Observers of Islamist politics during the Arab uprisings noticed that the Muslim Brotherhood has been late to the game but few have taken notice of a group of Jordanian Islamists who have taken to streets with knives, clubs, and a very provocative message. The Jihadist Salafi Movement in Jordan capitalized on the growing tensions throughout the region by engaging in open protest. One of their largest demonstrations on April 15th resulted in a major clash with police forces, leaving eighty-three policemen wounded, with four in critical condition, and numerous civilian causalities. This protest was the sixth public appearance of the banned Jihadist Salafis since their first demonstration on March 1st. While each rally only attracted a few hundred protesters, the decision of the Salafis to reassert themselves in the public sphere marks a significant change in tactics for a group that remained largely unseen since 2006.
Salafis in general do not form a fully cohesive movement. While some are politically active, the group at large is more of a religious movement, rejecting politics as an effective route to reform. In Jordan they are labeled as extremists mostly because they are an illegal organization and do not utilize transparent social structures to advocate for change. The two main branches of Salafis in Jordan are the Quietists and the Jihadists. The vast majority of Salafis are Quietists, who utilize peaceful tactics to propagate faith. The Jihadists, who accept violent propagation, are only a fraction of the size of the Quietists but are becoming more popular particularly amongst Salafi youth.
The number of Salafi supporters is still unknown. State intelligence estimates Jihadist membership to be around 4,000. However, some experts believe the numbers are closer to 1,300. The Jihadists are becoming more prevalent within some mainstream opposition movements such as the Islamic Action Front, whose rank and file are increasingly supporting a more hawkish platform. Although the two movements function separately, Salafi and IAF membership overlap and IAF deputies have at times supported Jihadist figureheads. The Jihadist Salafi movement in Jordan is still small in number but is growing in both its voice and support base, as the state’s reform process remains stalled.
Although formal politics in Jordan is dominated by loyal opposition groups, who usually work with the regime instead of against it, Salafis have maintained a strong presence in and around Amman for several decades. The Salafi ideology was brought to Jordan in the 1960s by university students returning from studies in Egypt and Syria. Albani, a Syrian religious leader, became the first Salafi leader in Jordan when he began preaching in the suburbs of Amman. Once the movement gained a small following it was forced underground in order to avoid regime harassment. The Quietists still remain loosely organized and under the radar, but the Jihadists have made a few public appearances and orchestrated several attacks within Jordan. Before the most recent wave of protests, both Salafi sects avoided any open relationship with the regime, at times even questioning its right to rule.
What largely separates the Jihadists from the Quietists and labels the former movement a threat to the regime is the Jihadist interpretation of takfir, or excommunication from the Muslim society. According to dominant interpretations of Islamic doctrine, if a Muslim ruler abandons the Islamic faith “in heart and soul” takfir is applicable and the people have the right and duty to oust him. Quietists believe a ruler can deviate from Islamic doctrine but still be a true Muslim if he incorporates some form of Islamic principles in his governance. For example, the Jordanian Constitution states that Islam is the religion of the state and mandates an Islamic personal status court system (and Christian courts as well). Because King Abdullah II upholds these declarations, however loosely, takfir does not apply. The Jihadists often assert that knowing or at least being advised of the proper methods of governing and intentionally ignoring them shows deliberate defiance of the Islamic faith, allowing takfir to be applied. For Jihadists Abdullah’s allowance of alcohol sales in Jordan and the particularly contentious peace treaty with Israel are sufficient evidence of his un-Islamic leadership.
Many Jihadists use this interpretation of takfir to justify the use of violence as protest. In 2005 the Jihadist Salafis invoked takfir by coordinating a series of suicide bombings in several major hotels in Amman leaving sixty dead and over one hundred wounded. At this time the movement was led by al-Zarqawi, who had connections to al-Qaeda. Both Jihadist Salafism and al-Qaeda have roots in the mujahidin so the two movements do overlap, however they operate as separate entities. The Amman hotel bombings and al-Qaeda influence were immensely unpopular in Jordan, and were used by the regime to unleash a major crackdown on all segments of Salafis. Because of this crackdown and the soon after death of al-Zarqawi the Jihadists remained largely underground until their dramatic reemergence this spring.
The Jihadist Salafi Movement took advantage of the rising levels of dissent during the Arab Spring to directly confront the regime. What is even more surprising than the Salafi’s open engagement is the regime’s initial leniency towards this organization. In early April 2011, the regime and several Jihadist leaders held a meeting to negotiate demands, an extremely unusual incidence for both parties. According to grievances voiced at demonstrations, the Jihadists’ central demands were the release of Salafi prisoners and stricter adherence to shari’a. Although the majority of their demands remain unfulfilled, the regime allowed the first wave of protests to occur and gave into some of their desires.
