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Jordan: How Close to Danger?
Jordan: How Close to Danger?
Report 47 / Middle East & North Africa

Jordan's 9/11: Dealing with Jihadi Islamism

The horrifying 9 November 2005 suicide attacks against three hotels in Amman – with a toll of 60 dead and over 100 wounded – drove home two important messages.

Executive Summary

The horrifying 9 November 2005 suicide attacks against three hotels in Amman -- with a toll of 60 dead and over 100 wounded -- drove home two important messages. No security apparatus, however efficient, can prevent each and every attack by a person prepared to die as they kill others. And any security response must be complemented by a genuine opening of the political system and more equally shared economic opportunity if Jordan is to minimise the risk of further attacks and instability.

In the identity of their perpetrators and the background of their apparent mastermind, the attacks spoke volumes about Jordan's predicament. They were carried out by Iraqis, who were angered by events in their country, had arrived in the Kingdom only days earlier and chose America's close ally in the region as the target for their revenge. And they reportedly were masterminded by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadi commander fighting in Iraq who elicits a measure of domestic sympathy insofar as he gives voice to popular hostility toward U.S. policy and alienation toward the country's Westernised elite.

Feeding on disaffection with a government that has failed to address basic needs and maintains an unpopular alliance with the U.S., violent Islamist militants have flourished of late. As in most other Middle East and North African countries, the victorious return of those who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan led to the creation of a domestic jihadi Salafi movement in the early 1990s. Having encouraged the spread of traditional, peaceful Salafism to balance an increasingly Palestine-oriented Muslim Brotherhood, the regime was ill-prepared to deal with the arrival of these radicalised young men who turned Salafism on its head by giving it a violent bent.

The security services at first kept jihadis in check. But over time, their elastic reach and the introduction of more repressive laws generated new frustrations and renewed interest in radical agendas. The last few years in particular have seen growing public criticism of a leadership that allied itself with the West at a time of intense anti-Americanism and failed both to deliver anticipated economic dividends to anyone but the elites and to implement promised political reforms. Lack of representation and participation, combined with a shortage of economic opportunities, fed into a romanticised notion of jihad that has sent a steady trickle of young men across the border to join the fight against the U.S. and its perceived proxies in Iraq. Others, it appears from recent events, remain in Jordan, where they can lay the groundwork for suicide attacks carried out by non-Jordanians who slip across the border and reach their targets before the security services get wind of them.

The hotel attacks produced strong but likely temporary revulsion against jihadi terrorism, and the regime has understandably reacted by announcing tougher security measures, but these cannot suffice and, without other, more proactive steps, may well backfire. Besides anger at U.S. regional policies and the monarchy's acquiescence in them, sympathy for the jihadis has its roots in an overly constricted political system, growing economic inequality, shrinking opportunities and anger at widespread corruption. For years, the regime has promised an ambitious reform program. The time has come for it to implement this at home with the same ardour with which it advertises it abroad. A three-pronged strategy is needed, addressing political, economic and cultural challenges.

Amman/Brussels, 23 November 2005

Jordan: How Close to Danger?

Originally published in The New York Review of Books

Poor Jordan. A small, economically precarious country, it shares a two-hundred-mile border with Syria. Yet unlike Syria’s other neighbors, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon, it rarely gets any attention in the international press. Indeed, while the world focuses on the European Union’s controversial deal with Turkey—in which Ankara has agreed to limit the number of asylum-seekers hoping to reach Greece’s shores in exchange for a lavish foreign aid package from Europe—hardly anything has been said about this crucial American ally on Syria’s southern border. But as I observed on a recent visit, Jordan is struggling to cope with vast numbers of refugees and an alarming rise in extremism. We ignore it at our peril.

On paper, the size of the Syrian influx should have turned Jordan into a basket case. The Hashemite Kingdom has a per capita GDP of just over $5,000, and its official youth unemployment rate is around 30 percent. Though it is about half the size of Oklahoma, it has received perhaps three quarters of a million refugees since the war began—there are some 630,000 registered with the UN, but many more according to the authorities—meaning that Syrians now constitute about a tenth of Jordan’s population of 6.4 million. This is on top of a very large wave of Iraqis who came during the Iraq War a decade ago. How to feed this many, and provide them with potable water? How to school them, and how to employ them, especially when Jordanians themselves have trouble finding work?

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