Members of Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra man a checkpoint on the border crossing between Syria and Jordan, which they claim to have taken control of, in December. (Ammar Khassawneh/Reuters)

Jordan has stepped up arrests of hard-line Islamists and moved to strengthen anti-terror legislation amid rising concern about homegrown militants returning from the battlefields in next-door Syria.

A controversial draft bill, passed swiftly Tuesday by the lower house of parliament, would grant authorities greater powers to detain without trial people suspected of affiliation with terrorist groups. It also criminalizes the intent or act of joining, recruiting, funding or arming terrorist organizations inside or outside Jordan.

The toughened legislation comes as the desert kingdom seeks to contain the flow of Jordanian jihadists who slip across the border with war-torn Syria and whom officials deem a major national security threat.

Since December, court records show, authorities have arrested 120 suspected fighters and sent 90 to stand trial as foreign enemy combatants in the country’s military-run state security court. More than 40 have been convicted, some on charges legal experts say are not crimes under the current anti-terrorism law, including “entering Syria illegally with the intent to join militant groups.”

“Right now, any Jordanian who goes to fight in Syria is arrested upon his return to the country and sent to the court. There is no real system, and this is why we are in need of the law,” said government spokesman Mohammed Momani.

More than 2,000 Jordanians are believed to be fighting in Syria, according to Hassan Abu Haniyeh, an Amman-based expert in Islamist movements, who said the majority have joined Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, rival Islamist rebel groups. Security officials and Jordanian jihadist leaders estimated in interviews that about 300 militants have returned from the Syrian front over the past two months, most to escape rebel infighting or to seek medical treatment.

“This is a crisis the state was not prepared for,” Haniyeh said.

Mixed feelings

The crackdown and the proposed law have been criticized as overly harsh methods intended to muzzle dissent. But the law has drawn broad support from Jordanian lawmakers, who say the country, where terrorists bombed three hotels in 2005, needs broader legal tools to preempt attacks by battle-hardened fighters.

“There are many in parliament, myself included, who remain concerned that the law may be abused to restrict political and press freedoms and lead to the arrest of journalists and average citizens taking a stance on foreign political issues,” said Mohammed Qatatsheh, a parliamentarian from Amman. “But the threat posed by jihadists has changed with the times, and we have to change with them.”

Critics fear that the law may be used against moderate Islamist groups and opposition ­­forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The group’s Jordanian branch has long coexisted relatively peacefully with the monarchy, but the group has been deemed a terrorist organization by key Jordan allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In March, authorities arrested two members of Hizb al Tahrir — an Islamist party banned in Jordan because of its calls to abolish the monarchy in favor of an Islamic caliphate — for attempting to discuss the anti-terrorism law with legislators. The two are now facing trial at the state security court on ­charges of “distributing propaganda harmful to the state.”

“We are all for taking every measure to protect Jordan against the very real threat presented by extremist groups in Syria, but after the military coup in Egypt and the crackdown against Islamist groups in Saudi Arabia, we fear the same policy may be followed in Jordan,” said Zaki Bani Rsheid, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood here.

Islamist leaders deny that returned fighters pose a threat to Jordan, citing statements and religious edicts from al-Qaeda leaders and prominent clerics limiting fighters’ mandate to defending Sunni populations in Syria and barring them from military acts on Jordanian soil. Instead, jihadists call the arrests an attempt to weaken Syrian Islamist groups in favor of the U.S.-backed, secular Free Syrian Army.

“The Jordanian regime is allowing Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the West to provide arms and training to rebel fighters, yet we are declared terrorists,” said Mohammed Shalbi, or Abu Sayyef, head of Jordan’s al-Qaeda-linked Salafist movement, the country’s largest recruiter for Syrian Islamist militias.

Flow to Syria continues

The recent wave of arrests and convictions has done little to deter the rising number of Jordanians joining Islamist fighters, said Abu Sayyef, who estimated that an average of 100 Jordanians have crossed into Syria each week over the past two months.

In the southern city of Maan, a desert town that has emerged as a hotbed for jihadist recruitment, residents say that despite its efforts, the government’s recent campaign has done little to deter aspiring militants.

In a smoke-filled shisha cafe on the outskirts of the city, dozens of teenagers gathered for the kickoff of a televised soccer match between Real Madrid and Barcelona. But they debated another rivalry that is dividing families and testing friendships and allegiances.

“Al-Nusra or the Islamic State,” said Mohammed Al Hijazi, a 21-year-old unemployed engineering graduate who said he wants to follow in the footsteps of dozens of his peers and join Nusra fighters in the Damascus countryside this month. “In Jordan, that is the only question that matters.”