DEAD SEA, Jordan — Nineteen-year-old Ahmad stood at the brink of a waterfall, eyes closed, fists clenched as he counted to 10. He wore a harness to steady himself as he rappelled over the edge, but first he needed to breathe.
That is how he had been taught to calm down during a youth training session the day before in Salt, the western Jordanian city where he lives, a 90-minute drive away.
There were 15 young men in the program run by Mercy Corps, an international nonprofit aid group headquartered in Oregon. The 12-week course provides, among other things, leadership training, local job placement, rock-climbing instruction — and lessons on controlling one’s emotions.
Ahmad had signed up with his friend Omar, also 19, whom he had met in a fight. “He was beating someone up because of a card game, and I took his side,” Ahmad said. Fighting was no big deal to him, he said. What scared him was how he sometimes lost control and would cut himself.
“I can only calm down when I see blood,” he had told Monther Altiti, one of the program leaders.
Altiti showed him a scar on his own arm. “I used to cut myself when I was younger, too,” he said. Experiencing nature had helped him stop, and he wanted Ahmad to find the same kind of release.
“I told him, how do you feel when you’re climbing or hiking? You think of nothing, right? Next time you’re angry, go outside, close your eyes, breathe and count to 10,” Altiti said. “Amazing that he’s doing it.”
Countering violent extremism is critical for Jordan, a small island of stability that hosts 2.7 million refugees from neighboring conflicts and remains vulnerable to the threat of domestic terrorism. Several attacks have happened on Jordanian soil, including a shooting in the southern city of Karak in December and several bombings on the Syrian border.
And experts say several thousand young Jordanians have joined militant groups in Syria or Iraq. Jordan’s government and civil society groups are struggling to prevent such radicalization, using methods that include administrative detention, job training and workshops with local imams. But those who work with the country’s at-risk young say the most effective programs don’t explicitly allude to religion or extremism at all.
More than 70 percent of Jordan’s population is under 30. The overall unemployment rate is 14.7 percent; for those ages 20 to 24, it is 30.6 percent. Many Jordanians are of Palestinian descent, with relatives living under occupation, in refugee camps or with memories of expulsion from their ancestral homes. Jordanian millennials have known multiple regional wars, foreign invasions with corresponding waves of refugees, and a failed Arab Spring. The result is an overwhelming sense of victimhood, said Hassan Abu Haniyeh, whose analyses of extremist groups are published by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
“Most Arab people want an Islamic state to take control,” Abu Haniyeh said. “They dream of this utopia of dignity, justice and righteousness.”
The idea of a caliphate contrasts with the realities of corruption, dictatorship and foreign invasion, he said, which is why groups that promise resistance to the status quo automatically seem legitimate to many Arabs. “The Taliban, Ansar al-Sharia, ISIS and other movements don’t need to prove if they have a good way of ruling,” he added, using a common acronym for the Islamic State militant group.
Mai E’leimat, a co-founder of the Al-Hayat Center, a Jordanian nongovernmental organization that co-published a report last year on violent radicalization in Jordan, agreed. “Youth are isolated, ignored, neglected,” she said. “They’re not part of the decision-making. I’ve been to so many conferences on youth empowerment where there are no young people in the hall.”
E’leimat noted that even after the Islamic State burned a Jordanian air force pilot alive in 2015, young people here were still drawn to the group’s cause in Syria. Two sons of Jordanian lawmakers have died fighting for militant groups there.
Jordanian fighters who return from Syria are arrested immediately and held for up to 15 years, according to Abdelqader al-Khateeb, a lawyer who works with returnees and detained terrorism suspects. Since the Karak attack, intelligence and security services also have targeted anyone suspected of communicating with extremist groups. Some 600 people have been arrested, Khateeb said, most of them under 30, including many who say they merely had posted support for the Syrian revolution on Facebook.
“There’s no court, trial or justice process,” he said. “We don’t have law. It’s just reaction.”
Sharif al-Omari, the government’s director of programs to curb violent extremism, said the detentions were necessary to ensure national security. “The law doesn’t distinguish between stupid or not, intentional or not,” he said. But he acknowledged that the state must confront the core problems facing Jordanian youths: unemployment and an education system that does not prepare graduates for the job market.
If a young man “has something in his pocket, a salary and stable work, he will start thinking about marrying and building a house,” he said.
The worst way to combat violent extremism, practitioners agreed, is to label vulnerable young people as potential terrorists.
“The pitch that ISIS gives to young, Arab, Muslim males is one they hear from no one else: You belong here. You, specifically, are our greatest strength,” said Mercy Corps country director Hunter Keith.
Meanwhile, global rhetoric against “radical Islamic terror” deepens young people’s sense of victimhood, he said. That is why the Mercy Corps program avoids talking about extremism or religion, focusing instead on stress relief, self-awareness and community.
Perceived victimhood and profound stress have a neurological effect, said Jane MacPhail, the group’s director of youth programs.
“You detach. You become more impulsive, and you rationalize actions against your values in order to fill your need for belonging,” she said. “We work on reattaching young people’s hearts and heads.”
Abdallah Hijazi, a co-leader of the youth project, said he had the same struggles as the participants when he was younger.
“People are scared of these guys on the streets,” he said. But he added that this does not mean they are potential extremists.
“They’re lost, like any Jordanian guy,” Hijazi said. “They need a place to feel safe being themselves.”