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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. 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.


1. Political measures. The regime should take advantage of its current popular support resulting from outrage at the bombings to:
(a) review laws and decisions that curtail political freedoms and, where necessary amend or — as in the specific case of the draft professional associations law — abandon them;
(b) draft a new electoral law providing a more accurate popular representation; and
(c) form a broader, more inclusive government coalition incorporating opposition tendencies in order to carry out these political reforms and implement the proposed National Agenda, including the long-awaited new electoral law.

2. Economic measures. The regime should expand opportunities for the poor and unemployed to share more fairly and fully in Jordan’s real growth by taking urgent steps to:
(a) remove obstacles to job creation and provide job training and skill building programs;
(b) cushion hardships for the least fortunate;
(c) provide start-up financing and low-cost administrative support for small entrepreneurial efforts; and
(d) attack corruption more strongly.

3. Cultural measures. The regime should seek to drive a wedge between jihadi and non-jihadi Islamists, by acting to:
(a) promote a tolerant version of Islam in all educational institutions;
(b) launch an ideological campaign against fitna (discord) among Muslims; and
(c) provide genuine space for credible, competent, independent preachers and religious teachers who denounce violence — including those who are critical of government policy — to debate Salafi ideologues.


This is the summary of a report by the International Crisis Group. The full document is available at www.crisisgroup.org.