May 3, 2017 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1311

Jordanian Journalists: Hundreds Of Thousands Of Young Jordanians Support ISIS – And The Authorities Aren't Dealing With It

May 3, 2017 | By Z. Harel*
Jordan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1311



The rising number of terror incidents carried out by ISIS-affiliated Jordanian nationals, along with the high numbers of young Jordanians joining Salafi-jihadi organizations that are fighting in Syria and Iraq,[1] have caused great concern in Jordan.

Jordan has recently become a target of many terror attacks. The latest attack took place on December 18, 2016, when a cell of four Jordanian nationals struck a number of targets in the city of Karak; the gunmen fired at a patrol and a security facility in the city, holed up in the 10th-century Karak Crusader castle, and waged an hours-long firefight with Jordanian security forces until they were killed. During the firefight, four security personnel were killed, along with two civilians and a Canadian tourist.[2]A search of the terror cell members' rented apartment in the town of Al-Qatraneh turned up five explosive belts ready for use, and other explosives. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack.[3] The investigation showed that three of the cell members had served prison time for attempting to join the Islamic State (ISIS).[4]

Following the attack, a manhunt was launched to capture wanted men in Karak province, during which four more personnel were killed, along with one wanted man. One of the men arrested acknowledged during interrogation that he was the one who obtained the weapons and funding for the terror cell.[5] Later on, the former commander of Jordan's Public Security Directorate, 'Atef  Al-Saudi, revealed that the cell had planned a large-scale terror operation against several targets in Jordan, to be carried out December 31, 2016.[6]


Explosives found in the terrorists' apartment in Al-Qatraneh. Source: Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 19, 2016.

This attack is one more in a series of terror operations carried out in Jordan in recent years by Jordanians. Previously, in November 2015, a Jordanian army officer opened fire at the Al-Muwaqqar training base near the capital Amman, killing three of his colleagues and three security personnel from the U.S. and South Africa.[7] In March 2016, an ISIS-inspired terror cell was exposed in the refugee camp near Irbid, and a large-scale attack in the planning stages, to be carried out in Jordan, was thwarted.[8] In June 2016, a Salafi-jihadi activist who had adopted ISIS ideology shot to death five members of Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate at the Al-Baq'a refugee camp north of Amman.[9] In February 2017, the U.S. Congressional Research Service published a report citing statistics showing that Jordan held second place, after Tunisia, in the list of states with the highest number of its citizens in ISIS, and that since 2011 some 4,000 Jordanians had gone to join the organization in Syria and Iraq.[10]

Following the Karak events, it has become clear that Jordan is increasing the harshness of punishments for those involved in terror activity. For example, in January and February 2017, Jordanian activists convicted of belonging to ISIS and of disseminating its ideas received longer prison sentences than were previously given for the same offenses. A source in the Jordanian judicial system revealed that the court had chosen to impose harsher sentences to try to fight extremist ideology and terrorism and to increase the element of deterrence.[11] On March 4, 2017, some of the members of the Irbid terror cell and the gunman in the Al-Baq'a refugee camp incident were hanged.[12] Jordanian government spokesman Muhammad Al-Moumini said that the executions were aimed at sending a deterrent message and expressing Jordan's desire to fight terrorism and extremism.[13]

After the Karak terror attack, the Jordanian press published several articles stating that many terror cells were operating in Jordan and that they could no longer be described as "sleeper cells." They added that the ISIS-supporting sector of the population had grown and expanded, and had become active in carrying out attacks. Senior Jordanian journalists warned that the country was not taking the situation seriously – to the point of laxity – and added that if the state did not come up with a serious strategy for tackling it, things would only get worse. Some articles argued that the security apparatus' handling of the phenomenon of young ISIS sympathizers was insufficient, and that there was a need for ideological and moral reform, and for developing a moderate religious discourse. At the same time, the press also published articles advocating execution for those convicted of terrorism, and stated that such harsh punishment would constitute deterrence.

