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.

Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
Sweet tweet: Victoria Beckham’s selfie, taken on her 40th birthday on Thursday
voices... and her career-long attack on the absurd criteria by which we define our 'betters', by Ellen E Jones
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
Brand said he
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit