Salafist leaders said the arrests have only bolstered their conviction that Jordan is a puppet of the United States that is propping up the Syrian regime to prevent an Islamist takeover. In interviews before the alleged bomb plot was announced Sunday, Salafist jihadists insisted that the argument that they might later attack Jordan is propaganda fed by Assad, believed by the West and used by Jordan to persecute Islamists.
“They would never represent a threat to Jordan. It’s all scare tactics,” said Saad al-Hunity, a top Salafist jihadist leader.
For now, the movement shows little sign of abandoning what leaders call encouragement, not recruitment, of Jordanian Jabhat al-Nusra fighters. In February, Tahawi issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to offer financial and military backing to topple Assad, who he has said was “bought off” by foreign powers to safeguard Israel’s security and stability. Tahawi and other leaders hint at sectarian motivations, calling Assad a “God-less,” Shiite-backed killer of Sunni Muslims.
And they say volunteers are abundant — not from among the grizzled veterans of campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, but from a new generation of jihadists.
According to one Jordanian who recently fought in Syria, those who commit to the cause raise money from family members, other Salafists and Saudi charities to buy provisions and black-market AK-47s. Border smugglers who until recently trafficked in drugs and cigarettes now charge hundreds of dollars to whisk aspiring jihadists across, said the Jordanian, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Walid.
The small but growing flow of fighters has prompted Jordan to double its forces along the border, according to a Jordanian security official who is not authorized to speak to reporters. Those soldiers have been bolstered by a new task force of about 150 U.S. troops that is working with Jordan to monitor Syria’s chemical weapons and assist with refugees. The official said that no heavy weapons have been intercepted along the frontier but that they are a concern.
“Right now the Jordanian-Syrian border is our first and last line of defense,” the Jordanian official said. Of Syria, he said: “There is a very real concern that if they believe we are failing our mission to secure the borders, they will conveniently do the same,” by staging an attack to “set the Jordanian street on fire.”
A fresh call to arms
The Jordanian who gave his name as Abu Walid is a towering 38-year-old elementary school teacher who said he had wanted to battle U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan but had been stymied by arrests and jailings. With the Syrian conflict still raging after 19 months, he said, Assad’s slaughter of civilians seemed a fresh call to arms, a new chance to “wage jihad” in defense of Islam.
Interviewed last week in his home in a Palestinian refugee camp outside Amman, Abu Walid said he and five other Jordanians traveled in August just across the border to the Syrian city of Daraa. There, he said, they were immediately deployed to fight alongside young Libyans, Yemenis and other Arabs in a ragtag Jabhat al-Nusra brigade. They were untrained and operations were “chaotic,” he said.
Abu Walid said he began to agonize over a question that has troubled other Jordanian Salafist jihadists: With no foreign occupation, was this conflict a true jihad?
The Free Syrian Army rebels refused Islamist assistance, he said, and the regime responded to rebel activity with attacks on civilians and their property. He said he wondered whether the jihadists were serving Assad by dividing Syrians.
This month, Abu Walid returned to Jordan. But he said he is by no means dissuading would-be jihadists, who he insisted are no threat to Jordan. He said he tells them only to “follow your heart and follow God.”
Luck reported from Amman and Irbid.