Jordanian Salafism And The Jihad In Syria – Analysis


By Kirk H. Sowell*

The conflict which erupted in Syria in 2011 began as an opening for Jordanian Salafists, but it has morphed into a challenging dilemma: caught between two competing Salafist-Jihadist movements in Syria and an increasingly tough crackdown at home, Jordanian Salafists wanting to support the jihad in Syria have been forced to weigh their words and actions carefully. In fact, due to geographical proximity and historical ties, Jordanian Salafists have made one of the largest manpower contributions to Syria’s sectarian war. Yet the Jordanian government’s increasingly tight rein on both the movement’s leaders and its rank-and-file has forced Salafists to trade rhetorical restraint for operational freedom. In turn, these rhetorical concessions threaten to alienate the Salafist youth from its leadership. Moreover, from the government’s point of view, the tacit entente by which Salafists are granted a margin of freedom in exchange for a guarantee of peace at home has always carried within it the danger of the pro-jihadist current growing.

Salafism is an Islamic movement whose contemporary form stems from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious establishment. Like Saudi Arabia, Jordan developed a pro-government Salafism referred to as “traditionalist Salafism.” In response, there arose in the 1990s a “Salafi-Jihadist current” (the Saudi equivalent became al-Qaeda and emigrated from the Gulf). The godfather of this current is a Palestinian known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who by the 1990s had emerged as a key intellectual architect of global jihadism. But even this radical wing split between Maqdisi and a faction led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who post-2003 transformed the faction into al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Maqdisi was Zarqawi’s mentor in the 1990s; the split within this wing continues, and was on global display during the drama over the captivity and filmed immolation of Jordanian airman Moaz al-Kassasbeh in early 2015.1

This study focuses on the impact of the Arab Spring – or “Salafi Spring” – and the subsequent rise of Salafi-Jihadism in Syria on Jordanian Salafi-Jihadism. The repression of Syria’s protest movement in 2011 gave birth to an armed insurgency which became ever more Islamist and Salafist over time. Simultaneously, Jordanian Salafists in 2011 focused their efforts at home on demands for Islamic law and the freeing of Salafist prisoners.

The rise of Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) as the dominant jihadist wing of the Syrian rebellion in 2012 marked a second stage in the Syrian uprising; before long, Jordanian Salafists began making their way to Syria. During 2012 and 2013, Jordanian Salafist leaders became increasingly open in their support for “jihad” in Syria, even while holding to Maqdisi’s doctrine of “peaceful mission” at home in Jordan.

A third post-2010 stage began in April 2013 with the split between JAN and the organization that began calling itself Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The leader of ISIS, an Iraqi named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is the organizational and ideological successor to Zarqawi, renewing the conflict in Jordan between the Maqdisi and Zarqawi factions. Most senior members of the Salafist current sided with JAN, including Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, a Jordanian citizen close to the Salafi-Jihadist current’s other famous spiritual guide, Osama bin Laden. But a large segment of the rank-and-file sided with the Zarqawi wing, and after ISIS’ dramatic victories in eastern Syria and Iraq in 2013 and 2014, it appeared that Maqdisi and other “realists” of the current were faltering, a perception driven in part by an openly pro-ISIS demonstration in the city of Maan in April 2014.

The past year has proven tumultuous for both Maqdisi and Abu Qatada: both increased their criticism of ISIS, were released from prison for a time, and were suspected of having betrayed jihadist Islam in order to escape the ire of the Jordanian authorities and jail. While the grisly murder of Kassasbeh has turned many Jordanians hard against ISIS, Maqdisi’s failed attempt to secure Kassasbeh’s release served only to raise more questions about his credibility. At the same time, the Kassasbeh incident may also raise questions over the Jordanian government’s judgment for giving free reign to the openly pro-al-Qaeda Maqdisi. Today, with traditionalist, pro-government Salafists marginalized and “Zarqawists” on the defensive, Maqdisi and like-minded Salafi-Jihadists may have an opportunity to rebuild.

Jordanian Salafism Prior To 2010

Salafism in Jordan has long mirrored trends in the region. Prior to the 1970s, Salafism was primarily associated with reformist efforts to draw upon Islam’s origins to address contemporary concerns in a practical way. However, with Wahhabi educational and religious propaganda flooding the region under Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, Salafism increasingly took on the theologically militant but politically quietist bent of the Saudi kingdom’s own establishment.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan gave this Saudi brand of ruler-friendly Salafism wide scope as a way of checking the Muslim Brotherhood, allowing Salafists to gain a notable, albeit not mass, following in the 1980s. The founder of Jordanian Salafism was an Albanian scholar, Muhammad Nasr al-Din al-Albani, who first joined the “Damascus wing” of the Muslim Brotherhood close to the Salafists in Syria. In the early 1980s, after a period in Saudi Arabia, he moved to Jordan.2 Albani then recreated in his adopted homeland a Salafism based on the Saudi model: conservative, non-violent, and pro-government.

In the 1990s, even as Jordan welcomed apolitical Salafism, a new Salafi-Jihadist movement rose across the region. In Jordan, this trend was most prominently embodied by the West Banker and Jordanian citizen, Asim al-Barqawi, known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.3 Maqdisi’s family moved to Kuwait from the West Bank when he was young, but he spent time studying in Saudi Arabia with brief sojourns to Mosul, Sarajevo, Pakistan and Afghanistan. These travels exposed him to, and allowed him to connect with, other Islamists.

Maqdisi created the Salafi-Jihadist current in Jordan. His two most important books, both in circulation by the 1990s, made him an intellectual architect of al-Qaeda’s global jihad through his concepts of “loyalty and disassociation” and “not seeking the aid of the infidels.” These doctrines were pillars of al-Qaeda’s theological assaults on Arab governments, especially Saudi Arabia and its alliance with the United States.4 Maqdisi arrived in Jordan in 1992; like many Palestinians, his family was evicted from Kuwait in retaliation for Palestinian support of the Iraq invasion. Upon his arrival, Maqdisi encountered a militant scene that peppered Jordan with night club attacks and the like, but lacked ideological coherence and vision. He moved to fill the void, providing an ideological framework for those Islamists who favored Islamist law and jihad over elections and peaceful relations with non-Muslim powers.5

Over the ensuing decade a split emerged between Maqdisi and his most prominent pupil, a Jordanian from Zarqa named Ahmad al-Khalayaleh, known to the world as the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Maqdisi’s jihadism incorporated what he called silmiyat al-dawa, or “the peaceful mission”; if Salafists could not hope to defeat the state, as in Jordan, Maqdisi believed that they should focus on converting a critical mass of society first. Zarqawi, a much more confrontational personality, instead opted to take up arms immediately, leading to a split between the two while imprisoned in the late 1990s. After their release in 1999, Zarqawi took his faction to Afghanistan and Iraq, where he launched bloody attacks until his own death thanks to a U.S. airstrike in 2006.6

As the Zarqawi-driven bloodletting escalated in post-2003 Iraq, Maqdisi publicized his dissent in a letter from prison, al-munasira wa al-munasiha, “Aid and Counsel.”7 Maqdisi criticized Zarqawi’s jihad for its cost in Muslim lives (weighed against the likelihood of success), its targeting of civilians, and its use of suicide bombers. In July 2005, after his release from prison, Maqdisi escalated his criticisms in an interview with al-Jazeera. Maqdisi broadsided Zarqawi on a range of issues, rejecting his attacks on civilians, including Shia, and arguing that suicide bombers could only be used “exceptionally, in case of necessity,” and then only against military targets. Consistent with his “peaceful mission” in Jordan, Maqdisi supported jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine against foreign powers, but said in Muslim countries Salafists should focus on preaching rather than “blowing up cinemas.”8

Importantly, however, Maqdisi was still advocating war against countries with which Jordan was at peace, a crime defined in the Hashemite kingdom as “undermining relations with other states.”9 Moreover, his release was thought to have been conditioned on a general media ban, which his al-Jazeera interview had blatantly violated. As a result, authorities promptly arrested him again. On November 6, 2005, just as Maqdisi was settling into his prison cell, Zarqawi’s organization launched spectacular terrorist attacks against three hotels in Amman, killing 60 people. The attacks sparked popular outrage against the Salafi-Jihadists across the kingdom, and put them on the defensive.

