Raad Adayleh/AP

Fade to black: Jordanian city Ma’an copes with Islamic State threat

In economically impoverished southern locale, Salafist groups drum up sympathy for radical cause in Syria and Iraq

MA’AN, Jordan — A black flag droops from the middle of a traffic circle in Ma’an, the capital of Jordan’s largest governorate. Three hours south of Amman, the streets here are silent on a Thursday morning. Most stores are closed. Pedestrians are few. Armored personnel carriers loom in the desert heat. Walls covered in Islamist and anti-government graffiti surround the flag, emblazoned with the script made famous by the Islamic State.

“We do not accept the illegitimate Jordanian government that shoots innocent women and children,” one wall reads. Beside it, “Welcome Islamic State” and “There is no law but God’s law” are scrawled in spray paint.

The recent spread across Syria and Iraq of the Islamic State (IS) — known as Da’ash in Arabic — has stirred fears that Jordan could be next. Surrounded by growing chaos and struggling with millions of refugees, especially those fleeing the civil war in Syria, the country is under high pressure to keep its economy, infrastructure and security intact.

Doing so requires both tightening domestic control and addressing local social and economic grievances — an increasingly difficult balancing act in places like Ma’an, where Jordanian authorities have cracked down on unrest. At the same time, locals complain of police corruption and impunity, saying their use of excessive force in the name of security deepens local resentment and can push a marginalized population, especially youths, toward radical groups.

On the one hand, analysts say the threat of an external IS attack is minimal. Jordan is a key U.S. ally, with at least 1,000 American troops stationed within its borders. President Barack Obama recently announced a $5 billion counterterrorism fund for shoring up partner countries “on the front lines.” Jordan has bolstered its border defenses, upped military recruitment and improved coordination with Saudi Arabia. Even Israel has suggested it could come to Jordan’s defense should the Islamic State breach its northeastern borders.

Graffiti with pro-IS slogans on a wall in Ma’an.
Alice Su

The greater IS threat in Jordan is internal. A growing extremist presence in the kingdom has raised alarm about potential attacks, especially as the IS draws support from younger Jordanians. “There is a generational split since [IS] came into the spotlight,” said Hasan Abu Hanieh, a political analyst who researches Islamist movements. “Young people tend to support them, while older jihadists stay with Al-Qaeda.”

While these radicals pose a real security risk, they are small in number and are monitored and internally divided, analysts say. Media in Jordan have reported that at least 40 IS supporters were arrested across Jordan in a two-day crackdown last week. Extremist groups are operating in Jordan but have been weakened by the wider split between the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Syria. Abu Muhammad al-Makdisi, a radical leader recently released from prison, has publicly denounced the IS in favor of al-Nusra, for example, while others support the IS. “There is a divide-and-rule strategy, not to mention that the group is still very small and under heavy surveillance,” said Jordanian political analyst Osama al-Sharif.

Local government officials back that up. “We know who they are and everything they’re doing,” Ma’an governor Ghaleb al-Shamayleh said, adding that Jordan works closely with foreign counterterrorism officials. Salafists are not outlaws, he said, but they are watched. Better to let some extremists speak, especially if they are disagreeing with one another, than to arrest them and drive their followers into unity, he said. “At the end, if your finger hurts, you can cut it off.”

But Shamayleh’s governorate is a reputed hotbed of unrest, known for high crime rates, low employment and anti-government sentiment. Ma’an has had a heavy security presence since April, when violent riots broke out after security forces allegedly killed a 19-year-old civilian. Subsequently, sporadic clashes have been reported as being connected to extremists. At a demonstration in June, protesters marched through the streets waving black flags and shouting anti-government chants.

‘There is a generational split since [IS] came into the spotlight. Young people tend to support [IS], while older jihadists stay with Al-Qaeda.’

Hasan Abu Hanieh

Jordanian political analyst

But Ma’an officials reject talk of extremist influence. “Ma’an has some 60 active extremists at most, and they are divided,” Shamayleh said. “The actual group of fundamentalists is loud but very small.”

