Jordanian fighters have come to play an important role in the protracted Syrian conflict. Unlike the previous generation of Jordanian jihadis—al-Qaeda leaders from a decade earlier who professed their belief in a global jihad—this new generation currently fighting in Syria is prioritizing regional and local causes. The outcome of their engagement in Syria will define the vision and goals of this rising generation of Jordanian fighters. Perceived success in Syria will embolden them and likely lead them to seek a more active political role in Jordan—and perhaps to draw attention to the needs and grievances of their communities through violence. 

Estimated to number about 5,000 members, Jordanian Salafi-jihadis are only one part of Jordan’s broader Salafi population, unofficially estimated to total 15,000 individuals1 (according to local journalist and Salafi specialist Tamer Smadi). Jordanian jihadis exist alongside traditional Salafis and Salafi reformers. Until 2011, Jordanian Salafis and the jihadis among them were largely underground, but the protests the country witnessed that year allowed them to surface and gain more visibility through participating in demonstrations. The war in Syria was another turning point; they witnessed an ideological shift with a new focus on the “near enemy,” and are thus attempting to create what they refer to as a “fortified house” (Diyar al-Tamkeen) in Syria. In other words, they are seeking to secure a fortress from which they could expand their activities to other regional countries by building on the training they acquired.

Today, the Salafi-jihadi movement is a loose group with several influential leaders such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, a prominent Salafi-jihadi sheikh who encouraged Jordanians to fight in Syria in 2012. “I called for any man able to go for Jihad in Syria; it is the responsibility of any good Muslim to stop the bloodshed perpetrated by the Nusayri regime (against Sunnis),” al-Tahawi said in June 2012, referring to the ruling Alawite regime in Syria. 

The Jordanian Salafi-jihadi community is among the biggest contributors of fighters to Syria. Salafi-jihadi experts believe that about 700 to 1000 Jordanian jihadis are currently fighting there, roughly comparable to the number of Tunisian jihadis, who make up about 800 of those fighting alongside the rebels in Syria. The majority of Jordanian jihadis in Syria have joined Jabhat al-Nusra, where two Palestinian-Jordanians, Iyad Toubasi and Mustafa Abdul Latif, occupy leading positions. Iyad Toubasi (Abu Gelebeb) is the Emir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Damascus and Deraa; he is also the brother-in-law of one of Jordan’s better-known Salafi-jihadis, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and is believed to have fought with him in Iraq. Abdul Latif (Abu Anas al-Sahaba) is also a commander in the Nusra front. Jordanian representation in Jabhat al-Nusra is more prominent than that in the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)—“due to ideological differences,” says Abu Sayyaf, a leading Jihadi figure in Jordan, in reference to ISIS’s extreme views on minority rights and relationship with other Islamist factions. 

Syria’s significance for the rising generation of Jordanian jihadis currently fighting on the plains and hills of “Bilad al-Sham” (Greater Syria) is threefold. First, the war in Syria against an Arab despot embodies the recent shift in jihadis’ priorities, who instead of targeting the West are now focusing their efforts on the “near enemy” (regional rulers), which could well expand to Jordan. Although those who have returned home to Jordan have yet to organize, the country’s security services have been cracking down on Salafi-jihadis since the beginning of the war in Syria, fearing this very possibility. Nationwide arrests have targeted between 150 and 170 jihadis as of January. This past December, Jordanian intelligence services arrested Raed Hijazi, known as Abu Ahmed al-Amriki, who is believed to have ties with al-Qaeda—as part of their efforts to prevent further coordination between local jihadis and al-Qaeda’s international network. 

Second, the concept of jihad emerging in Syria has slowly taken on the Sunni versus Shia sectarian dimension, reflecting the escalation in hostility between the two branches of Islam since the region’s Shia have backed the Assad regime. “This jihad is to defend Ahl al-Sunna (the Sunni people). It became obligatory when the war turned sectarian, especially after Hezbollah and Iran interfered. Hezbollah is the enemy of the Sunna,” says Abu Sayyaf. According to Smadi, this new rivalry was crystallized in January when local media reported that an attack targeting the Syrian embassy by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham was foiled (this information was later denied by state agencies). This hostility might also lead Jordanian jihadis to participate in other nearby theaters and across the region in an overall sectarian fight that fits in with their new regional focus. Abu Qatada, a prominent figure within Jordanian Salafi-jihadism who is currently on trial for terrorism in Amman, seems to have endorsed this strategy by justifying suicide bombings targeting Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Nusra Front has claimed several of these attacks. 

The third important aspect is the plan to build what they refer to as a Diyar al-Tamkeen. This would serve as a first step in the holy war to achieve and expand their transnational Islamic state based on sharia. A starting point to achieve that is winning Syria and then turning back to Jordan to reunify “Bilad al-Sham,” of which Syria is a key part; securing a Syrian base is likely to continue to be a long-term goal. Recent clashes on February 17 pitted an armed group entering from Syria with Jordanian border guards. “These clashes are erupting in the area spreading between Ramtha in Jordan and Daraa in Syria, in a sector known as the Old Custom,” points out Smadi. While military statements only confirmed that the armed group came from Syria, no mention was made as to the nationality of the fighters. There are fears among the Jordanian security agencies that these fighters might be comprised of Jordanian nationals, which would have negative implications for the Hashemite Kingdom’s stability. 

Like Zarqawi before—whose experience in Iraq inspired his triple hotel bombing in Amman in 2005—the new generation of Jordanian jihadis will be shaped by Syria. Any successes there could embolden this new generation and encourage them to adopt a more aggressive stance at home. However, unlike in Zarqawi’s time, Jordan has been plagued in recent years by worsening economic conditions, political protests, and the influx of a massive Syrian refugee population, which according to the UNHCR amount to about 600,000. Al-Qaeda franchises have always been known to take advantage of situation of political turmoil, and Jordan is no exception. Whether local jihadis decide to exploit the large refugee population and turn these difficult conditions in their favor will depend to a great extent on the crackdown they face in Syria and at home.

Mona Alami is a French Lebanese journalist who writes about political and economic issues in the Arab world. She is a regular contributor to Sada.

1. Based on author’s interviews with local sources, including Tamer Smadi. ?