AMMAN, Jordan — Strings of lights illuminated a vacant lot on a cool October night. Waiters served pastries to smiling bearded men as tributes were bellowed from a stage. Decorative banners featured familiar faces: Osama bin Laden and the Jordanian al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The party last week honored a man of more modest renown, an unemployed father of six. To those who were celebrating, he was a hero nonetheless. Nasser Dalgamouni had carried an AK-47 assault rifle across the border to Syria and had been killed while fighting with an Islamist militia suspected of ties to al-Qaeda.
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.
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.
“We respect every citizen’s basic rights no matter his ideology, but entering a neighboring country and causing instability is not one of them,” government spokesman Samih al-Maaytah said.
Jordan’s Salafist jihadists, who say their ultimate goal is to unite Muslims under one Islamic state, complained in interviews about what they called a campaign of harassment and arrests by Jordanian authorities. Mousa Abdullat, an Amman lawyer who represents Salafists, said dozens have been detained without charge.
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.”
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.