As soon as he was released in March 2008, Maqdisi launched an effort to rehabilitate the current and guide it back toward the path he had envisioned in the 1990s, a project made easier by Zarqawi’s death. Maqdisi focused on three priorities: returning to the “peaceful mission” inside Jordan so as to build up a network; warning against “extremism” in takfir, or “excessive killing of Muslims by declaring them apostates”; and, shifting the focus of jihad to Palestine, which meant preparing for war against Israel. Despite Zarqawi’s death, however, Maqdisi faced a range of competitors and obstacles. Unlike in the 1990s, Maqdisi was suddenly confronted with the global jihadist polemics of the internet era, which allowed many Zarqawists to target him relentlessly. One online tract, mockingly entitled “Islamic Judgment on Ruling While Fleeing from the Field of Jihad,” sarcastically referenced Maqdisi abandoning the jihad in Afghanistan and later criticizing the jihad in Iraq from the safety of his Jordanian prison cell.10

Maqdisi is not in any real sense a “moderate Islamist.” He praised the 9/11 attacks and has not broken with al-Qaeda. He also remains an advocate of jihad. Indeed, his professed reason for leaving Afghanistan rather than staying to fight is illustrative. During a series of lectures after his release in 2008, Maqdisi spoke about an open disagreement he had once had with the revered Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s mentor. According to Maqdisi, when Azzam instructed young men to overlook “polytheistic practices” by locals in order to ensure the unity of jihad, Maqdisi defied him in front of the other students by arguing that he could not tolerate the “polytheism” of Afghan Muslims who venerate tombs, among other practices.11 By contrast, Zarqawi’s split with bin Laden appears to have been motivated by wanting to fight and lead his own group.

Maqdisi was arrested again on December 23, 2010 for recruiting individuals to join the Taliban.12 Given Maqdisi’s open advocacy of “jihad” in Afghanistan, his August 2011 conviction was predictable.13 The key implication of this event was that Maqdisi was sidelined and in prison just as the popular revolts of 2011 seized the Arab world. This allowed more junior members of the Salafi-Jihadist movement to come to the fore.

Indeed, multiple actors filled the void created on the Jordanian Salafist scene by the death of Zarqawi and the imprisonment of Maqdisi. Their actions are significant indicators of the shifts between the wings of the current Zarqawi and Maqdisi represent. The most well-known is the Palestinian Umar Mahmud bin Umar, or Abu Qatada al-Filistini. Abu Qatada represented Osama bin Laden in Europe, and was embroiled in a long extradition battle with Great Britain. He spent only a short period in Jordan in the 1990s, and did not return until 2014. Nonetheless, he and Maqdisi alone are habitually described in Arabic media as al-munathir al-salafi al-jihadi, or “the Salafi-Jihadist Guide.” Other key actors include Muhammad al-Shalbi, or Abu Sayyaf, and Saad al-Hunayti. Abu Sayyaf is the leading Salafist of Maan, a southern province which along with Zarqa is a Salafist stronghold; like Abu Qatada, Abu Sayyaf positioned himself within the pro-Jabhat al-Nusra Maqdisi wing and by 2012 had gone from being a local personality in Maan to the current’s key spokesman nationwide.14 Hunayti, on the other hand, hails from Irbid, north of Amman, and is the most prominent Jordanian to join Islamic State.

Jordan’s Limited Salafi Spring: 2011

In less than two months in late 2010 and early 2011, the Arab world’s political map changed decisively. In Tunisia, President Ben Ali was driven from power, followed by Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. In both cases Salafists were marginal players; in Egypt, Salafists had been close to the government and initially did not even participate in the uprising. Once it became clear change was inevitable, however, Egyptian Salafists joined the “revolution” in an effort to Islamize it and institute Islamic law. As a power void developed, Tunisian and Egyptian Salafists focused their energies on checking secularists; meanwhile, in Jordan, the protest movement showed no likelihood of overthrowing the monarchy. Secular activists and rival Muslim Brothers sought only to “reform the regime” and return to the 1952 constitution, which was closer to a genuine constitutional monarchy than the 2011 status quo.15

So when Jordanian Salafists held their first protest on March 2, 2011 in Amman, they narrowed their focus on Islamic law and the release of 300-odd prisoners who they claimed had been mistreated in prison. Salafists took up the Tunisian and Egyptian slogan – isqat al-nitham, “overthrow the regime.”16 At that point Jordan’s Salafists were still focused inward, inspired by events in North Africa, but not yet engaged regionally. Another protest in Amman on March 20 similarly employed chants demanding the release of imprisoned Salafists, and “No Bail Except the Law of God,” while waving the flag of Islamic State (which Jordanian Salafi-Jihadists had taken as their own).17

With the jihadi wing activated, Salafi traditionalists could not stay silent for long. Ali al-Halabi, the leading student of Shaykh Albani, who had founded Jordanian Salafism, issued a video lecture on March 12 criticizing the protests as “far from the law of God” and driven by materialistic motives.18 By June, Halabi felt compelled to provide a more detailed statement in which he approved of protests in the case of apostasy (takfir) by the ruler or when in the interests of the Islamic nation, but he saw neither criteria met in Egypt, just chaos and suffering brought about by “party activists (hizbiin), takfirists (al-Qaeda-style Salafists) and Qutbists (Muslim Brothers).”19

The traditionalist Mashhur Hassan had already spoken out on February 5, even before the jihadist wing had activated, arguing that what was happening in Egypt was a “conspiracy” that “brings divisions among the people which is the worst form of fitna.” He added that while change was necessary, it should come through individual spiritual change, rather than the protesting ways of “communists, nationalists and party activists.”20 Mashhur was also the Jordanian representative to a group of clerics – dominated by Saudis – which in January had issued a statement declaring the protests un-Islamic.21

The Salafi-Jihadists moved on April 13, 2011, holding a press conference that launched a frontal attack on regime-loyal Salafists. According to Saad al-Hunayti, the traditionalists were “allied with the oppressive, dictatorial regimes and are in turn allied with the Jews and the Americans.” Hunayti added that “there is a deal between that current and the regimes,” and the fatwas opposing anti-Hashemite protests “are entirely contrary to the beliefs of Sunni authorities.” He added that “their doctrine is flawed to the point that even Saudi clerics have critiqued them.” Abd al-Qadir Shahada, a Salafi-Jihadist from Irbid who is called Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, described the traditionalist wing as “those who represent one of the regimes’ organizations, like a tourism commission or other institution which governments create.”22

Shortly thereafter, on April 15, the first direct clashes between Salafi-Jihadists and the government broke out in Zarqa. Salafists blamed pro-government baltajiya (an Egyptian word for “thugs”) for attacking and provoking peaceful protesters, thereby giving the security services a pretext to intervene.23 The following day, the Jordanian government arrested three key Salafists –Tahawi, Hunayti, and Jirah al-Rahahala.24 Activists filmed the ensuing street melees, and issued a series of videos juxtaposing public comments from government officials with footage of riot police beating unarmed individuals in the streets.25 For Salafists, Zarqa remains a touchstone to this day.26

One notable Salafist preacher who participated in these events was Ayman al-Balawi. The imam of the Sanjaqiya Mosque in Amman, Balawi is known for being the brother of Humam al-Balawi, the Jordanian who conducted the infamous 2009 suicide bombing at the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan that killed seven CIA officers and a member of the Hashemite royal family. Authorities arrested him shortly after the clashes.27 He was later released, and then rearrested in April 2013. According to his attorney, he was detained after questioning by the security services and after the Waqf Ministry – which had barred him from preaching – had allowed him to resume his activities.28

Wisam al-Amush, a former Guantanamo detainee and Jordanian Salafist, cleverly argued that it wasn’t in the interest of the Jordanian government for Salafists to go peacefully “because it benefits from what is referred to as the war on terrorism, thus viewing Salafist groups as like oil wells from which they can gain large sums of money from the West and America.” According to Amush, the clashes in Zarqa were precipitated precisely because the movement had turned to peaceful tactics.29 In June 2011, about 300 prisoners at three separate prisons began a hunger strike.30 Amush’s reasoning is an extension of Maqdisi’s “peaceful mission” doctrine, focusing on building the movement rather than wasting lives in a pointless fight with the state.

