Vol. 5, No. 25 May 25, 2006
The elusiveness of a unifying Jordanian identity now provides a window of opportunity for the jihadists, for whom Jordan is to be the “Land of Mobilization and Fortitude” – the staging ground for the liberation of Palestine and the destruction of Israel. Alienated Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin (who form the majority of the population according to most estimates) will always be vulnerable to an agenda that politically agitates for a return to the Palestinian homeland through armed struggle.
For an increasing number of Palestinians, Hamas has ceased to be militant enough, and they will seek out an alternative organization through which to channel their militancy. This trend will probably be mirrored among Palestinians in Jordan as well, with many finding their way to al-Qaeda, or setting up home-grown and organizationally-independent (and thus harder to track) al-Qaeda affiliates.
There is a historical precedent for this: young Palestinian Muslim Brothers – such as Abu Iyad, Yasser Arafat, and Abu Jihad – left the organization to train and fight under the auspices of new groups like Fatah in the 1960s that gave vent to their militancy.
The convergence of the “global jihad,” conducted by organizations such as al-Qaeda, with the concept of “local jihad,” that was the niche of homegrown militants such as Hamas, is something of a homecoming for the traditional presence of Palestinians within the ranks of Islamic extremists fighting far beyond their borders. Palestinians now have the opportunity to serve their own cause – the convenience of being a “good” global jihadist and a “good” Palestinian nationalist both at once.
Zarqawi has vowed to cut off the head of King Abdullah II. The Iraq phase has taught many Palestinians and Jordanians fighting skills, who may have returned to Jordan. Today, these experienced elements pose the most direct threat to Jordan’s security.
What is a Jordanian?
Jordan does not enjoy a compelling historical narrative about its inception, for it was a country first conceived upon a map by a bureaucrat armed with a pencil and ruler. A portion of Jordan’s borders follow geographical realities: the Yarmouk River in the north and the Jordan River and Wadi Araba in the west. Otherwise, most of what demarcates Jordan from Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia is a series of straight lines across unforgiving deserts.
The Hashemite ruling family – and the British colonialists who “designed” Jordan before them – had hoped to turn this piece of Middle East real estate into a sovereign country. The Hashemites harbored further ambitions for enlargement into Syria and Palestine, retrieving the Hijaz, or seeking a union with a pre-1958 Hashemite Iraq. Somehow, this make-believe territory of Jordan was never enough as a stand-alone nation, but after over eight decades since its first inception as the Arab Emirate of Transjordan, a period that saw the annexation and then loss of the West Bank, massive demographic changes with the arrival of successive waves of Palestinian refugees, and endless regional crisis and internal challenges, the Hashemites have had to make do with their lot. Understandably, within these borders and throughout this history, a distinctive feeling of Jordanian identity, sprouting from the notions of patriotism and citizenship, has failed to coalesce.
Jordan as a Staging Ground for the Destruction of Israel
The elusiveness of a unifying Jordanian identity now provides a window of opportunity for the jihadists who seek another raison d’etre for Jordan’s borders and history: it is to be the “Land of Mobilization and Fortitude” (Ard al-Hashdi wal-Rabat) – the staging ground for the liberation of Palestine and the destruction of Israel.1 Therefore, the “usefulness” of Jordan is to provide an opportunity for jihadists such as the Jordanian terrorist, Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi, to transfer the fight from the various battles being waged around the world to what they have traditionally called “The Direction of Delayed Jihad” (Qiblet al-Jihad al-Mu’ejjel) in Palestine. Zarqawi claimed in a recent video release, “We fight in [Iraq] but our eyes are on Jerusalem.”
But for that to happen, the Hashemites and their reasonably secure intelligence and military apparatuses would have to be overthrown, or at least weakened by a campaign of mayhem and chaos to the point at which they lose control over some portion of their territory from which the jihadists can launch attacks on Israel – a strategy followed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) prior to September 1970. By that measure, it appears that the Zarqawi branch of al-Qaeda is aiming to create a ring of chaos around Israel in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and the Sinai, as well as Jordan.
