After his release from a Jordanian prison in June, Abu Mohammed Al Maqdessy (Assem Al Barqawi), the most prominent theoretician of the Jordanian Salafis, and mentor of the infamous Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader, Al Zarqawi in Iraq, issued a statement intensely criticizing the Islamic State (IS), accusing it of killing Muslims who have different views and allegiances.
Abu Mes’ab Al Zarqawi, who was seen by the U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq as the leader of the insurgency that hampered the U.S. military effort and caused significant casualties, was killed in an air strike in 2006. He had originally come from Jordan. Despite his death, AQI continued to function and thrive, going through several transformations until its current form, the Islamic State.
In a recorded message, the IS consoled the victims of the Gaza war and committed to target the Jordanian throne as “the principle protector of Israel”. This threat should not be taken lightly not due to any particular military capabilities the IS may or may not have, but mainly because of the nature of the internal situation in Jordan. In any assumed campaign against Jordan, the IS will depend mainly on the weak features of this situation not on its own capabilities. The IS has a wide range of potential and actual allies already active inside Jordan.
In 2011, Al Maqdessy had been sentenced to five years in prison for the charge of recruiting fighters for Al Qaeda. As mentioned above, he was the mentor to Zarqawi. After Zarqawi’s death, AQI then became the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and now calls itself the Islamic State (IS). Last month IS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared the “new Caliphate” across parts of both Iraq and Syria, and declared himself the “Caliph of IS and all Muslims”.
But Al Maqdessy’s words condemning the IS are not standing without chalange. By virtue of the momentum of the IS victories in Iraq and Syria and the internal situation in Jordan, it was just normal to see an increasing descent among the Salafis. It was an ominous sign that Sheikh Abu Muhammad Al Tahawi, one of the major Salafi Jihadi theologians in Jordan declared his total support for the IS just after Al Maqdessy’s statement. The announcement came few days ago shortly after Al Tahawi was released from prison.
While this is a sign of the increasing polarization, it is destined to deepen the debate further among the Salafis, with one camp showing the victories of the IS as a clear proof of the correctness of the movement and the other resorting to verses from the Quran and the Hadith to show that the IS is wrong. Similar debates are rarely solved in discussion forums. They are settled when the real life events render one of them obsolete.
The overall momentum and euphoria among the IS potential allies, the Jordanian Salafi Jihadists, caused by the victories of the IS are creating now the ideal environment for recruiting members and turning the general atmosphere into a favorable one for further growth. Islamists who longed to see their ideals advance see in the victories of the IS a way forward and are increasingly declaring their allegiance to the new Caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
In Jordan, the dominant influence among the Jordanian Salafi-Jihadi (versus traditional Salafis) has been until now that of Al Qaeda, not of Al Baghdadi or Al Tahawi and IS. However, information now coming from the important towns of Ma’an, Al Zarqa, and Al Saltt indicate that on the level of the bases of the Salafi-Jihadi current, there is indeed a “theoretical” battle going on. The actual dynamic of the regional situation could tip things in the direction of the IS.
The issue in the debate is whether it is the righteous stand to turn the back to the IS even if there is merit to Al Maqdessy’s criticism of the Caliphate. This debate is parallel to the theoretical argument among members of Al Nour, the Egyptian Salafi party, after the former president Mohammed Morsi was toppled and then arrested, and members of his Muslim Brotherhood organization suffered the worst crack down by authorities in decades. We now know the result of this debate. Despite the commitment of Al Nour leaders to the new regime and their promise that their bases would vote in the presidential elections that followed the ouster of Al Morsi, the base did not vote. In certain cases they joined the rallies of Morsi supporters.
In a town like Al Saltt, the analysis of the current intra Jihadi debate leads to identifying two distinguishable points of view among those who discuss IS. The first defines its support in theological arguments used by the IS itself and opposed by the followers of Al Qaeda, and the second, usually defines its position on bases of solidarity with Jihadi brethren who are fighting the enemies of Islam, even if declaring the Caliphate is theologically questionable.
