The browser or device you are using is out of date. It has known security flaws and a limited feature set. You will not see all the features of some websites. Please update your browser. A list of the most popular browsers can be found below.
AL-ZARQA, Jordan — In the winter of 2013, Omar Khader was an 18-year-old accounting student who spent his free time hanging out with friends or working part-time at a Popeye’s franchise not far from his house in Al-Zarqa, a conservative desert city in eastern Jordan. Like his father, Zaid, and many others in Jordan, Omar Khader was sympathetic to those trying to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria. “It is never a mistake to defend Muslims from a murderous regime,” Zaid Khader tells Al Jazeera.
But Zaid Khader, an Islamic scholar who runs a religious charity in Al-Zarqa, says he was shocked that day in December when he got a call from his son in Ankara, Turkey. Omar said he had flown there and planned to sneak across the border to join an Al-Qaeda-aligned rebel group, Sham Al-Islam, that he had connected with over Facebook. Zaid Khader blames several individuals for leading his son down this path: the Sham Al-Islam recruiter, “ignorant” clerics who egged his son on by promoting jihad in Syria and the Jordanian government, which initially called for Assad’s downfall and, Zaid Khader says, tacitly encouraged young men to join radical groups to overthrow him. Omar Khader is an “easily influenced boy,” Zaid Khader says, who simply “acted at the wrong time and place.”
Five months later, in May 2014, Zaid Khader got another call, this time from Syria. Omar had become disillusioned and wanted to come home. Khader helped arrange passage back, through Turkey, hoping that authorities would be lenient with his son, as they had been with dozens of other novice jihadis who returned home. But while Omar had been off fighting, the Jordanian parliament, reflecting its increasing anxiety about the prospect of hardened Al-Qaeda and ISIL fighters melting back into its towns and cities, had passed tough new counterterrorism law. All of a sudden, authorities began to arrest any Jordanian who had fought in Syria, expanding the definition of “terrorism” to include any act meant to “create sedition,” “harm property” or “jeopardize international relations” and doling out steep punishment for acts of terrorism, ranging from 10 years in prison to the death penalty.
At least 120 of Jordan’s returned fighters have met this fate, and Omar Khader — who, his father says, was little more than a glorified “taxi driver” for Sham Al-Islam, shuttling fighters around battles in the Latakia countryside — was among the first. He was intercepted at the airport after landing in Jordan, convicted by a military court a few months later of joining a terrorist organization and sentenced to five years in prison. Every Sunday for the past year, Zaid Khader and his wife have filled their car up with gas to make the 70-mile drive through the desert to visit Muwaqqar prison, where Omar has been held since his arrest. On his cell walls, he has drawn a picture of Mickey Mouse, Zaid Khader says. “Why is the government so afraid of him?” He sends a warning not just to other families but also to governments across the region: “My son is no extremist. But five years in prison will only push him toward that. Maybe he will hate the regime, the state, the Arab world, all of it. This is a mistake.”
Foreign fighters are an old problem for Jordan, whose nationals have long held top positions among Al-Qaeda leadership and fought in insurgencies from Iraq to Afghanistan and Chechnya. The group actively recruits young men from marginalized, hot-spot towns like Al-Zarqa, the hometown of Al-Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Apart from a string of hotel bombings that struck Amman in 2005, however, these fighters have rarely targeted Jordan itself.
But the scale of Jordan’s current foreign fighter crisis is unprecedented. The country shares about 375 miles of its border — one-third of its total — with Syria and Iraq, and more than 2,000 Jordanians have crossed it to join groups like the Nusra Front, (Al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). While the trickle of foreign fighters into these countries from the West raises alarms in Europe and a similar debate about how to prosecute them if they return, Jordan has provided the highest per capita rate of foreign fighters of any country in the world. For comparison, Belgium, the center of Western recruiting for ISIL, has sent to Syria and Iraq about 40 fighters per million people. Jordan has sent over 315 per million.
“It is really in the eye of the storm,” says Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics and the author of a forthcoming book on ISIL, which is also known as ISIS. “There’s a lot of support among the jihadist infrastructure in Jordan, and Jordanian officials are terrified that ISIS could send fighters back to join sleeper cells” or plot attacks. “The state is striking hard to send the message to both fighters and their families that they are not welcome back.”
Critics say the Jordanian government helped create this problem. As early as 2011, King Abdullah was calling for Assad to resign, and Jordanian clerics began issuing official and unofficial fatwas declaring the Syrian dictator a fascist and an infidel. Many young men interpreted this as tacit approval for taking up arms in Syria. “These jihadists felt the Jordanian regime wanted them to go,” says Hassan Abu Hanieh, the author of several books on religious movements in Jordan and a self-declared former jihadist. “They thought they would become respected fighters but returned to find they’re terrorists.”
In the early days of the Syrian rebellion, hundreds of young men moved freely across the Jordanian border to join the fight against Assad. Hanieh says that Jordan and fellow Sunni regional allies, including Saudi Arabia, thought that by allowing a wave of radicalized youth into Syria, it could both help get rid of Assad and improve social stability at home. “They thought it was possible to control this current,” Hanieh says. “They also thought it would get rid of them.”
Once it became clear that radical rebel groups like ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra were running the rebel show in Syria, Jordan did an about-face. It shuttered its borders and launched a parallel crackdown on Islamist and Salafist factions in the country, which, analysts says, the government has long felt threatened by. In recent months, Jordanian authorities have arrested dozens of Salafist political leaders and several dozen imams for delivering sermons in mosques or spouting rhetoric they deem slanderous or threatening to national security. In Ma’an, an impoverished southern backwater city where ISIL flags are periodically flown from the tops of buildings, disaffected residents accuse Jordanian security forces of unwarranted arrests and other violations.
Analysts warn that this brand of security crackdown is a dangerous game, especially if largely peaceful Salafist groups or individuals feel they are being conflated with armed groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIL and oppressed. Even those close to the government acknowledge shortcomings in Amman’s handling of the crisis. “You can’t arrest people forever,” says Nabil Sharif, a former government minister. “The military solution will not solve the problem. This is an ideological war, first and foremost. And in spite of the rhetoric, very little has been done on that front.”
But the greater fear, Abu Hanieh says, is that locking up returned fighters together will turn angry young men into ticking time bombs. “Prisons are the main incubator for jihad in the Arab world,” he says, noting that most of Jordan’s pre-eminent radical fighters spent time in infamous sites such as Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and Bagram or in lesser-known Jordanian prisons. “Most of those who went to fight in Syria, they have no background in extremism. They’re 17- or 18-year-old kids, not career fighters.” But after five or 10 years in prison, where rights groups say torture is commonplace, “they become angry and convinced their enemy is near rather than far.” Often, he says, their rage can be redirected at the government that put them there — a worrying prospect considering the scale of Jordan's foreign fighter crisis.
Families of returned fighters say that authorities should consider lighter prison sentences for some of them and focus on integrating them back into their communities. They say rehabilitation programs in Jordan’s prisons are inadequate and hampered by the fact that they are run by authorities rather than local community leaders. For someone like Omar Khader, an acute sense of hopelessness — one of the main drivers of radicalization, analysts say — will set in, said Abu Hanieh. “His life is over," he says. "This is the case with most of these guys in the prime of their lives. They miss out on education and work, for what? There is nothing in prison.”