In September, the Salafists picked up efforts to find a way to work within the Hashemite state framework. From prison, Maqdisi called for the cessation of public sit-ins in order to improve the environment for talks with the government. Moreover, public reporting indicated that Maqdisi had “prohibited the formation of an armed wing or the conduct of operations on Jordanian territory.” Abu Sayyaf, who had been in prison for alleged terrorist organizing but was freed at the beginning of the month, quickly moved to narrow the gap with the Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood leader Humam Said visited him in Maan, and Abu Sayyaf conducted an interview with the Brotherhood’s newspaper, al-Sabeel.31

September was a busy month for the Salafists. Until this point they had merely been a current with no formal structure, but now they began openly discussing the possibility of forming a Shura Council. Abu Sayyaf announced that the council would have two offices, comprising an executive branch and a media center. He said it would focus on Islamic law and prisoner releases.32 Two weeks later, Abu Sayyaf denied any intention of forming a political party, arguing that such a move was un-Islamic. At the same time, however, he blurred the lines between Salafi-Jihadists and traditionalists by declining to declare takfir against Muslims with different views. He also said that he had visited Maqdisi in prison, and gained his blessing for these moves.33

Perhaps most interestingly, Syria is not mentioned in any of the source reporting on the Shura Council during this period. As of late 2011, Jordanian Salafists remained focused on their own affairs. They never received the general amnesty they sought, although some prisoners were released gradually on an individual basis. But while the prisoner issue never went away, events in Syria soon took precedence.

Jabhat al-Nusra and the Turn Toward Syria

The emergence of Jabhat al-Nusra in 2012 was a turning point for Jordanian Salafists. Individuals began emigrating to Syria to fight, but there was neither an open declaration of jihad nor a statement of support from the Salafi-Jihadi current’s leadership, as this could have meant arrest. However, over the course of 2012, press reports began to appear of Jordanians fighting and dying in Syria.

Illustrating the current’s two-fold strategy of jihad abroad and “peaceful mission” at home as expounded by Maqdisi, Abu Sayyaf publicly proclaimed in April 2012 that Salafists “will never give up on jihad against the Syrian regime,” while also emphasizing jihad against Israel, which he claimed was being stymied only by security forces. Inside Jordan, Abu Sayyaf continued, “the government and security services fear we will enter the movement for reform, and so they arrest our members.”34 That same month authorities arrested a prominent Salafist from Maan, Abdullah Qaba’a, and eight others as they sought to cross the border into Syria.35 Given Abu Sayyaf’s prominence in Maan, it is clear that the government would tolerate jihadi rhetoric – something that would change by 2014 – but arrest those acting on it.

In August 2012, Syrian television ran a program featuring “confessions” from young Jordanian Salafists claiming to have been sent to Syria. Despite its past public sympathies for the war effort, the current rejected any ties to the individuals.36 Interestingly, the program also cited Abu Sayyaf as having sent people for “jihad” to Syria, although it framed his statement as the current “announces sending terrorists to Syria.”37

Over time, Salafi-Jihadist rhetoric grew bolder. In early September 2012, before a crowd of 200 in Amman, Abu Sayyaf reportedly boasted that there would be more attacks in Syria, expressly confirming that Jordanians were going to Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusra.38 In public, Salafist leaders adopted a nuanced position, offering general statements of support for the war against the Syrian government – sometimes even described as “jihad” – while denying any and all operational involvement. By October, leaders acknowledged “more than 100” Jordanian Salafists had died in Syria, and the Jordanian al-Watan News noted that local activists were holding memorial services for the fallen in Irbid, Maan and Baq’a.39 In November, when the Salafist Imad al-Naturi of Irbid executed a suicide bombing in Dara, just north of the Jordanian border, Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi commented that Naturi had “obtained the honor of martyrdom.”40

Tahawi illustrates this shift in focus. As mentioned, Tahawi participated in the April 15, 2011 protest in Zarqa. That evening, speaking to al-Jazeera, he vehemently denied any armed intentions, arguing that photos showing Salafists with light weapons (knives, etc.) were fabricated.41 The next day, the government arrested him. Tahawi was later released, and with the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra he shifted the focus of his preaching to jihad in Syria. On February 24, 2012, he issued a video lecture with instructions for those going to Syria, drawing on examples from Afghanistan to identify the kinds of groups to avoid (e.g. mercenaries and secular actors).42

At that point, in early 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra was still low-profile, but as late as December 2012 Tahawi denied that the current was tied to JAN. That same month, however, he attended a “martyr’s funeral” for a Jordanian Jabhat al-Nusra suicide bomber, and praised the group: “To our heroes in Jabhat al-Nusra…[you] will first conquer the Levant, and then after that Tel Aviv.”43 The Jordanian authorities arrested him on January 17, 2013.44

By September 2012, the Jordanian role in Syria was also attracting more pan-Arab media attention. Al-Jazeera interviewed various Salafists on and off the record, concluding that while the number of Jordanians in Syria was not large, “they constitute special significance since most of them fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.” In other words, they were viewed as Zarqawists. The report quoted Abu Sayyaf as saying Jordanians were going to Syria “after a number of scholars issued fatwas saying that jihad in Syria had become an individual duty fard ayn upon every Muslim.”45 The use of the phrase fard ayn is significant, as it casts the jihad in Syria not as an offensive jihad requiring only the participation of some Muslims, but as a defensive one defending Islam and thus incumbent upon all.

Quoting the Jordanian Islamism expert Hassan Abu Haniya, the report identified not only Jabhat al-Nusra but also the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Fatah al-Islam, Jund al-Sham and the Faruq Battalions as destinations for Jordanian fighters. Notably, Abu Haniya was quoted making reference to the Maqdisi-Zarqawi split, implying that Maqdisi opposed jihad in Syria, although Maqdisi himself – then still languishing in prison – had not said this.46 Over the course of the next year it would become clear that Maqdisi did in fact support Jabhat al-Nusra.

The professional and ideological trajectory of Saad al-Hunayti is also quite important, as he would first join JAN and then move to Islamic State. Appearing on a talk show in October 2012, Hunayti mocked official statements about the threat of Salafists returning from Syria, but danced around the core issue of what the current’s actual position was on the jihad in Syria while strenuously denying any domestic armed activity and voicing general support for the Syrian uprising.47 Even as late as January 2014, Hunayti, speaking to al-Jazeera, was only somewhat more explicit, praising a recent statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for his “reconciling tone with the jihadists,” and the “healing of wounds” for the sake of “jihad in Syria.”48 Indeed, while still in Jordan, Hunayti remained taciturn.

Jordanians appear to have assumed an important role in Jabhat al-Nusra’s operations in the southern province of Dara, which sits between Damascus and the main crossing into Jordan. In fact, one June 2013 article cited different sources in claiming that 500 to 5,000 Jordanians were active in Syria. While this range is so large as to be virtually meaningless, there was agreement among the sources cited that the key Jordanians in the south are Mustapha Abd al-Latif, known as Abu Anas al-Sahaba, and Iyad al-Tubasi, known as Abu Jalibib. Abu Anas, like Maqdisi, resides in Rasifa, a Palestinian-dominated suburb of Zarqa (in fact, he is reportedly Maqdisi’s next-door neighbor), and is variously described as JAN’s commander in Dara, its emir in west Dara, or, by al-Hayat, as “the military commander in the southern area.”49 As for Abu Jalibib, he stems from Zarqa, and is allegedly the brother-in-law of the late Zarqawi. Jalibib was reportedly dispatched by Baghdadi to Dara in the early phases of Islamic State’s intervention in Syria, when it was still just Jabhat al-Nusra.

There is a great deal of confusion among Arabic sources as to which man is most senior, and it is not clear if this is due to inaccuracies or perhaps to evolving roles being reported out of sequence over time. However, one February 2014 paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace identifies Jalibib as JAN’s commander for both Damascus and Dara, which some Arabic reporting during the 2012-2013 period seems to substantiate.50

As an indication of the confusion surrounding the matter, one ultimately discredited but widely circulating report in mid-December 2012 claimed that JAN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani was in fact a second pseudonym for Tubasi/Jalibib. Moreover, the report speculated that he had been killed, forcing the Jordanian Salafist Shura Council to replace him with Abu Anas. Tahawi refuted the report, claiming that he was “startled” since such actions would constitute “interference” in JAN’s affairs.51

It appears that this speculation originated with United Press International, which quoted an unnamed Jordanian Salafist who claimed that a Jordanian “Mujahidin Shura Council” had appointed Abu Anas.52 Al-Jazeera repeated the claim, based on its own Amman-based reporting, but eventually issued a retraction.53 However, the wording of Tahawi’s denial and the apparent independent sourcing for the claim suggests that there may in fact have been a failed attempt by some Jordanians to take over Jabhat al-Nusra.