Zarqawi and the Amman Bombings
Yet, even if there is an identity void in Jordan, what indicators are there that the extremism of Zarqawi would be welcome among Jordanians? A feature story appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper in August 2005 that described the “legendary status” of Zarqawi even among the Western-educated elite. He was something of a “popular hero” among the youth, who were enamored of the fact that one of their own had been propelled to such international prominence in the “struggle” against the American “occupiers” in Iraq. The article suggested that a combination of poverty, corruption, and lack of democracy contributed to the gradual but perceptible movement of Jordanian society toward extremism.2 The same newspaper in February 2006 highlighted the popularity of songs and video CDs glorifying the “resistance” to foreign occupation in both Iraq and Palestine that included footage of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operations against Israeli targets, and titles such as “The Battle of Fallouja.” These were briskly sold in downtown Amman, despite recurrent government raids aimed at confiscating them.3 In the time interval between these two features, Zarqawi struck at his home country.
On November 9, 2005, Zarqawi’s organization attacked three hotels in Amman, killing and maiming scores of Jordanians. Public outcry over the Amman attacks found expression in spontaneous demonstrations and vigils, as well as palpable Jordanian anger voiced through the local and foreign press. Zarqawi’s tribe, the Bani Hassan, disowned him and called for his blood. It was even suggested that the tide of extremism had turned in Jordanian society, evidenced by such unexpected outcomes as the inability of the Muslim Brotherhood’s “hawks” to get elected to the Shura Bureau during internal elections held in February 2006.4
Even Zarqawi was compelled to respond in a widely circulated audio recording justifying his actions. He claimed that he was not targeting civilians, and that the targets were actually Jordanian, Israeli, American, Iraqi, and Palestinian Authority intelligence officers meeting at those hotels at the time and using them as secure stations for their operations. He claimed to know this because members of his organization had reconnoitered the hotels for two months before attacking.5 Zarqawi tried to show his Jordanian bona fides by listing all the civilian targets which he did not target, such as Amman’s Safeway or the Hashemite Square, as evidence that he meant no harm to civilians. He continued by citing U.S. press reports that claimed that Jordan’s General Directorate for Intelligence (GID) had surpassed Israel’s Mossad as America’s most effective counter-terrorism ally in the Middle East, and that Jordanian cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had grown closer in hunting down terrorists since the attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York City and the Pentagon.
However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the internal resentments Jordanian citizens harbor against each other and against the ruling Hashemites would far eclipse the backlash against Zarqawi and his brand of extremism. Jordan is riveted by tension between those of Palestinian or West Bank origins, and those of “native” East Bank credentials. Furthermore, even though Amman looks prosperous on the surface, Jordanians are mindful that only the affluent neighborhoods of West Amman – the ones that visitors and tourists get to see – are doing well, but that East Amman and the majority of the country’s urban centers are in deep stagnation.
Since ascending to the throne, King Abdullah II has tried to develop a unifying sense of Jordanian identity to deflect those political, social, and economic tensions, but has failed in large measure to give most Jordanians a sense of ownership in their country’s destiny. “King Hussein never veered far away from Arabism in expressing Jordan’s identity,” says Salameh Nematt, the Jordanian bureau chief of Al-Hayat in Washington, D.C., “but his son, Abdullah, has tried to play up a Jordanian identity through the ‘Jordan First’ public relations campaign, but failed to give his people a stake in the country. There is this sense of malaise and disenfranchisement in the country, especially among the Palestinians, who feel that political reforms in the direction of equal rights and responsibilities is mere rhetoric, and does not amount to facts on the ground.”
