Dalgamouni “was a model for all Muslims,” Mohammed Abu Tahawi, a top Islamist militant leader in northern Jordan, told the crowd at the party in Irbid, a city north of this capital. “If we only had a few more Nasser Dalgamounis, we would no longer have Bashar al-Assad.”
That rhetoric and journeys such as Dalgamouni’s are raising alarm in Jordan and among its Western allies, which have cited the roles played by Islamists and foreign fighters as a reason not to arm the rebels in Syria. Those fears shot to the forefront Sunday when Jordan said it had arrested 11 Jordanians who were plotting to use weapons procured on Syrian battlefields to attack the U.S. Embassy and other targets in Amman. Later, officials said a Jordanian soldier had been killed in a firefight with militants seeking to enter Syria.
Tahawi and other “holy war” promoters say that at least 150 Jordanians are fighting in Syria with Jabhat al-Nusra, a militia linked to al-Qaeda. Other armed ultraconservative Islamists — known here as Salafist jihadists — have been arrested as Jordan, with U.S. help, tries to buttress a porous 230-mile border with Syria.
The numbers are hardly a game-changer. But as a smaller and weaker neighbor, Jordan fears the prospect of the Syrian civil war spilling over its borders and is concerned that the jihadist forays into Syria could prompt the Assad regime to retaliate against Amman.
Jordan has accepted more than 200,000 Syrian refugees, and King Abdullah II has encouraged Assad to step down. But Jordan has preserved official ties with Damascus, while viewing with apprehension the kinds of cross-border strikes that Syria has launched into Turkey, to the north, and is accused of orchestrating in Lebanon, to the west.
Of equal concern to Jordan’s monarchy is that Jordanian jihadists might later deem their own government illegitimate and deserving of overthrow.
“From the experience of Iraq, from the experience of Afghanistan, those people could turn back on Jordan,” said Mahmoud Irdaisat, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the King Abdullah II Academy for Defense Studies.
Tough options for Jordan
It has happened before. Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who led insurgents affiliated with al-Qaeda in next-door Iraq, asserted responsibility for bombings that killed at least 60 people in three Amman hotels in 2005. He was killed by U.S. forces the following year.
Yet, dealing with Salafist jihadists is delicate for Jordan, which has ceded more political space to them and other opposition groups since protests began during the Arab Spring. Salafists hold regular demonstrations and “martyrs’ rallies,” like the one in Irbid. Also, the Syrian rebellion has widespread support among the Jordanian public, and, unlike in Iraq — where hundreds of Jordanian jihadists fought the United States — jihadists now aim to battle a regime that Jordan itself opposes.