What makes Abu Anas’ role in JAN notable is his recent ties to the Jordanian Salafi-Jihadist movement; whereas Jalibib had reportedly been in Iraq during the entire 2006-2011 period, Abu Anas was active in Jordan. Having been arrested in Syria – like many jihadists, after the Syrian government began to perceive those it has been sponsoring in Iraq as a threat to its own survival – Abu Anas was transferred to Jordan, released, and then rearrested after the Zarqa clashes.54 In fact, Abu Anas was standing behind Hunayti during the key Salafi-Jihadist press conference in April 2011.55

Between Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra

In April 2013, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani surprised the jihadist world by announcing Islamic State as “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” (ISIS). This also apparently surprised JAN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, as he promptly declared JAN to be an independent organization and pledged baya (allegiance) to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. While some media described the move as a “merger” between the two groups, Adnani made clear that ISIS had dispatched Jolani to Syria, and that the announcement simply served as confirmation of existing circumstances. Any remaining ambiguity disappeared in June when a letter from Zawahiri confirming Jolani in his authority was published. ISIS defied Zawahiri, and Zawahiri later disclaimed any al-Qaeda presence in Iraq.

This turn of events would have two key consequences for Jordan’s Salafi-Jihadist movement. One was to intensify government pressure on its leaders, since JAN now openly affiliated with al-Qaeda, thereby eliminating the “plausible deniability” of pro-JAN Salafists. While Salafist leaders were diplomatic in their public statements, the implications of their sympathy for Jabhat al-Nusra was now clear. But a second and perhaps even more profound consequence of the ISIS-JAN split was that it reopened the split between the Maqdisi and Zarqawi wings of the movement. While Zarqawists seem to have made up most of those going to Syria, the Maqdisi wing was supporting JAN as well. Immediately after the split they appear to have tried to avoid an open break, although this may have been in part due to the fact that in April 2013 Maqdisi was still in prison, Abu Qatada was in Britain, and others were carefully weighing their words. That soon changed.

Abu Qatada spoke out first. In July 2013, Britain extradited him to Jordan, and in October he appeared before the State Security Court. In court, Abu Qatada accused the judge of corruption; afterward, he praised Jolani: “It was an excellent interview [with al-Jazeera], and his speech was befitting his nickname, al-Fatih” (the Conqueror). When asked about the issue of ISIS’ declared caliphate, Abu Qatada was more measured than he would later become, but nonetheless expressed his displeasure: “This matter requires a lengthy explanation, but I call the leaders of IS [al-dawla, or “the state”] and Jabhat al-Nusra to unify, and comply by hearing and obedience in regard to what Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri has demanded.”56

In a missive the following month entitled, “Letter to the Jihadists of the Levant,” Abu Qatada was sharper in his criticism of ISIS. He argued that jihadists must “learn the lessons of the past,” a clear reference to Zarqawi, and reject “fatwas which call for fealty to this caliphate.” At this point, Abu Qatada did not yet attack Baghdadi by name.57 Before long, however, Abu Qatada was even criticizing ISIS for its imposition of the jizya, or Islamic tax for minorities, on Christians, arguing in April 2014 that a caliphate would have the obligation to protect Christians and their property in exchange for the jizya, and this ISIS could not do. On the same occasion Abu Qatada also condemned ISIS for killing Abu Khalid al-Suri, a prominent member of Islamic Front, a coalition of rebel groups that is Salafist but not jihadist.58

Abu Qatada launched his most lengthy missive against ISIS, “Cloak of the Caliph,” in July 2014. The 21-page letter blasted the group on a long list of issues, but made two core arguments as to its illegitimacy. First, Abu Qatada argued that Islamic precedence required disputed caliphates to submit to arbitration by qualified scholars, and that only they could voluntarily declare a caliphate. Baghdadi had expressly refused to take this step despite the urging of Syrian Salafists, including Jabhat al-Nusra. Second, Abu Qatada essentially belittled ISIS as ignorant, charging that in his conversations with key ISIS figures he had found them lacking on basic matters of Islam. Notably, he referenced Maqdisi multiple times, emphasizing that he had spoken with Maqdisi before setting pen to paper.59

However, with Maqdisi in prison since December 2010, and Abu Qatada joining him in Jordanian custody in July 2013, there were strong indications by November 2013 that Jordanian Salafists were losing control. Al-Hayat, quoting mostly anonymous local sources, reported on November 21 that “a majority of Jordanian Salafists who left for Syria to fight were fighting for Islamic State.” One major figure who openly rejected Abu Qatada’s critique was Omar Mahdi Al Zaydan of Irbid, who issued a letter saying that Abu Qatada had attacked Baghdadi unjustifiably, since “Abu Qatada is a prisoner shaykh, and a prisoner cannot issue fatwas because his personal legal status is compromised, and his fatwa can bring about ruin.” Zaydan continued his analysis: “We all know that Shaykh Jolani was a soldier of Commander of the Faithful [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi. Shaykh Abu Bakr is the commander, and Shaykh Jolani the commanded. The difference between the two is clear: Baghdadi’s emirate is great, and Jolani’s emirate was simply to wage war.”60

As reported by Al-Hayat, Maqdisi responded by reiterating that “Zawahiri is the leader, and how can a leader be demanded to give fealty (baya) to his soldier?” Commenting on Zaydan, Maqdisi wrote condescendingly, “he has become unbalanced beyond his capacity, to the point of distributing orders to the commander of jihad,” Zawahiri. Maqdisi continued:

I have heard that he has addressed the commander of the mujahidin, our brother, our dear Jihadist Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri, may God preserve him, ordering him and demanding from him an oath of loyalty to one of his soldiers, sticking his nose into what does not concern him, speaking on something in which he lacks the jurisprudence or the knowledge to speak, leading simply to wailing laughter.61

The article went on to quote the University of Jordan’s Muhammad Abu Rumman, who assessed Maqdisi and Abu Qatada as representing the “realist” wing of the movement that enjoys the support of several prominent clerics, including Saad al-Hunayti, Munif Samara and Jarah al-Rahahala. However, as Abu Rumman pointed out, the “extremist Zarqawi wing” also had “major personalities,” who despite personal obscurity were able to recruit more fighters “because so many belong to the Zarqawi wing.”62

Within a week in November 2013, Maqdisi distributed a second letter through Abu Sayyaf in which he not only criticized Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS, but also Bakr bin Abd al-Aziz, a Bahraini ISIS Salafist based in Aleppo known as Abu Humam al-Ithri. Maqdisi insulted Ithri: “I call Abu Humam al-Ithri and others who are calling for fealty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the general imam of Muslims, to deliberate further before publishing fatwas which purport to oblige the Islamic nation in great matters which require the study of a great scholar.” Maqdisi went on to declare it “important that Ithri and his brothers not be the cause of a division in the eyes of the world, for it is the intent of the Sharia to unify and not divide.”63

In light of Maqdisi’s condescending tone to Ithri, it is especially interesting that according to al-Hayat’s “Jordanian jihadist sources,” Ithri had become the “Islamic legal advisor” for Maqdisi’s “Tawhed” site, formally “Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad.”64 In other words, Ithri had supposedly taken over Maqdisi’s place in the global jihadist publishing space.