Thus, alienated Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin (who form the majority of the population according to most estimates) will always be vulnerable to an agenda that politically agitates for a return to the Palestinian homeland through armed struggle, especially in light of the failure of peace initiatives.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan
Such a drawing point is not something new to the traditional Islamist platform in Jordan as characterized by the rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood. Historically, the Brotherhood made its first radical forays into politics after it was spurred into action by the Palestinian issue in the late 1940s, but remained loyal to the Hashemite throne during the Nasserist challenge of 1957 and the PLO’s bid for supremacy in 1970.6 Even though it strives to keep an East Bank face to its leadership,7 the Muslim Brotherhood has always put Palestine at the top of its rhetorical agenda. Recently, its newly elected general supervisor, Salim Falahat, an East Bank Jordanian from Madaba, said: “[Our] relationship with Palestine is special. Jordan and Palestine, historically speaking, form a single area. The blood is mixed here and there. And the sacrifices of the East Jordanians on Palestine’s soil are no less than the sacrifice of Palestinians on Palestine’s soil….We in Jordan believe that the enemy is one….Distinguishing between Jordan and Palestine is an arduous task and it is difficult for it to happen and no one can reach that point. The intermingling and intertwining are too great.”8
Furthermore, the long tenure of the “hawkish” wing at the helm of the Muslim Brotherhood contributed to a general trend towards more extreme positions, thus mirroring some of the fanatical stances generally attributed to the jihadists. One such posture is the adoption by the former deputy general supervisor, Humam Said, of Seyyid Qutub’s ideas on hakimiyya – the illegitimacy of any state or form of government if not guided by the laws of shari’a. This is particularly relevant in viewing how the hawks understand the sovereignty of Jordan in an Islamic context, or as Said put it, “The nation state is a disease and is not a healthy matter….The foreigner manufactured these borders and drew them, and this imported measure must disappear, and with this line we represent the conscience of the ummah.“9
Given the looming presence of Palestinian affairs over Jordan and specifically its Islamists, the Hamas victory in the January elections has put further strain on the Muslim Brotherhood and its various and conflicting loyalties. In one sense, they are expected by the bulk of their constituency to stand by an isolated sister organization that has become an international pariah after forming the new PA government, and in another sense, Hamas is seen as a sell-out by an increasingly disillusioned radical wing. This latter trend has been growing in strength since Hamas’ offer of a cease-fire in June 2003, which incensed many in its militant wing, the Izzeddin al-Qassam Brigades, fueling speculation that al-Qaeda’s alternative vision and methods would be welcomed among these disgruntled militants.
Al-Qaeda in Gaza
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has already publicly warned of an embryonic al-Qaeda organization that may be active in Gaza.10 New hitherto unknown groups have recently emerged (albeit in leaflet form) with menacing names like The Army of Jihad and the Deflection of Corruption (Jaish al-Jihad wa Rada’a al-Fasad) and The Al-Quds Islamic Army – Al-Qaeda Organization (Jaish al-Quds Al-Islami – Tandheem al-Qaeda), vowing fealty to Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri, and Zarqawi, but they are not known to be operationally active.11 One such organization that has emerged, calling itself the Jerusalem Brigades of Palestine (Kata’ib Beit al-Maqdis fi Filesteen), claimed responsibility for firing mortars at a Jewish neighborhood in southern Jerusalem.12
What is clear is that for an increasing number of Palestinians, Hamas has ceased to be militant enough, and they will seek out an alternative organization through which to channel their militancy. This trend will probably be mirrored among Palestinians in Jordan as well, with many finding their way to al-Qaeda, or setting up home-grown and organizationally-independent (and thus harder to track) al-Qaeda affiliates.