This report will review the discussions in the Jordanian press on this matter. 

Al-Ghad Editor-In-Chief: There Are Active Terrorist Cells In Jordan, But Authorities Are Lax In Dealing With Them

Jumanah Ghanimat, editor-in-chief of the daily Al-Ghad, argued that there are terrorist cells in Jordan inspired by takfiri ideology, and called for combatting extremism by reforming values and ideology. She wrote: "The dangers Jordan faces from takfiri ideology are real and visible, [so the attack] in Karak is not surprising... In truth, these are not 'sleeper cells,' as they are often called, but rather 'active cells' that plan and constantly seek to terrorize, murder, and destroy society's ideology and values... This danger is spreading, and this is well known.

"However, what is even worse is that this is being dealt with using traditional means, which often border on leniency or laxity. Jordan has withstood this test as well, but this reminds us that 2016 saw more than one terrorist incident. There are no assurances that this won't happen again, seeing as how public opinion polls show that hundreds of thousands of people in our society are sympathetic to this stream, even subconsciously. This requires [us] to begin a long process of reforming our ideology and values."[14]

Senior Journalist: Terrorist Brigades Will Move Freely Among Us

Senior Al-Ghad writer Fahd Al-Khitan warned about what Jordan could face when young people who left to join ISIS return to the country, and called for "paralyzing these savage brigades and uprooting them from society." He wrote: "The small circle of terrorists killed during the incident at Karak Castle or apprehended during the investigation includes some who fought with ISIS and returned to Jordan, or some who tried to join the group but were arrested. No fewer than 400 Jordanian young people in both these categories are currently in Jordanian prisons, and their numbers are only expected to increase... Hundreds of Jordanians are currently fighting with ISIS, and it is not inconceivable that they are considering returning to Jordan, especially if Mosul and Al-Raqqa are liberated from the organization's control.

"According to current legal procedures, anyone [who left to join ISIS and] returns to Jordan will be prosecuted; this has happened, and is still happening, with their [returning] comrades, among them members of the Al-Qatraneh terrorist cell [that carried out the Karak attack]. Two or even five years [later,] they will be released from prison and once again engage in their terrorist activities.

"This is what happened to most of those who were prosecuted for being members of or joining terrorist organizations in Syria, and to the extremists who are currently out of prison, of whom there are no fewer than 500. If we add to that the hundreds [predicted] to return from Syria, who are highly skilled fighters, we will have terrorist brigades moving freely in society...

"The recent developments are a warning sign for the future, unless we immediately formulate a new strategy to deal with the threats on our doorstep – and, too, formulate a comprehensive method to paralyze these savage brigades and uproot them from society."[15]

Educator: Many Jordanians Feel That Governments Tolerate The Hotbeds Of Terrorism

Zulikha Abu Risha, a journalist, educator, and columnist for Al-Ghad, implicitly accused successive Jordanian governments of tolerating religious extremism in society – thus allowing hotbeds of terrorism to spring up. She discussed whether any lesson would be learned from the events in Karak: "Against the backdrop of the serious and despicable crime in Karak, outraged social media users have accused [successive Jordanian] governments' long-term tolerance towards the hotbeds of terrorism... Social networks have condemned the governments, and some state institutions, for the tolerance that they showed in dealing with these hotbeds, where violence against the state in the name of Islam is incited... [Users on] these [social] networks also condemned the dangerous role that has been played by propagandists and preachers in mosques, as well as in religious associations, youth camps, schools and universities, satellite TV channels, and social media.

"Now there is a new trend: Under the watchful eye of the Education Ministry, schools invite young propagandists to teach the [next] generation memorization of everything that requires the elimination of the mind, and inculcate obedience. No one invites authors, poets, pundits, musicians, and artists, who will ask questions and cultivate brainstorming. While scientific research in other countries is at its peak, some of our universities offer lectures for the general public dealing with demons, spells, and other such nonsense. What is catastrophic is that all this is done in the name of Islam! ...