A review of “Tawhed” suggests a substantial amount of writing from Ithri, but nothing since the time of Maqdisi’s reproof. In fact, the website announced a reorganization, “Reestablishing the Fatwa Forum,” on August 16, 2014. It noted that “in addition to the presence of Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi – may God preserve him – at the head of the fatwa forum, the council also includes” other “editors”: Abdullah al-Hassani, Sami al-Aridi, Abu al-Iz al-Najdi, al-Muatasimbillah al-Iraqi and Abu Abdullah al-Madani.65

The movement’s alignment with JAN reached a key juncture on February 4, 2014, when al-Ghad reported that the movement’s Shura Council had formally banned Jordanians from fighting with ISIS in Syria. One al-Ghad source emphasized that this came after four members had left for Syria the previous week with the express intention of joining Jabhat al-Nusra, effectively formalizing “an alignment toward Jabhat al-Nusra, due to the support of Maqdisi and Abu Qatada for them.”66

Yet the movement would not openly endorse JAN, as even facilitating travel to JAN is a criminal offense in Jordan. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Abu Sayyaf repeatedly emphasized that individuals traveling to Syria to fight were doing so of their own accord. In early April, he downplayed the current’s role in the war, estimating that about 2,000 Jordanians had traveled to Syria to fight, of whom about ten percent were dead. Abu Sayyaf noted that increased security made it difficult for members to cross the border.67

Unfortunately for Abu Sayyaf, that same week news broke of Hunayti crossing to Syria via Turkey, ostensibly to bring about reconciliation between ISIS and JAN. Hunayti, who had been released from prison on bail in August 2013, said that he was giving baya to Baghdadi “in preparation for mediation,” framing it as a necessity. Remarkably, Hunayti had already rejected the movement’s Shura Council decision to boycott ISIS, even though he was a member of it.68

Then on June 20, 2014, Abu Sayyaf’s home province of Maan became the scene of the only openly pro-ISIS march in Jordan. Marching with ISIS flags, hundreds chanted for jihad.69 The demonstration came only three weeks after ISIS had published a video, “Message to Our People in Maan,” that featured ISIS rhetoric about jihad and the un-Islamic nature of the Jordanian regime and its security services.70 But the 16-minute production also featured two additional notable elements. The first was a veiled attack on Maqdisi that chastised “those who fled jihad” and oppose ISIS. The second was the explicit reference to an Iraqi woman – “our sister Sajida al-Rishawi, may God end her imprisonment” – who had participated in the 2005 Amman hotel bombings but survived when her bomb failed to detonate. This April 2014 reference was notable as Rishawi, who had not been in the Jordanian media since 2005, would reenter public consciousness in January 2015 during the Kassasbeh crisis.

The only reported incident of violence in Jordan between ISIS and JAN occurred around this time; notably, it involved the famous Maqdisi-aligned Imam Ayman al-Balawi, who was allegedly the victim of ISIS violence. As noted, Balawi was arrested in April 2011, released, then rearrested in April 2013. According to Erem News, in August 2014 authorities arrested three men for physically assaulting three Salafist preachers, including Balawi.71 Since the men were attacked separately and left alive, the likely goal was intimidation.72

The leadership’s clear preference for JAN, the events in Maan, and anecdotal observations from eyewitnesses suggest Jordanian Salafists were losing their grip on the rank-and-file. Al-Hayat concluded in July that two factors favoring ISIS were morale and geography: ISIS’s stunning victories in Iraq inspired young men to believe that they were joining the winning side, and increased security along the Jordanian border had the perverse effect of helping ISIS vis-a-vis JAN, since it forced Jordanians to travel to Syria via Turkey and ISIS controlled areas.73 On August 5, the independent Jordanian daily al-Ghad reached the same conclusion. A member of the Maqdisi wing, speaking off the record, expressed dismay that “Zarqawists” seemed to be winning the battle for hearts-and-minds among Jordanian Salafi-Jihadists, while “reformists” were losing ground. The same article quoted Abu Rumman, the Jordanian expert, as saying that while precise numbers were impossible to pin down, the Zarqawists seemed to be winning, a trend he attributed to ISIS’ more explicitly sectarian rhetoric as compared to Jabhat al-Nusra and other Syrian Salafists.74

In October 2014, ISIS announced the defection of Hunayti and Jaafar al-Shami from Jabhat al-Nusra, along with “40 fighters” in Aleppo.75 Hunayti himself had previewed this development on his Facebook page, posting that he was “now in the land of the Caliphate.” The same month, the aforementioned Zaydan made it across the border to become a judge for ISIS at its eastern Syrian base of Raqqa. At the time, Middle East Online noted that Zaydan had become known as one of the few leaders of the Jordanian Salafi-Jihadist current supporting ISIS.76 Media reports indicated that the imprisoned Tahawi, like Hunayti and Zaydan from Irbid, had also given baya to Baghdadi.77 Since this ensured Tahawi continued imprisonment, his swing to ISIS was mainly significant as it coincided with growing tension between his supporters in the Irbid Palestinian camp and Maqdisi’s, as reported by al-Arab al-Youm on August 18.78

The formal defection of the most prominent pro-ISIS leaders within the Jordanian movement only consolidated its remaining leadership’s alignment with Jabhat al-Nusra. Abu Sayyaf threw caution to the wind, and in April even invited some western journalists to attend the funeral celebration of a “martyr” who had died in the service of JAN.79 In July, Jolani had appointed the Jordanian Sami al-Aridi as the group’s chief jurist to take the place of Maysira al-Jiburi, an Iraqi known as Abu Mariya al-Qahtani. As noted, Aridi was listed as a member of the editorial board for Maqdisi’s website, a position he continued to hold.80

Whatever lure ISIS’s victories in Iraq and propaganda may hold, Maqdisi and Abu Qatada suffer from the growing perception that they have folded to government pressure. In December 2014, one Salafi-Jihadist community leader in Amman told me that this was especially the perception with Abu Qatada, and that because the current’s rank-and-file is so strongly anti-government, merely the perception of bending to the government has driven youth toward Baghdadi. The perception was hardly new; as far back as November 2013 a journalist for al-Quds al-Arabi wrote that Abu Qatada appeared to be getting better treatment than other inmates due to his stance on ISIS.81

In fact, Maqdisi was released from prison in June 2014 and Abu Qatada on September 24, 2014. The two, however, would react differently to the crisis involving the international coalition’s war on ISIS, with Maqdisi taking center stage.

Between Islamic State & Hashemite State

The flip-side of the Maqdisi wing’s increased struggle with ISIS was its increased support for Jabhat al-Nusra. This posed a legal problem, since JAN remained an al-Qaeda affiliate, a fact that was publicly announced in April 2013. Salafist leaders attempted to straddle this dilemma by disavowing any operational ties; even then, however, they only occasionally stayed out of prison.

Shortly after JAN’s al-Qaeda affiliation became public, Omar Assaf argued in Amman Net that the declaration encouraged the government to take a harder line domestically. He asked rhetorically, “Are the Jordanians of Jabhat al-Nusra the Seed Corn for Islamic State of Jordan?” Assaf argued that the government had not been credible in its previous efforts to stem the Salafists, but had instead viewed the Syrian war as a way to get rid of them. Assaf argued that Abu Sayyaf’s declaration that a Jordanian had succeeded Jolani “had perturbed the government more than anything.” JAN’s response, indicating that Abu Anas al-Sahaba (Jolani’s alleged successor) and Abu Jalibib were “field commanders” in the group, had a similar impact.82

In September 2013, Maqdisi issued a short letter from prison through his attorney, Musa Abdillat, that gave “counsel” to the Jordanian government. Maqdisi wrote that “these arrests and pro-forma prosecutions will have no impact on the Salafi current, and it is the obligation of the regime’s institutions to take responsibility for its actions.”83 That same month, the imprisoned Tahawi issued a letter condemning the Jordanian legal system. The one non-Jordanian topic which Tahawi indirectly referenced was Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that summer; addressing the Salafist Nur Party in Egypt, he urged them not to “trade God’s law for the law of the world,” and to recognize that what had happened in Egypt was in fact a coup targeting Muslims.84

Maqdisi completed his sentence for Taliban recruitment on June 16, 2014. His release from prison came at an opportune time given his ongoing struggle with ISIS. But Maqdisi also encountered a much tougher security situation from when he had last been free, as the Jordanian government had cracked down on foreign fighters. Throughout 2014, the press frequently reported on small groups of Jordanians being arrested and tried in the State Security Court for attempted travel to Syria.