There is a historical precedent for this: young Palestinian Muslim Brothers – such as Abu Iyad, Yasser Arafat, and Abu Jihad – left the organization to train and fight under the auspices of new groups like Fatah in the 1960s that gave vent to their militancy.13 At the time, Fatah even set up a camp for the Islamists north of the Jordanian town of Irbid that was aptly called the Sheikhs’ Camp, where Abdullah Azzam trained in his early jihadist career.14 Interestingly, even Hamas has spotted the trend and one of its leaders, Younis al-Astel, recently warned that “a new Zarqawi would emerge in Palestine” if his party’s cabinet fails to govern.15
The convergence of the “global jihad,” conducted by organizations such as al-Qaeda, with the concept of “local jihad,” that was the niche of homegrown militants such as Hamas, is something of a homecoming for the traditional presence of Palestinians within the ranks of Islamic extremists fighting far beyond their borders. The Lebanese writer Hazim al-Amin published two features in Al-Hayat where he perceptively discussed the odd phenomenon whereby Palestinians became “the radical fuel for most of the Islamic movements in which they joined starting with Egypt through Jordan and finally in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Iraq” – but not predominantly in Palestine. Al-Amin begins with the career of Salih Sarriya turning radical in Egypt in the mid-1970s, and ends by highlighting the prominence of the “new stars” of the post-Afghanistan jihadists such as their chief ideologues: ‘Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), ‘Umar Muhammad ‘Uthman Abu ‘Umar (Abu Qutadah al-Filisteeni), and ‘Umar Yusuf Juma’a (Abu Anes al-Shami).16 The implication is that Palestinians have served distant causes well, and now have the opportunity to serve their own – the convenience of being a “good” global jihadist and a “good” Palestinian nationalist both at once.
Zarqawi’s changing strategy of moving the fight to Israel’s doorstep would thus further compel alienated Palestinians in the diaspora and militants in Gaza and the West Bank to throw in their lot with him. His claim of responsibility for the December 2005 attack on Kiryat Shmona that involved firing ten Russian-made GRAD missiles from southern Lebanon (as claimed in an Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia statement released on several jihadist websites) came a month after the Amman attacks and were probably – in his mind at least – the opening salvo in a new front against Israel.17
Zarqawi has vowed to cut off the head of King Abdullah II, and even though Zarqawi is an East Banker,18 he seems not to mind that Jordan’s relevance will be subsumed as part of the anti-Israel phase of jihad. For the time being, the Iraq phase has taught many Palestinians and Jordanians fighting skills, who may have returned to Jordan, notwithstanding the watchful eyes of the GID. Today, these experienced elements pose the most direct threat to Jordan’s security, and their increasing numbers, as well as geographical proximity to Iraq, will further stress the capabilities of local law enforcement and intelligence services to keep up with their movements.19
Yet again, Jordan seems poised to witness a battle between those loyal to the Hashemite throne and to its own unique national character, and those who express loyalty to the cause of liberating Palestine. However, this time around, the liberation of Palestine would be coached within the larger goals of jihad and the resurrection of the caliphate. With the triple promise of martyrdom, Jerusalem, and Islamic glory, many of Jordan’s alienated youth, spurned by a political system that refuses to assimilate them as equals and an economic monopoly wary of sharing wealth, will turn to Zarqawi. This could be the gravest challenge yet to the Hashemites, and its success would further rupture the tattered fabric of stability throughout the Middle East. It is a struggle between Jordan’s sovereignty and the jihadist fantasy of turning that country into the “Land of Mobilization and Fortitude.”
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1. The “Land of Mobilization and Fortitude” label has long been the Islamist designation for Jordan, notably among the “hawkish” wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. See the speech given by the former deputy general supervisor, Humam Said, on September 17, 2004, www.ikhwan-jor.org/ikhwannews/hamam.htm. The term derives from a tradition weakly attributed to the Prophet Muhammad about the “End of Days.”
2. Rana Sabbagh, “Diraseh amreekiya taduq naqoos…,“Al-Hayat, August 1, 2005.
3. Fadwa al-Dabbagh, “Inti’ash aswaq aljihadiyeen fi ‘amman youqidh…,” Al-Hayat, February 15, 2006.
4. Nabil Gheishan, “Intikhabat ikhwan alurden tudhher taraju’…,” Al-Hayat, February 19, 2006.
5. Zarqawi even claimed that Azzam Azzam, the Israeli-Druze “spy,” used to lounge around the Grand Hyatt Hotel waiting to meet his Mossad paymasters (minute 10:15 on audio recording). However, Azzam was arrested in Cairo in November 1996, while the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Amman (one of the three establishments that were bombed) was not built until 1998.
