The Islamists and ISIS

The Islamic Action Front, the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has grown in significance on the street. Yet, it defies the Jordanian approach to Islamists, which has been to allow them representation to better absorb their impact. It’s largely made up, and represents, Palestinians. But, it’s more moderate than Hamas, which is the main political Islamist force in Gaza. Still, the IAF won only 16 seats in the last – September 2016 – election, after returning to the political mainstream from years of boycotts. The IAF endured an internal split that led to the birth of ‘Zamzam’. Many of the IAF leadership has moved to the new group. The IAF ran in a coalition that include some Christian candidates as well. Their main goal is to secure a constitutional amendment allowing Parliament to elect the Prime Minister instead of having this office filled by Royal appointment. The Muslim Brotherhood itself has been banned from running directly for Parliament. But, the group exercises strong influence on the Jordanian ‘street’. The fear is that Islamic State, which presses the northern border, forcing thousands of refugees to flee, could attract disaffected and young Jordanians, who have little to hope for their future. A Jordanian in three is unemployed.


The risk that young people falling into the hands of the Islamic State, as so many Tunisians in similar circumstances have done, is a concern. It’s no coincidence that the U.S. Congress has allocated an additional $450 million of military aid to Jordan. The Kingdom could become a victim of the perfect storm of political delegitimization prompted by its and economic crisis. Yet, the main driver for ISIS doesn’t exist in Jordan. ISIS has grown through the sectarian nature of Iraqi and Syrian societies. Elsewhere, ISIS has shaken the establishment with attacks, but never gained a wider socio-political foothold. Still, the Jordanian government claims to have uncovered and dismantle an ISIS cell, featuring all-Jordanian leadership – in Irbid, near the Syrian border. Jordan believes that over 1,000 of its citizens have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq to support ISIS.
Jordan has a long history of Salafi activism Many young foreign fighters Jordanians enlisted as mujahedin in the Islamic International Brigade to fight in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. Although many f terrorism scholars have found links between poverty and radicalization to religious violence tenuous, Jordan could be the exception to that rule. Jordan faces bankruptcy with little in view to improve the economy. The fascination of the ISIS caliphate and the promise of a salary – that’s why many Tunisians have become one of the most prominent in the ISIS ranks – could prove fatal.

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The elections in Jordan have helped to absorb some tensions and Islamists have become the main opposition bloc in parliament. This has left a safety valve to release some of the pressure, but, the Islamist landscape has become more polarized. The Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has an ethnic – nationalist component that harks back to the early 1970’s and late 1960’s. The moderates are largely of tribal origin and loyal to the Hashemite monarchy, while the hawks are Jordanians of Palestinian origin. They see the Brotherhood and its related political entities as a tool for action. In addition, there is the Jordanian government’s determination to defeat ISIS. It could even receive special attention from the new American President Trump. He wants to extricate the U.S. from many international theatres, leaving the defeat of ISIS as his main foreign and defense priority. Defeating ISIS, rather than removing Bashar al-Asad, is Amman’s main regional priority.

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Amman’s military involvement against ISIS could not be hidden after a Jordanian jet was shot down during a mission over Raqqa in December, 2014. ISIS captured the pilot and then burned him alive on January 3, 2015. The episode served to heighten Jordan’s resolve against the extremists in Syria. But, Jordan is an ideal ISIS target. There are 8,000 American soldiers, especially elite air and ground units. There is also an operational military command center in Amman, coordinating actions against ISIS. Meanwhile, Jordan remains more open to dialogue and a political solution to the Syrian conflict – which also outs it at odds against the many other Islamist groups fighting against Bashar al-Asad. To that end, Jordan has improved ties to Iran; it has also backed General Haftar in Libya, promising weapons and training to fight ISIS. King Abdallah has adopted a courageous and pragmatic stance. But, in the Middle Eastern context, this is a gamble for Jordan, given its relative economic weakness.

Alessandro Bruno




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