own towns and cities.
Photo credit: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/GettyImages
ZARQA, Jordan — The group of six men, ranging in age from mid-20s to early 40s, were clean-shaven, with slicked-back hair. Over several rounds of coffee, tea, dates, and biscuits, they talked about their lives in this poverty-stricken city northeast of Amman, lectured me on the destructive role the United States and Israel were playing in Middle Eastern politics, and laughed while describing neighborhood drug use and their favorite icons from Western popular culture. “I named you David in my head before I knew your name was David,” one of the young men told me. “David, like David Beckham!”
And yet, when I asked who in the group believed the employees of Charlie Hebdo deserved to be gunned down, I was greeted with a chorus of nodding heads. Each and every one believed that the Jan. 7 murders of 12 people in Paris were justified.* After all, the magazine had insulted the Prophet, they said.
Zarqa is one of the country’s most notorious hotbeds of Islamic radicalism. The city, which is mainly made up of winding alleyways and decrepit-looking concrete apartment blocks, was the birthplace of notorious al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Our host, who gave his name as Abu al-Abed, pointed in the distance through the narrow streets to indicate the location of Zarqawi’s family home.
Jordan has played an active role in the international coalition against the Islamic State (IS), carrying out airstrikes against the jihadi group in Syria, while grappling with a radicalized minority at home. The International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, a London-based think tank, estimates that 1,500 Jordanians have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq. And while the country’s government is a staunch U.S. ally, its people are largely anti-American: According to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center, only 12 percent of Jordanians have a favorable view of the United States.
“They are our friends and neighbors,” said Jihad, 43, referring to those who joined both IS and the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front to fight in Syria and Iraq. “It is a religious duty to [perform] the jihad.”
Jihad used to be a drug dealer; he said he spent seven years in jail after police found packages of marijuana in his house. But when asked whether he would welcome IS and its severe form of sharia law into Jordan, he nodded: “If they are righteous.”
On Feb. 3, IS released a horrific video purportedly showing captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh burned alive in a makeshift cage. The Jordanian government confirmed that the pilot, who crashed while flying a mission over the northern Syrian governorate of Raqqa as part of the anti-IS coalition, had been killed, saying he was executed on Jan. 3.
But rather than the butchers hundreds of miles to the north, it may be these men in Zarqa who pose a greater threat to the Jordanian government.
“I myself am not worried too much about the threat of daesh [an Arabic term for the Islamic State] coming from abroad. We have a well-trained army, and they can deal with that as a military action,” says Taher al-Masri, a former Jordanian prime minister. “But when it comes to the feeling, the sympathy [toward the jihadi group] — it is here, internally, and I think we should take more action.”
A poll published in September found that 10 percent of Jordan’s population did not consider IS a terrorist organization — a figure that would amount to roughly 500,000 Jordanians 15 years of age or older. The killing of Kasasbeh will likely dent support for IS, but it may not have as drastic an effect as some would assume. Jihadi supporters are producing their own propaganda justifying the brutal execution, and the wars in Iraq and Syria will continue to give groups like IS fodder to stoke outrage among fellow Sunnis. The worldviews of the men assembled around this table in Zarqa, after all, were not shaped by Western media outlets: One spoke loudly and at length about how the terrorists were a U.S. and Israeli creation; another said that he didn’t believe the Islamic State beheaded people.
It’s not only ideology that drives these men in Zarqa — it’s also poverty. Unemployment in Jordan among those between the ages of 19 and 24 stands at nearly 30 percent; for the men in this slum, it is undoubtedly higher. They complained about the influx of Syrians into their neighborhoods — Jordan’s foreign minister said on Tuesday that the refugees from the crisis next door now make up 21 percent of his country’s population — and blamed them for snapping up scarce jobs and increasing housing prices. The men also spoke bitterly about persecution by the Jordanian police, who they said regularly humiliated them and locked them up for minor infractions.
Mohammed, 22, saw the jihadis more as a potential employer than ideological kinsmen. A high-school dropout who had no prospects for work, he said he was just “taking every day by God.” Would he consider joining the fighters in Iraq and Syria, if it meant a steady paycheck? “I might steal, I might kill someone,” he said quietly. “If things continue like this, I will do anything.”
Less than 20 miles away, Taher al-Masri sat in his luxurious Amman home and described his struggle to convince the Jordanian government that defeating the jihadi threat would take far more than a military response. The longtime politician had been the speaker of Jordan’s Senate, until he was replaced in October.
“I don’t think we’ve done much to absorb the grievances of people, which is something that takes a whole process and strategic planning,” he said. “We are not doing that.”
Masri said that he had been calling for a comprehensive review of Jordan’s laws and institutions, with an eye to combatting domestic radicalization. In his interview with Foreign Policy, he called for reform of the educational system and a review of the laws that allowed hundreds of thousands of foreign workers into the country, where they took jobs that could have gone to Jordanians.
What attempts the Jordanian government has made to combat the Islamic State’s ideological message have, at times, been ham-fisted. Last month, the Education Ministry distributed booklets to high schools across the country entitled “An Open Letter to Ibrahim al-Badri, aka al-Baghdadi,” the Islamic State’s leader, aiming to refute its ideology.
The 32-page booklet argues against harming Christians and Yazidis, while also reminding young readers that the desecration of tombs, torture, and rape are forbidden under Islam. But while the message is no doubt valuable, it’s presented in the stilted language of Islamic jurisprudence that hardly appeals to Jordanian teenagers. “The text is rigid and difficult to read,” says Hussein Khozae, a professor of sociology at Jordan’s Al-Balqa Applied University.
Nor would such pamphlets change the opinion of the group of men gathered in Zarqa. None of them appeared to be particularly religious: Not once did the conversation turn to matters of faith, and none budged from their seats when the call to prayer sounded. They appeared driven by anger at humiliations big and small — from the police officers who treated them like criminals outside their homes to the massacres of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq — rather than by a detailed exegesis of religious texts.
The men, for instance, did not see a contradiction between supporting the jihadis’ austere version of Islamic law and also holding a basic enthusiasm for recreational drug use.
“We don’t take drugs,” said Jihad, the former drug dealer, before seemingly backtracking. “But we know the deals [for where to get drugs cheaply] … so when we want it, we could get it.”
At that point, the group of men burst into uproarious laughter, and began listing the most popular drugs — marijuana, the amphetamine Captagon, and the opioid Tramadol. Jihad told a story of giving a friend who was experiencing withdrawal symptoms an “antidote,” which appeared to be more drugs.
The men laughed harder, and for a second the Islamic State was forgotten. It could have been a crowd of friends gathered anywhere in the world.
David Kenner is the Middle East editor for Foreign Policy