6. Mishari Al-Dhayedi, “Alikhwan almuslimoon wel ‘arsh alhashimi…,” Asharq Alawsat, October 9, 2005.
7. Mishari Al-Dhayedi, “Ahadeeth urdeniya fi alusooliya wel siyaseh…,” Asharq Alawsat, October 10, 2005. Al-Dhayedi quotes Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian Ali Abul-Sukker giving the breakdown of the Brotherhood’s Political Bureau at the time as five East Bankers and two Palestinians. The most recent composition of the Political Bureau (since February 2006) is probably six East Bankers and one Palestinian, based on the brief biographies on the movement’s official website.
8. “Almuraqib al’aam lil jama’a fil urdun yenteqid…,” Al-Hayat, April 20, 2006. Ali Abu al-Sukker also said, “The Palestinian issue has its special category among Jordan’s Brothers because of demography, geography, and religion.” See “Ahadeeth urduniya fil usuliya wel siyassa…,” Asharq Alawsat, October 10, 2005.
10. Ghassan Sherbil, “Abbas lil hayat mu’eshirat ila wujood alqaeda…,” Al-Hayat, March 2, 2006.
11. Fathi Sabbah, “Ishtibakat fath wa hamas…,” Al-Hayat, May 9, 2006, and “Majmou’a gheir ma’aroofeh tumhil…,” Al-Hayat, March 3, 2006.
12. Salih al-Na’ami, “Bayan mansoob bi isim jaish…,” Asharq Alawsat, March 5, 2006.
13. “Alikhwan almuslimoon fil urden wa…,” Asharq Alawsat, October 9, 2005.
14. Hazim Al-Amin, “Alqaeda weselet illa aldhifa algharbieh wel qita’…,” Al-Hayat, April 4, 2006.
15. “Zarqawi filisteeni qad yadhher idha…,” Al-Hayat, April 16, 2006.
16. Hazim Al-Amin, “Alqaeda weselet illa aldhifa algharbieh wel qita’…,” Al-Hayat, April 4, 2006. It is interesting that Barqawi and Juma’a, along with the Hamas’ politburo chief Khalid Mesha’al, share the experience of being expelled from Kuwait after the Gulf War, and having to move to Jordan. It may be suggested that their exaggerated militancy was proportional to their lack of an established association with Jordan.
17. Zarqawi’s alleged plan for the “encirclement” of Israel with a ring of chaos from southern Lebanon to the Sinai was first discussed by Abdel-Rahman ‘Ali in an op-ed in Asharq Alawsat on March 11, 2006.
18. Zarqawi, whose real name is Ahmad Fadheel Nazzal al-Khalayleh, is of the Khalayleh subsection of the Khawaldeh clan of the Bani Hleil sub-tribe of the Bani Hassan tribe. An interesting supposition as to his lack of East Bank “loyalty” to the Hashemite throne and to Jordan as a country is the assertion that “some of the Khalayleh clan have long been influenced by Wahhabism, and many men of this section of the clan do not wear the ‘uqal and do not smoke.” See Mishari al-Dhayedi in Asharq Alawsat, October 13, 2005.
19. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the three men shown on Jordanian TV as members of the recently exposed “Hamas cell” all had links to the jihad in Iraq: one whose brother had died in the fighting in Iraq, another who had served alongside the deceased brother, and a third who had traveled to Al-Qa’im to purchase weapons. See Nabil Gheishan, “‘Itiqalat fi sufoof alislamiyeen alurduniyeen…,” Al-Hayat, May 12, 2006. Furthermore, two long-time Syrian residents of Jordan who had fought in Iraq, and whose father was a Muslim Brotherhood refugee from Syria, seem to have been the principal plotters in the attack on a U.S. Navy frigate in the port of Aqaba on September 9, 2005. See Nabil Gheishan, “Khaliyet da’am logistic harebet…,” Al-Hayat, March 15, 2006.
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Nibras Kazimi, an Iraqi writer, is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.