"Can we learn [a lesson] from the red card that the crime in Karak has held up to us all? Is it possible?"[16]

Expert On Islamist Groups: ISIS Supporters In Jordan Once Provided Ideological Support To Action; The State's Handling Of The Situation Is Superficial And Ineffective; We Must Strengthen The Moderate Religious Discourse

Following the Karak attack, Muhammad Abu Rumman, a researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan who specializes in Islamist groups and is also a columnist for Al-Ghad, wrote in a series of columns about a turning point among some ISIS supporters in Jordan – as marked by the evolution of shows of support for ISIS to actual terrorist activity. Calling for reexamining the methods for dealing with ISIS supporters before it is too late, he noted: "There is a worrying change among ISIS circles [in Jordan]... manifested by a move from supporting, sympathizing with, and agreeing ideologically with ISIS to action by groups and cells that directly serve the organization's agenda... Part of this group of ISIS supporters and sympathizers, which once limited itself to the philosophical, informational, and ideological levels, has now moved on to the practical level. This does not necessarily require direct orders or guidance [from ISIS], but only believing in the group's ideas, in accordance with [its] new action dynamic, and carrying out 'lone wolf' or 'sleeper cell' [terrorist] operations... It is important to thoroughly understand these signs and developments, in a way that will trigger a change in how [we] tackle the challenge of terrorism and extremism..."[17]

In a follow-up column, Abu Rumman stated: "We cannot settle for the security approach alone in tackling [extremism]... The approach [we take] requires protecting the younger generation from falling into the trap of extremism, and, later, into the trap of terrorism. This is a challenge that the state has begun to address, but its steps are still slow, superficial, and ineffective. On the other hand, there is a need to assess our strategies and methods of addressing those who have [already] been ensnared by the organization [ISIS]. We are talking about thousands of youths... How will we take care of them?!

"The important question is: Is prison alone sufficient? I think the complete opposite. Also, the current plan of dialogue in prisons is weak and ineffective. Even worse is the possibility that prisons will become centers for recruiting, training, teaching, and indoctrinating members of the organization – as is already happening, especially among the newer [recruits] – instead of being rehabilitation centers.

"If the events of Karak pass and we do not learn from them and ponder the question of how to deal with the important challenges and questions they pose, we will have made a grave error. These people carry the attributes of an ISIS society, which includes families. The fear is that tomorrow we will face women and children who have joined this ideology, as has happened in other societies and countries.

"The national plan to fight terrorism is unconvincing, and the efforts [in this direction] that are currently invested in the cultural, social, and civil areas are not serious. This makes the danger that many young people will fall into the trap [of extremism] a real concern."[18]

In a third column, Abu Rumman wrote: "We must redefine the phenomenon itself, since we are discussing a phenomenon with two aspects – sociopolitical and religious-cultural-ideological – and we must address both. Regarding the first [sociopolitical] aspect, it is vital not to isolate the issue of the young people from the political, social, and cultural circumstances... [and it is vital] to create the political and social conditions and atmosphere that are needed to develop a culture of moderation instead of one of extremism...

"It is important to develop the public space, which in recent decades has been pushed aside, and has collapsed. There should be informal activities in schools and universities to strengthen civil society and its role in incorporating young people [into society], and sports and youth clubs and so on should be bolstered.

"On the religious-cultural level... we must strengthen the linchpins of enlightenment and moderate religious discourse, strengthen the modern understanding of Islam, and cultivate independent national religious leaders – whether by formulating an independent and reliable view of official religious institutions and esteeming these institutions, or by conducting dialogue with moderate Islam and providing opportunities and platforms for it in the media and political arenas.

"The most important thing is to reexamine the strategy of dealing with those involved in [terrorist] activities, classify them by [social] stratum and group, and provide them with a 'exit point.' through which they can rebuild their lives and break free of the chains of extremist culture.

