Fade to black: Jordanian city Ma'an copes with Islamic State threat


[02-09-2014 04:16 PM]

Ammon News - AMMONNEWS - By Alice Su - A black flag droops from the middle of a traffic circle in Ma’an, capital city of Jordan’s largest governorate. Three hours south of Amman, the streets here are silent on a Thursday morning. Most stores are closed. Pedestrians are few. Armored personnel carriers loom in the desert heat. Walls covered in Islamist and anti-government graffiti surround the flag, emblazoned with the calligraphy made famous by the Islamic State.

“We do not accept the illegitimate Jordanian government that shoots innocent women and children,” one wall reads. Beside it, “Welcome Islamic State” and “There is no law but God’s law” are scrawled in spray paint.

The recent spread across Syria and Iraq of the Islamic State (IS) — known as Da’ash in Arabic — has stirred fears that Jordan could be next. Surrounded by growing chaos and struggling with millions of refugees, especially those fleeing the civil war in Syria, the country is under high pressure to keep its economy, infrastructure and security intact.

Doing so requires both tightening domestic control and addressing local social and economic grievances – an increasingly difficult balancing act in places like Ma’an, where Jordanian authorities have cracked down on unrest. At the same time, locals complain of police corruption and impunity, saying their use of excessive force in the name of security deepens local resentment and can push a marginalized population — youth especially — towards radical groups.

On the one hand, analysts say the threat of an external IS attack is minimal. Jordan is a key U.S. ally, with at least 1,000 American troops stationed inside its borders. Obama recently announced a $5 billion counterterrorism fund for shoring up partner countries “on the front lines.” Jordan has bolstered its border defenses, upped military recruitment and improved coordination with Saudi Arabia. Even Israel has suggested it could come to Jordan’s defense should the Islamic State breach the northeastern borders.

So, the greater IS threat in Jordan is internal. A growing extremist presence in the Kingdom has raised alarm toward potential attacks, especially as IS draws support from younger Jordanians. “There is a generational split since [IS] came into the spotlight,” said Hasan Abu Hanieh, a political analyst who researches Islamist movements. “Young people tend to support them, while older jihadists stay with al-Qaeda.”

While these radicals pose a real security risk, they are also small in number, monitored and internally divided, analysts say. Local media in Jordan have reported that at least 40 IS supporters were arrested across Jordan in a two-day crackdown last week. Such groups are actively operating in Jordan, but weakened by echoes of the wider split between IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Syria. Abu Muhammad al-Makdisi, a radical leader recently released from prison, has publicly denounced IS in favor of al-Nusra, for example, while others advocate the opposite. “There is a divide-and-rule strategy, not to mention that the group is still very small and under heavy surveillance,” said Jordanian political analyst Osama al Sharif.

Local government officials back that up viewpoint. “We know who they are and everything they’re doing,” Ma’an governor Ghaleb al-Shamayleh told Al Jazeera, adding that Jordan works closely with foreign counterterrorism officials. Salafists are not outlaws, he said, but they are watched. Better to let some extremists speak, especially if they are disagreeing with one another, than to arrest them and drive their followers into unity, he said. “At the end, if your finger hurts, you can cut it off.”

But Shamayleh’s governorate is a reputed hotbed of unrest, known for high crime rates, low employment, and anti-government sentiment. Ma’an has borne a heavy security presence since April, when violent riots broke out after security forces allegedly killed a 19-year-old civilian. Subsequently, sporadic clashes have been reported as being connected to extremists. At a demonstration in June, protesters marched through the streets waving black flags and shouting anti-government chants.

Even if there is no explicit IS presence in Jordan, Abu Hanieh, the analyst, said security depends on keeping the Kingdom clear of exclusion-driven unrest. “The numbers and percentage of Da’ash are not important,” he said. “In Iraq and Syria, people hated the government. They were pushed more and more until their hatred was greater than their fear.”

The IS strategy is rooted in appeal to disenfranchised populations, Abu Hanieh said. Iraqi Sunnis, marginalized since the U.S. invasion and excluded by the Maliki government’s unfair political processes, were drawn to IS rhetoric of representation and justice. “It’s the ideology that they’re resisting oppression,” Abu Hanieh said.

Jordan does not suffer widespread sectarian tension – not to mention that its leader, King Abdullah, is a Sunni – but IS may take advantage of other demographic divides. “The split here is Palestinian-Jordanian, not Sunni-Shia,” Abu Hanieh said. “They could play that card, and push accusations that Jordan is supporting Israel.”

The other danger is with neglected and impoverished youth, Sharif added. “Young people are unemployed, conservative and religious. They could become an incubator for extremist ideas,” Sharif said. “They feel disenfranchised.”

Abdulrahman agreed about the danger to Ma’an. “We want the government to help our youth. They turn to drugs and stealing because they are victims,” he said. “If things become worse, maybe Da’ash will convince them. This is what we are afraid of.”

*Aljazeera




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