Syria Emerges as a New Battlefield for Jordan’s Jihadists

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 1

While the influence of jihadists is increasing in Syria where they are fighting alongside other Syrian armed groups to topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the country is increasingly attracting Arab fighters from neighbouring countries, including Jordan. More than 200 jihadists from Jordan have flocked to Syria since the crisis entered its military phase by the end of 2011 (al-Ghad [Amman], October 13, 2012). The migration to Syria is opening a new stage in Jordan’s jihadist history. 

The jihadist movement in Jordan emerged after the Second Gulf War (1990-1991), when Iraqi president Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the Gulf states invited American troops to help expel Saddam from Kuwait. The American presence on the soil of the Arabian Peninsula had a profound influence on the development of jihadist ideology. A second contributing influence was the failure of a nationalist ideology that emphasized Arab unity as Arab states confronted each other in the Second Gulf War. The simultaneous collapse of communism discredited the socialist influences that had once been closely tied to Arab nationalism, leaving the field open to the development of Islamism as an alternative ideology. 

Moreover, thousands of expats returned to Jordan from the Gulf during this period, including those who carried Islamist ideas with them. Among these was Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who can be considered the “founding father” of the jihadist movement in Jordan (for al-Maqdisi, see Militant Leadership Monitor, July 30, 2010 and Terrorism Monitor, July 9, 2009). Jordanians returning from Afghanistan after fighting the Soviet occupation also fed the growing jihadist movement in Jordan.

While there were a number of incidents and foiled plots in this period, the relation between Jordan’s jihadists and the Jordanian security services (Mukhabarat) grew steadily worse after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. As a U.S. ally, the Mukhabarat tightened security throughout Jordan. 

However, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq turned that nation into a hotbed for jihadists from a range of Arab countries, including Jordan, which supplied the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the late Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (killed by a U.S. airstrike in June, 2006). The war in Iraq produced a new and more radical generation of Jordanian jihadists who escalated their enmity toward the Jordanian government by undertaking attacks against various targets within Jordan. Most notable among these was a Zarqawi-orchestrated attack on three hotels in Amman that killed 60 people and injured over 100 more (al-Jazeera, November 9, 2005). 

A new stage in relations between the jihadists and Jordanian authorities began with the commencement of the “Arab Spring.” In an unprecedented move, Jordan’s jihadists took to the streets of Amman and other major Jordanian cities such as Ma’an, Salt, Irbid and Zarqa. These marches were inspired by the power of the Arab Spring revolutions, but such demonstrations came to an abrupt end in April 2012, when clashes erupted between jihadists and security forces after Friday prayer in Zarqa, the hometown of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. After some 80 pro-government demonstrators and policemen were injured, Jordan’s state security court charged 146 Islamists with plotting terrorist attacks (Jordan Times, April 26). 

Since then the jihadists in Jordan have been divided between a traditional faction that supports peaceful action and the neo-Zarqawists who prefer to pursue violent jihad and consider themselves the inheritors of al-Zarqawi’s legacy (see Terrorism Focus, November 19, 2008). The Zarqa incident plays in favour of the new generation’s arguments and, more significantly, the escalation of violence in Syria has played a major role in starting a new stage in the history of Jordan’s jihadist movement. 

According to an informed source who spoke to the Jamestown Foundation on the basis of anonymity, the new generation of jihadists in Jordan is well-connected to global jihadists and are migrating to Syria to wage jihad against the Assad regime while Jordan’s traditional jihadists are more involved in political activism. [1] However, the Syrian crisis has narrowed the divisions between these parties. 

A prominent jihadist ideologue, Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, has issued two fatwas urging Muslims to join the jihad in Syria and expressed sympathy for the al-Qaeda-style militant group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra  ( Dec 25, 2012; for Jabhat al-Nusra, see Terrorism Monitor, November 30, 2012). In an interview with Jamestown, al-Tahawi said that “Muslims in Syria have been oppressed by Assad’s brutal and barbaric regime; therefore, according to Islam, it is obligatory for any able-bodied Muslim to support his brothers there.” [2] While al-Tahawi believes it is the duty of Muslims from all over the world to join the Syrian jihad, he believes the proximity of Jordan to Syria will make the journey easier for Jordanian Muslims. 

A mid-December report by al-Jazeera quoted a Jordanian jihadist as saying that Jabhat al-Nusra had appointed a Jordanian named Abu Anas al-Sahabah as the new Amir of the group (al-Jazeera, December 13, 2012). The next day, however, al-Tahawi denied this news, saying that jihadists in Jordan are not involved in operational decisions (BBC Arabic TV, December 14, 2012). Jabhat al-Nusra later confirmed this denial, stating that Abu Muhammad al-Jolani was the group’s Amir (, December 18, 2012). The above-mentioned informed source suggested that news of a Jordanian’s appointment to Amir of Jabhat al-Nusra could have been fabricated and leaked by the Mukhabarat as part of an effort to force the group to reveal elements of its leadership structure and the role of Jordanians in it. [3] 

The Syrian crisis has opened a new jihadi battlefield for Jordan’s jihadists, but more importantly, it has unified them again after signs of division as the arguments of those who were looking to focus on “peaceful jihad” have failed. Of the estimated 200 Jordanian jihadists in Syria, at least 15 have been killed so far, some of them by carrying out suicide attacks. Such a situation is worrying for Jordan as the jihadists active in Syria could reproduce al-Zarqawi’s strategy of targeting Amman from abroad, in this case substituting Syria for Iraq. 

Murad Batal al-Shishani is an Islamic groups and terrorism issues analyst based in London. He is a specialist on Islamic movements in Chechnya and in the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to several publications in both Arabic and English. 


1. Murad Batal al-Shishani, Interview with a journalist who requested anonymity, Amman, December 31, 2012. 

2. Murad Batal al-Shishani, Telephone interview with Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, October 19, 2012.

3. Murad Batal al-Shishani, Interview with a journalist who requested anonymity, Amman, December 31, 2012.