"Extremism, terrorism, and violence are a system of views related to frustration, disappointment, nihilism, and religious stagnation. We face a long and arduous historic task, but it is a necessary 'rescue mission' for the coming generation and societies."[19]

Journalist: We Have Not Taken The Necessary Steps To Deal With The Extremism That Is The Source Of Terrorism; Executing Terrorists Will Deter Terrorist Supporters

Al-Dustour columnist Hussein Al-Rawashdeh addressed a report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service that cited data on the number of Jordanians who joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Al-Rawashdeh contended that Jordan has not taken the necessary steps to deal with extremism, even though this is easier than dealing with its results. He wrote: "If 4,000 Jordanians have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq since 2011... then how many have joined other organizations like Jabhat Al-Nusra? And more importantly, how many of the extremists who identify with these organizations have remained in our country?... As part of diagnosing [the problem], we must admit that we have environments that produce and export extremism. These environments... have one thing in common, which is the extremism that can suddenly become terrorism, and this raises questions regarding the way we have chosen to handle [this problem, questions] that require clear and decisive answers...

"[In this context] we made two mistakes: First, we have not established centers to monitor extremist ideology in order to map it and examine its trends and the ways it attracts and recruits [people], and how it hides and spreads; and we have not unlocked the mystery of the methods used by [those who preach] this ideology, the groups [in society] it targets, and the tools it uses. The second mistake was not presenting convincing answers and narratives in order to debunk the ideas [of extremist ideology] and then deal with it...

"We have not taken the necessary steps to deal with the phenomenon of extremism, as we did to deal with terrorism, despite the fact that extremism is the chief producer of all terrorist actions, and despite the fact that nipping it in the bud is easier and more promising than dealing with its results. In fact, not only were the policies and tools we adopted to deal with extremism inadequate; sadly, they have actually increased extremism, simply because they were unconvincing and were not closely examined."[20]

One month earlier, Al-Rawashdeh wrote about Jordan's execution of several terrorists and the message this execution sent: "Condemning those involved in terrorism and holding them to account have become necessary, not just for the victory of justice and law, but also to prove that the country is serious about dealing with this threat that assaults our society and about blocking the path for those who identify with [terrorism]... Among the stern messages sent by the country with this wave of executions was a warning to terrorist organizations that are trying to expand their activity in order to reach us. This message reflects the state's serious desire to continue its war against terrorism outside our borders and to combat [terrorism] aggressively if it tries to infiltrate [our country]... [Another message] was addressed to supporters of terror in [Jordan]... Its purpose is deterrence, and its point is that the fate of anyone who considers committing a crime is now known and clearly defined, and there is no place to be remiss and lax in addressing this matter... The executions bolstered the ability of the state and society to wage war on terrorism and its supporters."[21]


*Z. Harel is a research fellow at MEMRI.



[2] Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 19, 2016.

[3] See MEMRI JTTM report ISIS Claims Responsibility For Attack In Karak, Jordan, December 20, 2018.  

[4] Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 21, 2016.

[5] Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 21, 2016.

[6] Al-Dustour (Jordan), January 2, 2017.

[7] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 10, 2015.

[8] Al-Rai (Jordan), February 2, 2017.

[9], June 7, 2016; Al-Rai (Jordan), June 7, 2016.


[11] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 24, 2017, February 22, 2017.

[12] Al-Rai (Jordan), March 4, 2017.

[13] Al-Ghad (Jordan), March 5, 2017.

[14] Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 20, 2016.

[15] Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 24, 2016.

[16] Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 20, 2016.

[17] Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 20, 2016.

[18] A-Ghad (Jordan), December 21, 2016.

[19] Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 23, 2016.

[20] Al-Dustour (Jordan), April 3, 2017.

[21] Al-Dustour (Jordan), March 5, 2017.

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