Abu Sayyaf, a Salafist well known for sending Jordanian youths to pursue jihad in Syria, likewise dismissed the demonstrations. “They have nothing to do with the Salafists,” he said in a phone call. The black flag-waving youths were “fans of IS,” he said, but not actually part of Salafist organizations. “Propaganda about a Da’ash threat has been exaggerated in Jordan from the beginning,” he said. “Jordan is not a priority. The main jihad now is in Syria and Iraq.”

In the past, protests expressing economic dissatisfaction resulted in allegations of excessive police response. Grievances stem from Ma’an’s riots of 1989, when economic depression sparked violent protests and heavy security interference. Subsequent clashes between locals and security forces, mostly for the same reasons, have been compounded by corruption and misuse of government funds, Shamayleh said.

“The government has made some mistakes,” said Shamayleh, who has been in office for six months. He pointed out the window at a cultural center down the street, surrounded by empty desert. The hulking building cost $10.5 million to build, Shamayleh said of funds that could have been invested elsewhere. “We need economic and social development, not just security. At the same time, the economy can’t grow unless we are stable first.”

Mohammad al-Tawarh, the owner of a shop opposite the courts where clashes often happen, said his store has been closed for months. “People didn’t come because they were afraid of shooting,” he said. “Then my employees left Ma’an.”

Decades of economic woes have spawned illegal drug and weapon trading, stealing and a widespread belief that Jordan’s government is against Ma’an, Shamayleh said.

Khaled al-Fanatsa, a 57-year-old who is active in the demonstrations, echoed the sentiment. “Our new generations hate the government and police,” he said. “A 3-year-old in Ma’an will curse the security forces. This is our ideology now.” Such ideology stems mainly from anger at the police and lack of due process for accused criminals, he said. “There’s no justice here. The police and general security will never go to court.”

“We are not Da’ash,” he added. “Those are Islamic flags, not Da’ash flags. They say Muhammad on them. I’m a religious man, but not an extremist,” Fanatsa said, puffing on a cigarette.

Another cause of Ma’an unrest is tribal identity. Four people were killed during armed clashes at Al-Hussein bin Talal University in April springing not from ideological disagreement but from conflict between Bedouins and non-Bedouins. At the same time, tribal affiliations often seem to overshadow Salafist influence.

“Our youth might say they are sons of Da’ash, but first they are sons of their tribes,” Shamayleh said.

Malik Abdulrahman, a worker at the university, said tribal leaders would not allow Da’ash to take hold in Ma’an. “We would not accept organized terrorism,” he said. “No one wants his sons to go to Syria.”

Senior Jordanian Salafist movement leader Mohammed al-Shalabi, also known as Abu Sayyaf, said the country “is not immune” to chaos next door.
Raad Adayleh/AP

Even if there is no explicit IS presence in Jordan, Abu Hanieh said security depends on keeping Jordan clear of exclusion-driven unrest. “The numbers and percentage of Da’ash are not important,” he said. “In Iraq and Syria people hated the government. They were pushed more and more until their hatred was greater than their fear.”

The IS strategy is rooted in appeal to disenfranchised populations, he said. Iraqi Sunnis, marginalized since the U.S. invasion and excluded by outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s unfair political processes, were drawn to IS rhetoric of representation and justice. “It’s the ideology that they’re resisting oppression,” Abu Hanieh said.

Jordan does not suffer widespread sectarian tension — not to mention that its leader, King Abdullah, is a Sunni — but the IS may take advantage of other demographic divides. “The split here is Palestinian-Jordanian, not Sunni-Shia,” Abu Hanieh said. “They could play that card and push accusations that Jordan is supporting Israel.”

The other danger is with neglected and impoverished youth, Sharif added. “Young people are unemployed, conservative and religious. They could become an incubator for extremist ideas,” he said. “They feel disenfranchised.”

Abdulrahman agreed about the danger to Ma’an. “We want the government to help our youth. They turn to drugs and stealing because they are victims,” he said. “If things become worse, maybe Da’ash will convince them. This is what we are afraid of.”

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