Maqdisi’s release came just ahead of the international coalition’s war on ISIS over its repeated massacres of civilians in Iraq as well as its brutal execution of journalists and aid workers in Syria. But this posed a dilemma for Maqdisi, given his past record of unqualified support for any Muslim group fighting non-Muslim forces in the Arab world. Salafists held protests in Jordan against the coalition airstrikes in September and Abu Sayyaf criticized the attacks as “crusader” in the media, adding that “it would be better to direct these strikes at the Jews who target Gaza and its people.” This stance was not simply that of the Salafi-Jihadists; Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood Deputy Guide Zaki Bani Arshad essentially took the same position, arguing that “this is not our war nor do we have any interest in being involved in it for the benefit of others.”85 Indeed, al-Quds al-Arabi reported on September 24 that Maqdisi had already told them that in case of “a crusader campaign,” he would stand with ISIS, despite disagreements with them.86

The government arrested Maqdisi again on October 27 during efforts to secure the release of the American hostage Peter Kassig from ISIS. As a result, the moved raised questions. A December 18 article in The Guardian described Maqdisi as playing a key role in the negotiations with ISIS. The article’s narrative gives the impression that Maqdisi was arrested in violation of a protocol agreement by which he would be able to contact ISIS members without being arrested for communicating with terrorists.87

The arrest seems especially odd given not only its timing but Maqdisi’s well-established opposition to ISIS. But an alternative explanation lurks, one as simple as Maqdisi violating the law. Under Jordanian law, it is a criminal offense to make statements which “harm the country’s relations with other states.”88 The authorities interpret this as including statements attacking other states. Bani Arshad, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, is currently facing prosecution for criticizing the United Arab Emirates for its ban on his organization in that country.

Given the laws’ ambiguous and broad wording and Maqdisi’s views, he could probably be arrested for any statement he makes on international affairs. For example, on September 9 Maqdisi purportedly posted a statement to an ISIS-sympathetic social media page which spread to jihadist forms.89 This could be judged as communicating with terrorists. Maqdisi was quoted on one pro-jihadist forum on September 24 as saying that the armed campaign against ISIS “must unite Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra” and that coalition partners were “apostate armies” participating in a “crusader war.” The forum also quoted a statement from Maqdisi’s own website – since taken down, if legitimate – that “today they bomb Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, and tomorrow they will bomb every faction which wants the face of God and victory for his religion and the implementation of his law.”90

On September 30, Maqdisi’s website published “An Initiative and Call for Truce Among the Factions in the Levant.” The statement referred to the war as a “crusader campaign.”91 Maqdisi was among the signatories, as was Abu Qatada. Why the former was arrested and the latter was not is unclear; Maqdisi’s alleged posting to pro-ISIS websites may have been the trigger, or it may have been Abu Qatada’s stronger stance on ISIS, as some suggest.92 Al-Rai al-Youm quoted Maqdisi explaining that it was “because of my call for jihadist reconciliation.” The same source reports that Maqdisi denied having made the posts to pro-ISIS websites, but then refused to make a formal declaration to that effect.93

Whether Maqdisi had made the post on the pro-ISIS site or not, his September 30 statement was enough to get him arrested. In fact, his opposition to airstrikes against ISIS, in which the Royal Jordanian Air Force was participating, was strong enough to temporarily reconcile him with Tahawi; in early December, he and Tahawi – both in prison – issued a joint statement calling on Abu Qatada to cease his attacks on ISIS.94

Maqdisi was still in custody on December 24 when it was reported that the Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh had been taken captive by ISIS after crashing over Syria. The Kassasbeh case has been widely reported; ISIS burned him alive in early January, but then later tried to use its Japanese hostage, Kenji Goto, to ransom Sajida al-Rishawi, the aforementioned failed Iraqi suicide bomber from the 2005 Amman hotel attacks. After ISIS executed Goto, it published the immolation of Kassasbeh, causing outrage across Jordan and calls for revenge.

Maqdisi’s initially hidden role and dramatic appearance on Jordanian television on February 6 is the key matter here. It quickly became clear that Maqdisi had secretly been involved in talks for a substantial period, and had even written a letter to Baghdadi, not knowing Kassasbeh was already dead.95 The noted expert on Islamist affairs Joas Wagemakers suggests that Maqdisi himself was responsible for raising the fate of Rishawi as a key issue.96 It is hard to be sure; the June 2014 Maan video might be evidence of ISIS’ interest in her fate, or it could be that Maqdisi pushed that angle because of the video. Irrespective, ISIS immolated Kassasbeh without negotiating over Rishawa, perhaps indicating that such a sensitive prisoner exchange was undoable.

Maqdisi made the most of his 16 minutes on al-Roya, Jordan’s main independent channel, reprising his 2005 al-Jazeera performance attacking Zarqawi, but this time targeting Baghdadi.97 Maqdisi cited early Islamic precedent to show that the exchange of prisoners was proper, and cited ISIS’ deceit as evidence that they were not true jihadists. His main goal was to disassociate the current from ISIS, repeating several times that “the Salafi-Jihadist current” had no relation to the organization, a demonstrably false claim since much of it has supported ISIS. But given the nation’s fury, it was Maqdisi’s opportunity to take the high ground in defending Islamic civilization.

On February 10, Maqdisi’s forum published an article, “The Lying Organization Whose Lies Reach the Horizons.”98 (The phrase tanthim al-dawla, “organization of the state,” is often used in Arabic media for ISIS, and the words “lying” and “horizons” here rhyme in Arabic.) The article indicted ISIS for its deceit, blaming it for the death of Rishawi, whom the government executed shortly after it confirmed Kassasbeh’s death. ISIS responded with a video of its own; having surreptitiously recorded Maqdisi’s calls, they put together a satirical presentation in which the leader of “the so-called Salafi-Jihadist current in Jordan” starred as “an American agent.” The recordings feature Maqdisi saying apologetically, “I was wrong in accusing you of extremism.”99

Jordan’s Salafists After Kassasbeh

Maqdisi’s startling television appearance marks a possible new beginning for Jordan’s Salafi-Jihadists. Released from prison, Maqdisi is back to his 2008 starting point, trying to rebuild and remold the Salafi-Jihadist movement. Then as now, Maqdisi faces criticism from hardcore jihadists that he has sold out to the Hashemite dynasty. Most of all, his appearance on al-Roya was an amazing opportunity for a man who remains an unequivocal supporter of al-Qaeda. Indeed, in the days after Maqdisi’s appearance, officials made clear to the press that he would not be allowed to speak to the media, feigning to have been surprised by his public performance. In truth, while al-Roya is part of Jordan’s semi-independent media, there is no real possibility that they would have conducted such an interview without an official green light. The most likely explanation is that Jordanian officialdom made a mistake, and only afterward realized the dangers in allowing Maqdisi to assume the face of tolerance and moderation.

Jordan’s Salafist Spring was killed by the Jihad in Syria. Through 2011, the Maqdisi wing – represented by Abu Sayyaf – showed every intention of using the Arab Spring to build an organization peacefully within the kingdom in order to be well-placed for any regime change along Egyptian lines. But Maqdisi’s preference for “peaceful mission” over armed action always depended on circumstances where a martial approach was either likely to be fruitless due to the security environment, or in principle wrong due to targeting Muslims. The emergence of Jabhat al-Nusra changed that, and from 2012 onward Salafist leaders were increasingly direct in their support for the al-Qaeda affiliate.

While some commentators have described Salafists as on the rise in Jordan, their roughly 3,000-strong protest in March 2011 was a high point in mobilization; subsequent protests, especially after Zarqa, focused on freeing prisoners and drew hundreds, at best.100 Never a mass movement, Salafi-Jihadists were increasingly either fighting in Syria, dead in Syria, or imprisoned in Jordan, with the remainder infighting over the JAN-ISIS split.

Islamic State’s brutal killing of Kassasbeh has had a dramatically negative impact on its standing among the general Jordanian public. A poll by the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies, published on February 27, found that 95 percent of Jordanians now considered ISIS to be “terrorist,” whereas in the same poll the previous August only 62 percent thought so.