This second position is the most worrying as it transcends the theological arguments altogether to find no other barrier in its way to support the IS. It is also destined to attract many others, including those who believe their wise Sheikhs when they prove that Al Baghdadi is wrong, once they see the enemies of the IS start military actions against it.
But in the case of Jordan, the debate is between two violent organizations. Both are dangerous but only one represents an imminent threat, and that is the IS. However, so far, the influence of Al Qaeda among the Jihadi-Salafis is stronger than that of the IS. Any assumption that the Islamic State’s important victory in Iraq and Syria is not going to have a strong echo among the Salafis in Jordan, and indeed in the region, is wrong. This advance in the IS direction was confirmed with a communique issued on July 22nd and signed by “the sons of Al Da’awa for Al Tawheed wal Jihad”. The communique responded to Al Maqdessy by simply reminding him of the victories of the IS and the fact that that “it is the IS that is today the fortress of Islam, and its fighters are the sharp edge of Islamic spear.” The communique also announced, “We declare that Al Maqdessy no longer represents us.”
When the IS executed some Jordanian members of Jabhat Al Nusra (a follower of Al Qaeda) upon their refusal to declare allegiance to Al Baghdadi, the reaction among the Jordanian Salafis in general was very negative. Yet, in our view that will not guarantee that the base of the movement will not grow sympathetic to the IS in the coming months particularly when some considerable military actions by common enemies of AQ and IS are carried out against the IS.
As it is clear from the overall picture, the Jihadi movement is indeed moving to a higher stage, that of establishing a concrete universal category. In the case of Al Qaeda, there was no independent territory to be declared a state. The organization chose to fight in the shadows of Taliban. IS considers Mullah Omar merely the “Emir” of a state that can be later absorbed as part of the Caliphate headed by Al Baghdadi. The obscurity of Al Qaeda’s concepts in this regard and the relentless international anti-terrorism campaign forced Al Qaeda into the defensive as it faltered and fragmented. Though the declaration of a Caliphate is theologically questionable as many Sunni Ulamma raised recently, it appeals to a young and restless generation of militant Jihadists who get more radicalized with the utter lack of reform in their societies and its cultures.
Following the current debate leads to finding out that the main issue is the extent to which it is righteous to declare a Caliphate. It is obviously a manifestation of disputes that are found in many other places. But this development alone indicates the importance of the time factor in putting the brakes on the IS momentum.
The impact of the intra-Salafi dispute in Jordan is difficult to assess, yet this impact should always be seen as a function of what will happen to the IS on the ground. If the Islamic State is defeated swiftly, Al Maqdessy and his ilk will certainly consider it a vindication of their views. If the IS resists for long, it will be a catalyst to mobilize the Jihadi Salafi base in its favor, and that will not only be in Jordan.
Does it matter? Yes, it does. There is quite a lot to learn from the nuances and doublw words used in the debate among the Salafis in Jordan. These are the fighters who will certainly assist the IS when it starts it campaign against the Jordanian or other territories. It is difficult to conceive of an IS attack on Jordan that does not start from within the country.
Arab leaders should show their support to King Abdullah II in all possible ways. The attempt to revive the traditional Salafism (those who refuse both Al Qaeda and the IS) will go nowhere, as the heat generated by the entirety of the regional dynamics and domestic conditions leaves that current very limited room to grow.
The Jordanian security force is competent, but we have learned from the Egyptian and Iraqi lessons that the method of counting exclusively on security measures against an ideological current with momentum can only go so far. This is a bad moment for a spontaneous eruption of popular protests, along economic and reform demands, in Jordan. Such ill-timed protests, if they erupt suddenly will intersect with the growth of the Salafi-Jihadis and the regional momentum of the IS. The intersection between these two lines will certainly be bad news. Amman should be assisted, particularly from Arab countries, in all forms possible until the IS is defeated in both Iraq and Syria.
It is also wrong to compare the capabilities of the Jordanian security forces and that of the IS. The one thing that defies any quantification is that which we do not see in the bottom of the Jordanian society. The impact of the victories of the IS, the Islamists debate there and the significance of this debate in the general social surroundings are all to be scrutinized. The IS does not depend on its calculable capabilities. It simply flies or falls on the winds of the general regional and domestic dynamics where it exists.