Rebuilding A Protest Movement
The first Jihadist Salafi demonstration of 2011 occurred i i n Amman on March 1st. The General Intelligence Department in Jordan had begun conducting night raids on Salafi homes after King Abdullah II intensified his suppression of the movement in 2005. Protestors called for the release of prisoners, an end to the torture of detainees, and implementation of shari’a law. About five hundred Jihadist Salafis attended the march. The protesters clashed with police forces but no major violence broke out. While the Jihadists still vehemently claim that all of the demonstrations were intended to be peaceful, tensions among demonstrators were quite high due to the security’s forces alleged threats to harm any protestor as well as their families. In conjunction with the march, approximately twenty-seven Salafi detainees began a hunger strike to protest their imprisonment.
The Jihadist Salafis continued to hold public demonstrations between March 1st and March 13th. The protests gathered only a few hundred participants but the content became steadily more provocative. Protestors waved flags displaying the symbols of al-Qaeda in Iraq and brought pictures of Salafi prisoners and their families. Chants and slogans included declarations that “the people want Quranic law” and “the army of Mohammed will return” as well as numerous verbal attacks on the United States and Israel. A key speaker in the demonstration voiced an indirect attack of the King stating, “We will [denounce] the tyrants for what they are . . . They are the ones who have corrupted the [Muslim] nation." Demonstrations took the form of both marches and sit-ins, with some occurring directly outside of the Prime Minister’s office. Jordanian legislation outlaws any alignment with violent groups such as al-Qaeda, as well as open criticism of the regime and its close allies. Therefore both the content of the protests and the group that organized them were illegal, yet they were still able to occur with minimal intervention. Continued threats from security forces were issued to movement leaders, but until April 15th police forces remained on the sidelines as protests occurred.
Jihadist Salafi leaders planned to hold a major sit-in on April 11th in reaction to the minimal government response. Breaking from previous policies, the regime gave into their demands and freed four high profile Salafi prisoners in an attempt to deflate the mounting demonstrations. The Jihadists canceled the sit-in but instead held an open press conference, their first ever in Jordan, led by six prominent spokesmen of the Jihadist Salafi Movement. One spokesmen, Jarrah Al-Rahahla, used this platform to proclaim that the Jihadists had “an enormous number of brothers willing to martyr themselves tomorrow,” while other leaders also affirmed that the Jihadists were willing and able to utilize violent tactics. This threat was soon coupled with action during the next demonstration.
The clash on April 15th occurred in the town of Zarqa, an area known for its Jihadist Salafi presence. Approximately 350 protesters attended. When police intervened the Jihadist Salafis gathered clubs and knives from their cars and fought back. While movement leaders argue that they fought merely to defend themselves, the clash came immediately after the critical words at the press conference. This was certainly not the first time that security forces violently dispersed protestors, but the protesters’ violent reaction to the police is very rare in Jordan outside of the more powerful tribal areas. The regime reacted to the confrontation by raiding several Jihadist Salafi homes in Zarqa and nearby towns. They eventually charged 146 Islamists with plotting terrorist attacks. Many detainees claim that security forces threatened their families and they were treated inhumanely during their detainment. The regime denies these accusations.
The Roots of Radicalization
Historically, the Jihadist Salafis have not utilized public demonstrations. The decision to organize protests and hold a public press conference shows a renewed boldness from movement leaders. Reappearing now could show that the Jihadist Salafis feel they have a particular appeal to the public, especially those seeking an alternative to the highly loyalist opposition. The Salafis could also be attempting to fill a gap for reformers seeking to support a more proactive Islamist agenda than the Muslim Brotherhood, who initially remained in the background of many of the protests. The regime’s decision to permit these demonstrations shows a change in tactics for King Abdullah II as well. However, the regime did not offer the same initial leniency to many other recent protest movements, such as the rapidly mobilized and violently dispersed youth movement on March 24th. The King is more likely drawing attention to the dangers of open protest by showcasing one of Jordan’s more radical movements while using the façade of tolerance.
In the past, the state prevented extremists from gaining public and media attention, but the Jihadist Salafi’s recent move into the open and voicing a direct challenge to the regime is forcing the latter to reexamine its relationship to this radical opposition. The Quietists have dominated the organization since its formation but the recent demonstrations show that the Jihadist Salafis are attempting to assert more control. Just as the Jihadists asserted their presence in 2005, this small group is again asserting itself proving that it is capable of causing disruption.
The Salafi Movement, particularly the Jihadist wing, is one of the very few organized groups in Jordan willing to directly challenge the regime. Operating outside legal spaces such as electoral campaigns or formal civil society allows them to evade government regulations and adopt a more contentious platform than the legal opposition parties. Although the moderate reformers still dominate the protest movements in Jordan, the barriers to genuine political participation established by the regime often make the subversive tactics of radical factions that reject formal politics, such as the Jihadist Salafis, more appealing to some. The regime is now caught between the apparently simultaneous impulses to control the Jihadists while allowing them enough space to showcase the “dangers” of open dissent. Meanwhile, as the Jihadists continue to pressure the government outside of traditional political spaces, the regime is also struggling to regain public confidence in a reform process that has delivered very little in terms of genuine change.