On January 27, 2009, the trial of a Salafi-Jihadi group was launched in Amman, Jordan. The twelve Jordanians, all of Palestinian origin, were members of a group charged with carrying out attacks with Molotov cocktails on a Christian church and cemetery. According to Jordanian authorities, the militants are also connected to the shooting of a group of Lebanese musicians performing in downtown Amman last July, during which 19-year-old Thair al-Wahidi wounded six people before fatally shooting himself in the head.
The indictment sheet suggested that 28-year-old Shaker al-Khatib is the mastermind of the group. According to the charges, al-Khatib was trained in the Ain al-Hilwah Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon by an alleged al-Qaeda member in preparation for joining insurgents in Iraq (Dar al-Hayat, January 28). Instead he returned to Jordan to form a militant cell and recruited the other members of the group through the internet and at mosque gatherings. The indictment said that al-Khatib had sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden through the leader of al-Qaeda in Levant, described only by the kunya (honorific) "Abu Muhammad" (Dar al-Hayat, January 28; al-Ghad, January 28).
Such developments can be traced in the emergence of a new generation of Salafi-Jihadis in the region who can be described as neo-Zarqawists. These young militants consider themselves the inheritors of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s legacy in the Levant (see Terrorism Focus, November 19, 2008). The average age of those who are in custody in this case is 22.
There are two important elements contributing to the growth of new-Zarqawism in Jordan: the connection to Islamist radicals and fighters in neighboring countries (especially Iraq or Lebanon via Syria), and the increase in militant activity in the northern city of Irbid, close to the Syrian border.
Since the emergence of Salafi-Jihadi groups in Jordan in the 1990s, Zarqa, Salat, and the downtown of the Jordanian capital of Amman have become strongholds for radical Islamists. It is Irbid, however, that has emerged as the most important center for the neo-Zarqawists because it lies on the main routes to Syria (on the way to the Iraqi jihad) and Lebanon (for training, like Shaker al-Khatib).
Evidence of the connection to Irbid emerged in the trial of Azmi al-Jayousi, a senior al-Zarqawi operative in Jordan and the ringleader of what become known as the "Amman Chemical Plot," which aimed to attack the headquarters of Jordan’s General Intelligence Department in 2004. In his confession, al-Jayousi stated that most of the explosives were manufactured from fertilizers by the group in a farm house in Irbid (Addustour, March 26, 2006). At least two members of the plot were from Irbid, the best known being Ibrahim Zin al-Abdin (a.k.a. Jihad al-Qasha), who wrote a tough letter criticizing Jordan’s "jihad scholar" and mentor to al-Zarqawi, Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Al-Qasha is believed to be in a Syrian prison after fleeing from Jordan (al-Sabeel, January 11, 2005; also see his letter published on muslm.net, October 9, 2008). All four Jordanian members of a group convicted of planning attacks on tourists, Americans, and Jews in 2005 were also from Irbid (al-Sabeel, July 19, 2005). On January 9, 2007, Jordanian forces killed one Salafi-Jihadi operative and captured another in Irbid (al-Jazeera, January 9, 2009). The dead man, Sulayman Ghayad al-Anjadi, had attempted to organize a prison break in 2006 that would have freed al-Zarqawi’s former lieutenant, Azmi al-Jayousi.
The current case in Jordan is not the first time Jordanian Salafi-Jihadi groups have connected with al-Qaeda affiliated groups in neighboring countries. In 2005, members of the Khatab Brigades were connected to two prominent Lebanese Salafi-Jihadis: Osama al-Shihabi, leader of the Jund al-Sham group; and Haitham al-Sa’di (a.k.a. Abu Tariq), brother of Asabat al-Ansar founder Abu Mihjin. Both were tried in absentia on terrorism charges (al-Ghad, December 7, 2005). Other members of the Khatab Brigades who trained in Saudi Arabia were convicted of plotting attacks on American nationals in 2006 (Jordan Times, September 14, 2006).
In March 2006, the Jordanian state security court sentenced eleven Jordanians, including five fugitives, to prison terms ranging between 15 months and 22 years on charges of planning to join the insurgency in Iraq via Syria. The court claimed some of the accused were connected to Abu Adam al-Tunisi, al-Qaeda’s facilitator in Syria (Elaph, March 8, 2006).
The ongoing trial in Amman and the level of jihadi activity in Irbid and elsewhere in Jordan suggest that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s dream of a Salafi-Jihadist movement in the Levant is coming to fruition with a new generation of militant youth. Though they are, in many cases, poorly trained and without direct contacts to al-Qaeda, this younger generation appears to be even more radical than their Jordanian predecessors.