This does not mean that things will necessarily be easy for the “two Salafi-Jihadist guides.”101 Ibrahim al-Asas, a noted Salafist teacher in Amman, said that prior to Kassasbeh they had lost most of the youth to ISIS, and that despite some loss among Salafists emotionally impacted by their brutality, the hardcore was sticking with Islamic State. Asas, who refused to identify himself with a current of the movement but said he had long known Abu Qatada personally and spoke positively of him, said the youth were impacted by ISIS’ victories, its attractive video propaganda and the existence of an “Islamic State.” Regarding Abu Qatada, Asas said that they had studied Islamic law together as students and that he had “matured” during his time abroad, adding that it showed Abu Qatada’s superior knowledge of Islam that he was critiquing ISIS early on, whereas “superficial people had to see their crimes on video to realize they were misguided.” Regarding Maqdisi, Asas rejected the suggestion that he had been compromised by the state, saying that Maqdisi was too principled, and that the state had made a calculation to use him against ISIS.102

Traditionalist, pro-government Salafists on the Albani-Halabi line disappeared from the narrative after 2011 due to lack of evidence that they had any substantial influence on events. However, Osama Shahada, an Amman-based traditionalist Salafist, confided after the Kassasbeh crisis that violence from the takfiris – followers of Maqdisi and Zarqawi – would have been even greater had it not been for the traditionalists. Although he conceded that his line’s open following – “those wearing the dishdasha, the beard, and the rest” – is small, he argued in an recent interview that many more attend mosques controlled by traditional Salafists. There is no way to confirm whether or not he is right, but Shahada interestingly emphasized that Maqdisi seemed more concerned for “our sister Sajida,” the failed suicide bomber, than Kassasbeh himself.103

The Maqdisi Salafists’ challenge after their split with ISIS and the Kassasbeh crisis is to put the pieces back together in a forbidding security environment. The popular vilification of Baghdadi’s ISIS presents an opportunity to reunify the movement, and even threaten the Jordanian state. If past is prologue, the 2005 Amman hotel attacks suggest the story does not end here – outrage at those attacks was almost as great as over Kassasbeh, yet the movement survived to play a major role in recent years. Going back to the old deal of allowing Salafi-Jihadists on the margin in exchange for a guarantee of peaceful behavior could lay the seeds for future conflict. So expect the Hashemite state and the Maqdisi Salafists to engage in a wary face-off in the years to come.

About the author:
*Kirk H. Sowell
, Principal, Uticensis Risk Services

This article was published by the Hudson Institute

1 For the most authoritative study of Maqdisi, see Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); for a broader historical review of Islamism in Jordan, spanning Salafism to the Muslim Brotherhood, see Muhammad Abu Rumman and Hassan Abu Haniya, The Islamic Solution in Jordan: Islamists and the State With Democracy and Security in the Balance (al-hal al-islami fi al-urdun: al-islamiun wa al-dawla, rihanat al-demuqratiya wa al-aman) (Amman: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2012), PDF available; for background, see also International Crisis Group Report, “Jordan’s 9/11: Dealing with Jihadi Islamism,” available online. Note: The ICG report misrepresents Maqdisi’s early work in Jordan in the 1992-1996 period as having been focused on domestic violence. ↝
2 Muhammad Abu Rumman and Hassan Abu Haniya, The Islamic Solution in Jordan: Islamists and the State With Democracy and Security in the Balance (al-hal al-islami fi al-urdun: al-islamiun wa al-dawla, rihanat al-demuqratiya wa al-aman) (Amman: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2012) p. 230-242. The source is vague about precisely when Albani arrived in Jordan. ↝
3 All Palestinians of West Bank origin automatically have Jordanian citizenship, whether they have ever set foot in Jordan or not. As a Salafi-Jihadist, Maqdisi is naturally indifferent to borders, and in his interviews and writings he acts as if the Jordanian government does not even exist, neither supporting it nor directly attacking it. It is clear, however, that he does not view the Jordanian government as legitimate. This rhetorical silence has had the advantage of helping him stay out of prison at least some of the time. Maqdisi’s birth name was Isam al-Otaybi, after his tribe, but he changed his first name to “Asim” and used “Barqawi” after his family’s hometown of Barqa. The appellation “Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi” is so widely used that most Jordanians would not recognize his real name, although he is well known. ↝
4 Maqdisi’s two key early books were Millat Ibrahim (The Community of Abrahim) and Al-Kawashif al-jiliya fi kufr al-dawla al-saudiya (Clear Indications of the Unbelief of the Saudi State). For more information, see Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), chapters 1-3. ↝
5 For more on Maqdisi’s role in Jordan, see Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), chapters 8-9. ↝
6 Muhammad Abu Rumman and Hassan Abu Haniya, The Islamic Solution in Jordan: Islamists and the State With Democracy and Security in the Balance (al-hal al-islami fi al-urdun: al-islamiun wa al-dawla, rihanat al-demuqratiya wa al-aman) (Amman: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2012) p. 296-308. Maqdisi’s 1996-1999 imprisonment related to an effort to organize attacks on Israel, referred to as the bayat al-imam case. He was freed, along with many others, in a general amnesty following King Abdullah II’s ascension to the throne. However, Maqdisi was arrested later that same year in connection with an alleged plot to attack a series of hotels – the “Millennium Plot.” He denied involvement and was ultimately cleared in court, but remained in prison through June 2005. ↝
7 A copy of Maqdisi’s “Aid and Counsel” letter, which is given an Islamic date corresponding with July-August 2004. ↝
8 Maqdisi’s interview is available at on YouTube and at ↝
9 See, for example, Jordan’s State Security Court in the Zaki Bani Arshad case. ↝
10 Muhammad Abu Rumman and Hassan Abu Haniya, The Islamic Solution in Jordan: Islamists and the State With Democracy and Security in the Balance (al-hal al-islami fi al-urdun: al-islamiun wa al-dawla, rihanat al-demuqratiya wa al-aman) (Amman: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2012) p. 311-320. ↝
11 Maqdisi’s lecture series recounting experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan. ↝
12 “Jordan Again Arrests Maqdisi, Spiritual Leader of Zarqawi,” al-Arabiya, December 23, 2010. Available at ↝
13 Maqdisi’s stretches of freedom in Jordan: 1992-1996, part of 1999, a short period in 2005, March 2008-December 2010, June-October 2014, and February 2015 onward. ↝
14 “Jordan’s Abu Sayyaf: A Key Islamist Actor in Maan,” Jamestown Foundation, November 30, 2011. ↝
15 “Jordan Protests Demand Constitutional Monarchy,” al-Jazeera, February 25, 2011. ↝
16 “Salafist Protests in Jordan,” al-Jazeera, March 3, 2011. ↝
17 “Shaykh Abu Zayd Talks of Suffering of Prisoners,” March 20 2011. Available on YouTube. ↝
18 “Lecture by Shaykh Ali al-Halabi,” March 12, 2011. Available on YouTube. ↝
19 “Lecture by Shaykh Ali al-Halabi,” June 8, 2011. Available on YouTube. ↝
20 “Lecture by Shaykh Mashhur Hassan,” February 5, 2011. Available on YouTube. ↝
21 “Fatwa of the Scholars on Protests and Sit-Ins,” al-Sakina, January 13, 2011. ↝
22 “Jordanian Salafists Attack Salafist Traditionalists,” al-Jazeera, March 13, 2014. ↝
23 “Jordan: Clash with Salafists and 83 Wounded Security Personnel,” al-Jaml, April 15, 2011. ↝
24 “Confrontation in Jordan with Salafist Jihadists,” al-Jazeera, April 17, 2011. ↝
25 Video series available on YouTube. ↝
26 At the time, the split within the Salafi-Jihadist current between Maqdisi and Zarqawi wings was still latent. ↝
27 “Jordan Arrests Brother of Khost Attacker,” al-Sakina, April 19, 2011. ↝
28 “Arrest of Brother of Khost Bomber,” al-Sawasana, April 23, 2013. ↝
29 “Jordanian Salafism Turns to Peace,” al-Jazeera, July 20, 2011. ↝
30 “Hunger Strike by Jordanian Salafists,” al-Jazeera, June 12, 2011. ↝
31 The original article from al-Quds al-Arabi for these quotes is no longer available, but the article is preserved in multiple websites, including here. ↝
32 “The ‘Jihadists of Jordan’ Form Shura Council,” Khaberni, September 4, 2011. ↝
33 “Abu Sayyaf: The Salafi Current in Jordan is Getting its Affairs in Order,” Amman Net, September 18, 2011. ↝
34 “Abu Sayyaf: We Will Not Give Up on Jihad Against the Syrian Regime Even if it Were in the Interest of America and Britain,” Jordanzad, April 26, 2012. ↝
35 “Killing of Two Jordanian Salafists in Syria, and Authorities Arrest Leader from Maan,” Amman News, April 23, 2012. ↝
36 “Jordanian Salafist Denies Recruiting Jihadists to Fight in Syria,” Amman Net, August 8, 2012. ↝
37 “The Jordanian Salafi-Jihadi Current Announces Sending Terrorists to Syria,” Syrian TV News. ↝
38 “Jordanian Salafist Leader Abu Sayyaf Threatens Attacks in Syria,” al-Watan Voice, September 8, 2012. ↝
39 “Arrest of 3 Jordanian Salafists Trying to Return Across the Border from Syria,” al-Watan News, October 18, 2012. ↝
40 “Jordanian Salafist Conducts Suicide Attack,” al-Balad News, November 10, 2012. ↝
41 “Interview on al-Jazeera with Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi.” Available on YouTube. ↝
42 “Anam Media for Assistance to the People of the Levant by Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi.” Available on YouTube. ↝
43 “Salafists of Jordan Promise Netanyahu Attacks in Israel,” al-Sawt, December 15, 2012. ↝
44 “Arrest of Tahawi Abu Sayyaf: Prison Management Based on Double-Standards,” Ammon News, January 18, 2013. ↝
45 “Jordanian Jihadists Join the Revolutionaries in Syria,” al-Jazeera, September 4, 2012. ↝
46 Ibid. ↝
47 Talk show with Saad al-Hunayti. Available here. ↝
48 “Interview with Saad al-Hunayti on al-Jazeera,” January 2014. ↝
49 “Appointment of Jordanian as Emir of Jabhat al-Nusra,” al-Jazeera, December 13, 2012. This is the original report which al-Jazeera later recanted, but it quotes “sources exclusive to al-Jazeera”; “Jordanian Salafists are the Lifeblood of Jabhat al-Nusra in the South,” al-Hayat, June 20, 2013. ↝
50 “The New Generation of Jordanian Jihadi Fighters,” Carnegie Endowment, February 18, 2014; Muslim Forum posting. ↝
51 “New Zarqawi Emir of Jabhat al-Nusra but Jordanian Salafists Deny Any Relationship to Appointment,” Sawt al-Mowaten, December 2012. ↝
52 “Jordanian Salafists Appoint New Emir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria,” Ammon News, December 13, 2012. ↝
53 Report on al-Jazeera, December 19, 2012. Available on YouTube. ↝
54 “To al-Jazeera: Abu Anas al-Sahaba New Emir to Jabhat al-Nusra.” Available on YouTube. ↝
55 “Appointment of Jordanian as Emir of Jabhat al-Nusra,” al-Jazeera, December 13, 2012. This is the original report which al-Jazeera later recanted, but it quotes “sources exclusive to al-Jazeera.” ↝
56 “Amman: Abu Qatada Calls in Court for Obedience to Zawahiri and Unity Between the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra,” al-Hayat, October 24, 2013. ↝
57 Abu Qatada al-Filistini, “Letter to the People of Jihad in the Levant.” Available here. ↝
58 “Abu Qatada Rejects Applying Jizya to Syrian Christians and Reiterates Support for Jolani Negotiating Stance,” CNN Arabic, April 6, 2014. ↝
59 Arabic PDF; English PDF. ↝
60 “Followers of Abu Musab Give Baya to the ‘State’ in Revolt Against Abu Qatada and Attack Maqdisi,” al-Hayat, November 21, 2013. ↝
61 Ibid. ↝
62 Ibid. ↝
63 “Barqawi Argues for Deliberation Before ‘Baya to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,’” al-Hayat, November 25, 2013. ↝
64 ↝
65 “Reestablishing the Fatwa Forum.” Available ↝
66 “Jordanian Salafist Current Prohibits Joining ‘Daesh’ in Syria,” al-Ghad, February 4, 2014. ↝
67 “Abu Sayyaf: There is a Decline in the Number of Salafists Going to Syria,” Amman Net, April 10, 2014. ↝
68 “Jordanian Salafists Leader Gives Baya to Daesh in Preparation for Mediation with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Opposition Factions in Syria,” Aks al-Sayr, April 11, 2014. ↝
69 “March in Maan ‘to Support Daesh’ Entangle Jihadists in Jordan and Authorities Sound Warning,” CNN Arabic, June 22, 2014. video of march available on YouTube. ↝
70 ISIS “Message to Our People in Maan.” Available on YouTube. ↝
71 “Jordanian Authorities Arrest Three Members of ‘Islamic State,’” Erem News, August 18, 2014. ↝
72 “Salafi Shaykh Otaybi in Irbid: Dawaish [IS Members] Attempts to Assault Me,” Kermalkom, July 17, 2014. ↝
73 “Salafi-Jihadists in Jordan on their Way to ‘Daesh’ After Years with Jabhat al-Nusra,” al-Hayat, July 4, 2014. ↝
74 “Observers: Daesh [IS] is the Majority of Salafi-Jihadists in Jordan,” al-Ghad, August 5, 2014. ↝
75 “Split in Jabhat al-Nusra in Favor of Islamic State in Syria,” Aran News, October 23, 2014. ↝
76 “Two Leaders in the Jordanian Salafi-Jihadist Current Join Islamic State,” Middle East Online, October 17, 2014. ↝
77 “Jordanian Salafi-Jihadist Leader: Giving Baya to the Leader of Daesh is Ignorance,” Hawa Jordan, July 24, 2014. ↝
78 “Official Source: We Have Our Eyes on the Irbid Camp over the Threat from Daesh,” al-Arab al-Youm, August 18, 2014. ↝
79 “Gatekeeper of the Jihad,” Foreign Policy, April 18, 2014. ↝
80 “Appointment of a Jordanian as General Legal Authority of Jabhat al-Nusra,” Secrets News, July 31, 2014. ↝
81 “‘Daesh’ Videos Stir Division Among Salafists,” al-Quds al-Arabi, November 26, 2013. ↝
82 “Are the Jordanians of Jabhat al-Nusra the Seed Corn of Islamic State of Jordan,” Amman Net, April 13, 2013. ↝
83 “Maqdisi from Prison Advises the Jordanian Regime: Arrests of the Authorities of the Salafi Movement Will Not Intimidate Us or Break Our Will,” All of Jordan, September 15, 2013. ↝
84 “Letter from Jordanian Salafist Leader By Way of al-Quds al-Arabi Condemning State Court with Counsel for the Egyptian Nur Party,” al-Quds al-Arabi, September 9, 2013. ↝
85 “Jordanian Salafist Leader Prohibits Fighting ‘Daesh’ and Describes the War on it as ‘Crusader,’” al-Quds al-Arabi, September 24, 2014. ↝
86 “Movement in the Jordanian Salafi Street Against the International Coalition,” al-Quds al-Arabi, September 24, 2015. ↝
87 “U.S. Backed Talks Between Jihadi Clerics and ISIS in an Effort to Save Hostage’s Life,” The Guardian, December 18, 2014. ↝
88 See, for example, Jordan’s State Security Court in the Zaki Bani Arshad case. Available here. ↝
89 “Shaykh al-Maqdisi Confirms that Authorities Demand He End Incitement Against ‘The Crusader Coalition,’” al-Rai al-Youm, September 29, 2014. ↝
90 The Fitn Forum. Available at here. ↝
91 “Initiative and Call to Truce Among the Factions of the Levant,” Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad, September 30, 2014. Available here. ↝
92 “’Cloak of the Caliphate’… Transaction or Illness,” Sawalief, July 16, 2014. ↝
93 “Maqdisi: My Arrest Was Solely Because I Sought Jihadist Reconciliation,” al-Rai al-Youm, November 9, 2014. ↝
94 “Maqdisi and Tahawi Call on Abu Qatada to be Silent After Describing Baghdadi as ‘Misguided,’” al-Rai al-Youm, December 11, 2014. ↝
95 “Text of Letter from Maqdisi to Baghdadi,” al-Ghad, February 7, 2015. ↝
96 “Maqdisi in the Middle: An Inside Account of the Secret Negotiations to Free a Jordanian Pilot,” Jihadica, February 11, 2015. ↝
97 “Interview with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi,” al-Roya TV, February 6, 2015. Available here. ↝
98 “The Lying Organization Whose Lies Have Reached the Horizons,” Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad, February 10, 2015. Available here. ↝
99 ISIS video mocking Maqdisi available on YouTube. ↝
100 “Salafi Jihadists on the Rise in Jordan,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 5, 2014. While this article repeatedly describes Salafists as being numerous, there is no clear metric for demonstrating this. ↝
101 This phrase in quotes is a common way these two men are referred to in Arabic – munathirayn al-tiyar al-salafi al-jihadi in Jordan. ↝
102 Personal interview with the author in Amman. ↝
103 Personal interview with the author in Amman. ↝

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