MAAN, JORDAN – An al-Qaida linked Jordanian militant leader warned Friday that the kingdom was “not immune” to the chaos befalling neighboring countries, although he acknowledged that a Sunni extremist group’s recent declaration of a caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq was threatening to divide the jihadi movement.
Mohammed al-Shalabi, a senior leader of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis in Jordan, told reporters that the fighting between rival militant factions in Syria has already undermined the battle against President Bashar Assad.
Al-Shalabi, who spent 11 years in Jordanian jails on charges including plotting to attack a U.S. military base in the kingdom, said Jordanian Salafis have stopped sending their supporters to join the rebel ranks in Syria, fearing they will end up fighting other Muslims. More than 1,600 Jordanians have fought in Syria and 250 of them have been killed, al-Shalabi said.
Al-Shalabi spoke in a rare interview with a Western media organization at his home on the outskirts of the southern city of Maan, an impoverished area that has seen protests by supporters of the Islamic State group that has seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and announced it has established a long-sought Muslim caliphate. The announcement has been rejected and even derided by many of the rival Islamic rebel factions fighting in Syria.
Al-Shalabi urged Jordan — a U.S. ally that relies heavily on donations from the U.S. and oil-rich Gulf Arabs to keep its fragile economy afloat — to implement Islamic Shariah laws and more balanced economic and social policies.
“Jordan is not immune to what is happening in neighboring countries,” he said.
Despite facing protests amid the Arab Spring wave of revolutions in the region, King Abdullah has remained in power by promising to speed up reforms he initiated since he ascended to the throne in 1999.
Although Jordan’s multiparty system was revived in 1991, following a 34-year ban after a 1957 leftist coup attempt, opposition parties have yet to gain real power. They say they are intimidated by tight scrutiny and security crackdowns.
The rapid expansion of the Islamic State group, formally known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), whose fighters captured the Iraqi side of the border with Jordan last month, is causing new concern in a country already grappling with fallout from the Syrian civil war.
While any imminent cross-border foray is unlikely, the country is jittery and the army has dispatched reinforcements to its 110-mile (180-km) border with Iraq to boost security. Jordan’s Interior Minister Hussein al-Majali told lawmakers last week that the kingdom is “surrounded by extremism.”
Jordan also has a peace agreement with neighboring Israel, considered by the Jewish state to be vital to its security. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested last week that Israel would have to maintain a long-term military presence in the West Bank to keep jihadis from potentially powering their way to the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
Wearing a long white robe and red traditional head cover, al-Shalabi said fighting Israel is a priority for the Salafis.”One day Israel will be removed,” he said, adding that the closed borders were a problem for now.
Jordan is home to a growing movement of Islamic militancy and ultraconservative Salafis. In Maan, supporters of the Islamic State group have held protests, carrying banners that declared the city the “Fallujah of Jordan,” a reference to the Iraqi city that has been a militant hotbed. Gunmen have also attacked the police and set two banks on fire.
Journalists on Friday saw a black Salafi flag in the main square and another supportive of the Islamic State group hung on the burned facade of Al-Arabi Bank, Jordan’s leading bank.
Al-Shalabi said he was not for or against the Islamic State group but he was worried it would splinter the global jihadi movement.
“The Muslim clerics said the caliphate shouldn’t be declared at the moment for many reasons, because this declaration will create division among jihadi groups in the world,” he said.
“For example in Chechnya, in the Caucuses, in Afghanistan and Somalia, there are groups that announced that they belong to al-Qaida. These groups will be divided, one hundred percent these groups will be divided between a supporter to the caliphate and a reluctant,” al-Shalabi added.