Jordan seeks to curb flow of fighters to Syria


Amman, Jordan

Strings of lights lit a vacant lot on a cool October night. Waiters served pastries to smiling bearded men as tributes were bellowed from a stage. Decorative banners featured familiar faces: Osama bin Laden and the Jordanian al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The party last week honored a man of more modest renown, an unemployed father of six. To the celebrants, he was a hero nonetheless. Nasser Dalgamouni had carried an AK-47 across the border to Syria and was killed while fighting with an Islamist militia suspected of ties to al-Qaida.

Dalgamouni "was a model for all Muslims," Mohammed Abu Tahawi, a top Islamist militant leader in northern Jordan, told the crowd at the party in Irbid, a city north of this capital. "If we only had a few more Nasser Dalgamounis, we would no longer have Bashar al-Assad."

That rhetoric and journeys such as Dalgamouni's are raising alarm in Jordan and among its Western allies, which have cited the roles being played by Islamists and foreign fighters as a reason not to arm the rebels in Syria. Those fears shot to the forefront Sunday, when Jordan said it arrested 11 Jordanians who were plotting to use weapons procured on Syrian battlefields to attack the U.S. Embassy and other targets in Amman. Later, officials said a Jordanian soldier was killed in a firefight with militants seeking to enter Syria.

Tahawi and other holy-war promoters say that at least 150 Jordanians are fighting in Syria with Jabhat al-Nusra, a militia linked to al-Qaida. Other armed ultraconservative Islamists — known here as Salafist jihadists — have been arrested as Jordan, with U.S. help, tries to buttress a porous 230-mile border with Syria.

The numbers are hardly a game-changer. But as a smaller and weaker neighbor, Jordan fears the prospect of the Syrian war spilling over its borders, concerned that the jihadist forays into Syria could prompt the Assad regime to retaliate against Amman.

Jordan has accepted more than 200,000 Syrian refugees, and King Abdullah II has encouraged Assad to step down. But Jordan has preserved official ties with Damascus, while viewing with apprehension the kinds of cross-border strikes that Syria has launched into Turkey, to the north, and is accused of orchestrating in Lebanon, to the west.

Of equal concern to Jordan's monarchy is that Jordanian jihadists might later deem their own government illegitimate and deserving of overthrow.

"From the experience of Iraq, from the experience of Afghanistan, those people could turn back on Jordan," said Mahmoud Irdaisat, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the King Abdullah II Academy for Defense Studies.

It has happened before. Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who led insurgents affiliated to al-Qaida in next-door Iraq, asserted responsibility for bombings that killed at least 60 people in three Amman hotels in 2005. He was killed by U.S. forces the following year.

And, yet, dealing with Salafist jihadists is delicate for Jordan, which has ceded more political space to them and other opposition groups since protests began during the Arab Spring. Salafists hold regular demonstrations and "martyrs' rallies," like the one in Irbid. Also, the Syrian rebellion has widespread support among the Jordanian public, and, unlike in Iraq — where hundreds of Jordanian jihadists fought the United States — jihadists aim to battle a regime that Jordan itself opposes.

"We respect every citizen's basic rights no matter his ideology, but entering a neighboring country and causing instability is not one of them," government spokesman Samih al-Maaytah said.

Jordan's Salafist jihadists, who say their ultimate goal is to unite Muslims under one Islamic state, complained in interviews about what they called a campaign of harassment and arrests by Jordanian authorities. Mousa Abdullat, an Amman lawyer who represents Salafists, said dozens have been detained without charge.

Salafist leaders said the arrests have only bolstered their conviction that Jordan is a puppet of the United States that is propping up the Syrian regime to prevent an Islamist takeover. In interviews before the alleged bomb plot was announced Sunday, Salafist jihadists insisted that the argument that they might later attack Jordan is propaganda fed by Assad, believed by the West and used by Jordan to persecute Islamists.

"They would never represent a threat to Jordan. It's all scare tactics," said Saad al-Hunity, a top Salafist jihadist leader.

For now, the movement shows little sign of abandoning what leaders call encouragement, not recruitment, of Jordanian Jabhat al-Nusra fighters. In February, Tahawi issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to offer financial and military backing to topple Assad, who he has said was "bought off" by foreign powers to safeguard Israel's security and stability. Tahawi and other leaders hint at sectarian motivations, calling Assad a "God-less," Shiite-backed killer of Sunni Muslims.

And they say volunteers are abundant — not from among the grizzled veterans of campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, but from a new generation of jihadists.

According to one Jordanian who recently fought in Syria, those who commit to the cause raise money from family, other Salafists and Saudi charities to buy provisions and black-market AK-47s. Border smugglers who until recently trafficked in drugs and cigarettes now charge hundreds of dollars to whisk aspiring jihadists across, said the Jordanian, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Walid.

The small but growing flow of fighters has prompted Jordan to double its forces along the border, according to a Jordanian security official who is not authorized to speak to reporters. Those soldiers have been bolstered by a new task force of about 150 U.S. troops that is working with Jordan to monitor Syria's chemical weapons and assist with refugees. The official said that no heavy weapons have been intercepted along the frontier but that it is a concern.

"Right now the Jordanian-Syrian border is our first and last line of defense," the Jordanian official said. Of Syria, he said: "There is a very real concern that if they believe we are failing our mission to secure the borders, they will conveniently do the same," by staging an attack to "set the Jordanian street on fire."

The Jordanian who gave his name as Abu Walid is a towering 38-year-old elementary school teacher who said he had wanted to battle U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan but had been stymied by arrests and jailings. With the Syrian conflict still raging after 19 months, he said, Assad's slaughter of civilians seemed a fresh call to arms, a new chance to "wage jihad" in defense of Islam.

Interviewed last week in his home in a Palestinian refugee camp outside Amman, Abu Walid said he and five other Jordanians traveled in August just across the border to the Syrian city of Daraa. There, he said, they were immediately deployed to fight alongside young Libyans, Yemenis and other Arabs in a ragtag Jabhat al-Nusra brigade. They were untrained and operations were "chaotic," he said.

Abu Walid said he began to agonize over a question that has troubled other Jordanian Salafist jihadists: With no foreign occupation, was this conflict a true jihad?

The Free Syrian Army rebels refused Islamist assistance, he said, and the regime responded to rebel activity with attacks on civilians and their property. He said he wondered whether the jihadists were serving Assad by dividing Syrians.

This month, Abu Walid returned to Jordan. But he said he is by no means dissuading would-be jihadists, who he insisted are no threat to Jordan. He said he tells them only to "follow your heart and follow God."

* Luck reported from Amman and Irbid.

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Danish director Lars von Trier
tvEnglish-language series with 'huge' international cast set for 2016
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

PPA Cover Teachers Required in Doncaster

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Primary PPA Teachers required for wo...

Maths teachers needed for supply work in Ipswich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Maths teachers requir...

Executive Assistant/Events Coordinator - Old Street, London

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Executive Assistant/Event...

Female PE Teacher

£23760 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering