"iraq's Jordanian Jihadis" By Nir Rosen
Iraq's Jordanian Jihadis
By NIR ROSEN in the New York Times Magazine
February 19, 2006
Jordan has long been thought of as the quiet country of the Middle East. People called it the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom and went there for a rest. King Hussein and his son, King Abdullah II, who assumed the throne in February 1999, were friendly enough with the United States, respectful toward Israel and measured advocates of modernization. As for the Islamist stirrings that have roiled the region since the Iranian revolution of 1979, it was widely believed that the king's domestic security service, the Mukhabarat, had infiltrated every group that might think to stir unrest. But in truth Jordan had not been insulated from the radicalism that has engulfed the Mideast in our time: in 1970 and '71, Jordan's Palestinians, who then, as now, made up a majority of the country's population (today, 5.6 million), erupted, and their insurrection was brutally put down. And in the course of finding ways to sustain its political dominance, the Hashemite monarchy gave the Muslim Brotherhood — the local variant of an Islamist movement that began in Egypt in the 1920's — control of educational policy, which would hold dark implications.
Now we know that the quiet kingdom was producing the man thought to be spearheading the deadliest aspects of the Iraqi insurgency — and who brought the fight back to Jordan in three hotel bombings last December: Ahmed Fadeel Nazal al-Khalayleh, better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after his hometown of Zarqa, a poor city an hour's drive north of Amman. How the quiet kingdom of Jordan could produce a man who has become known as the Sheik of the Slaughterers is a question at the heart of contemporary jihad. Zarqawi is exceptionally cruel, but he is otherwise not such an exception. Jordan is home to many jihadis, young men from much the same milieu that produced Zarqawi, and especially since the United States invaded Iraq nearly three years ago, Jordan has increasingly become a not-so-quiet place, a place where local Islamists cross easily into Iraq and back, a place where a jihadist underground can seem almost a normal part of a nation's life. And if such an underground can become normal in quiet Jordan, what is to keep it from becoming normal in any Muslim country?
'He sat there, where you are," Muhammad Wasfi said, pointing to the pillow I was resting on. Wasfi is a 42-year-old former jihadi who says he now devotes himself to teaching. We were talking in his chilly living room — it gets cold in Jordan in winter — in the town of Rusaifa, just south of Amman, as his older sons brought in sweet tea. Wasfi stroked a cat that wandered in. His small children screamed and fought in the next room. His youngest boy, Mudhafer, came in to ask him for some money. "Abu Musab had heard of me," Wasfi eventually continued, recalling his first meeting with Zarqawi in the summer of 1993. "He was a simple Muslim who wanted to serve Islam. He didn't stay long here, and the next day he came with another guy. We sat, and we spoke about our hopes and dreams and ambitions to establish the caliphate and raise the flag of jihad against the enemies of Islam everywhere. I disagreed with him on some strategic issues, like his view of Israel and Palestine. He didn't have an idea of making jihad against Jews and Israel. Abu Musab wanted to change Arab regimes."
In the 90's, Zarqawi's desire to wage jihad against the "near enemy" of so-called infidel Muslims was becoming more common in the Arab world. There were, by that point, many men like him in Amman and, even more so, in Jordan's heavily Palestinian cities of Zarqa and Irbid. Some had made it back from Afghanistan, where they successfully fought the Soviets, and were awaiting a next jihad; others had come up from Kuwait, part of a massive exodus of Palestinians from that country during the Iraqi invasion in 1990 and following the withdrawal of Iraqi forces in 1991. (Support among some Palestinians for Saddam Hussein's invasion had led Kuwait to throw out its Palestinians en masse once his forces had withdrawn.) Within this latter group were some committed radicals who had been deeply influenced by Egyptian clerics — firebrands of the Islamic Group, a radicalized, prison-based offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, who had themselves been expelled by Egypt to Kuwait.
Many of these rootless and unwanted believers found a spiritual and political home in a type of Islam called Salafism. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Salafism emphasizes the rootlessness of faith. It despises local saints and mystical practices (like those of Sufism) and any other departures from the most rigid Sunnism. It despises Shiites. It commonly despises all other sects or practices that Salafis might consider "bida," or "innovation." Given this intense preoccupation with purity, Salafis are constantly trying to identify and expel the impure. This is called "takfir," often translated as "excommunication": an old, disused term that has found new life in Salafism, which permits, even encourages, the killing of Muslims whom Salafis have expelled through takfir. Perhaps the most ferocious embodiment of takfiri Salafism today is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Most western visitors to Jordan's capital don't stray far from the opulent neighborhood of west Amman. Once you leave there and head east or south, the homes tend to be of unpainted cinder block, rebar protrudes from unfinished rooftops, and the square houses seem scattered haphazardly across the hillsides, with steep alleyways shaded by hanging laundry. Empty lots become trash lots. Thin metal towers, topped with speakers for the call to prayer, jut up from the unadorned mosques — plain, cement-block squares, just like the homes. Through a maze of narrow treeless streets in Rusaifa, shopkeepers cover the heads of their female mannequins in the windows, and on the streets some women go completely veiled. The yellow and red hills and dunes of the desert appear stark against the gray winter sky. It was on one such hill that Muhammad Wasfi built his home, which is where I met with him in December. The house appeared unfinished yet already old, the yard strewn with garbage and children's toys, including a toy gun.
I met Wasfi through a Palestinian named Abu Saad, who is well acquainted with Jordan's jihadi Salafis. Abu Saad is a worried man with a nervous smile and a high-pitched voice; he dreams of becoming a journalist. He is also a Salafi. When Abu Saad was driving me around Amman and its poor suburbs, he liked to play Al Qaeda songs in his tape deck. These were a cappella chants, because Salafis don't believe in music; they told of jihadi adventures against infidels. In his personal computer, he has a collection of videos of jihadi attacks on Americans that he regularly and proudly watches.
While Wasfi and I spoke — in Arabic — Abu Saad left us to go work on his car, which had dropped some parts along the way to Rusaifa. Wasfi wore sweat pants and a matching blue sweatshirt. He has a strong thick body, with a belly that showed he was not as active as he used to be. His thick beard was unkempt, but his mustache was groomed short, Salafist style, and his hair was close-cropped.
He was born, he told me, on the West Bank in 1963. "I still remember the day I left Palestine," he said, "with all the pieces of the Palestinian people." His family moved first to Amman and then to Zarqa, north of the capital, where many military families were based. His father joined the Jordanian Army. Wasfi himself served two years before earning a degree in business management and working as a civil servant. "At that time, I generally began learning Islamic thought," he told me. He came to admire the radical Islamic Group of Egypt and hoped to establish a similar Jordanian movement. "As Palestinian people, we want to find a solution for our question," he told me. "Although I was young, I saw no solution for our problems other than Islam. So I wasn't affected by secular Palestinian movements. I wanted to do something for Islam and Muslims and help establish the Muslim state and make Palestine the capital of our new caliphate."
I asked him if he still thought this was possible.
"I believe it without any doubt," he said. "This has been proven by the prophet Muhammad in his words."
Like many Salafis, Wasfi is an autodidact, reading the works of Abdullah Azzam (a key figure in modern jihad and once a mentor to Osama bin Laden) and the Egyptian Omar Abdel Rahman (the blind cleric currently imprisoned in the United States for his role in a failed plot to bomb New York City landmarks). He read their books and listened to tapes of their sermons. He admired them for going to Afghanistan, and in 1989 he went himself, "to see the reality of Muslims and their movements, of the Islamic nation and jihad." He dreamed of starting a jihad in Sham — the lands of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine — and liberating his homeland.
Zarqawi, Wasfi and another jihadi — the cerebral, self-taught Palestinian cleric Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, who was among those who left Kuwait in 1991 — founded and led a group together in Jordan called Bayaat al Imam ("Allegiance to the Imam"). "We had no ability to make jihad," Wasfi admitted to me. "But despite the lack of ability, it didn't mean we should stop." According to Wasfi, Maqdisi brought seven grenades with him from Kuwait. "Maqdisi gave grenades to some brothers to make operations in Palestine to kill Israelis," Wasfi told me. His story was consistent with Jordanian media accounts I had read. "The brothers were arrested, and the Jordanians uncovered the organization and arrested the leaders, but before that we were fugitives for four months. We were arrested and tortured." Wasfi claims to have suffered "sleep deprivation, beatings, tearing off beards." As a result, he says, he has rheumatism and his knees often hurt.
But Jordan's prisons were not so much a barrier to jihad as a hothouse. Jihadi prisoners developed the hierarchies and loyalties typical of any prison gang. At the same time, according to those Jordanian journalists who report regularly on jihadis in newspapers like Al Ghad, the prisoners exerted an attraction on the less pious. Criminals converted to a strict Islam and brought to their new comrades skills that would be valuable in waging war. "Jail was very good for the movement," Wasfi told me. "Jail enhanced the personalities of prisoners and let them know how large was the cause they believed in. Inside jail is a good environment to get supporters and proselytize." Wasfi admitted that he and his comrades recruited from criminal ranks. "When you talk to them with Islam," he told me, "they see the difference between a system of punishment made by humans and a system made by God. This made them supporters of dawa" — the "call" to Islam — "and enemies of oppression."
Zarqawi was a criminal before he was a jihadi. He was a wild young man, according to all who knew him and have recounted his story in the Arab media. He had no interest in religion. A high-school dropout, he had a reputation for getting tattoos, drinking alcohol and getting into fights, and he ended up in jail in the 1980's. After being released, he went to Afghanistan, in 1989, where the successful jihad against the Soviets had turned into a war of one Afghan faction against another.
"Abu Musab was my friend," a former jihadist named Sheik Jawad al Faqih told me, recalling Zarqawi. I met Jawad in Abu Saad's home. He is a fearsome man with a thick beard and a clipped mustache, immense hands and a raspy voice. "He used to come to my house. We went to Afghanistan together." A Palestinian, Jawad said that his uncles had fought the British occupation of Palestine and that he had initially been influenced by secular nationalism. In 1982, though, he found "the correct way," abandoning his nationalist sentiments. "Abu Musab was a normal man, afraid of God, a very natural man," Jawad said pensively. "He didn't have a lot of religious knowledge." Jawad told me that Zarqawi gave two of his sisters as wives to Afghans in order to strengthen his relationship with his hosts. "Afghans took care of him, and he gained experience," he said.+
Jawad returned to Jordan and, like Zarqawi and many others back from Afghanistan, involved himself in minor actions in Jordan. He admitted to carrying out operations against "infidels" in Jordan: attacking a British target, trying to attack American marines. He said that he "killed a priest" and "exploded a Jew." He told me he established cells of fighters he called "families." Each family consisted of five fighters who did not know the identities of members of other families. Jawad claimed that in its few years of existence, his Army of Muhammad grew to include cells around the Arab world. Most were veterans of the Afghan jihad. But in 1991, he says, a disgruntled member of Jawad's army confessed the names of the organization's leaders to Jordanian intelligence. This kind of thing was not unusual and still isn't. Jawad claimed that of his 13 arrests, 9 could be attributed to Jordanians informing on him, which led him to dislike Jordanians.
Jawad got out of the jihad life. Today he is a car salesman in Zarqa. He remembers the Afghanistan jihad as being the best experience he ever had.
Zarqawi was not back in Jordan from Afghanistan for long before he was arrested, and he stayed in prison from 1993 until a general amnesty in 1999. His comrade from those years, Wasfi, told me that even while in prison, Zarqawi and the ideologue of their group, Maqdisi, reached outside audiences, influencing people in the various cities where they were imprisoned. Before entering prison in 1994, Maqdisi crisscrossed Jordan teaching from his book "The Creed of Abraham,² the most important single source of teachings for Jordanian Salafist jihadis. In it he speaks of infidels and tyrants, using the expansive definitions favored by Salafis. "Tyrants," on my reading of the book, could include idols made from stone, the sun, the moon, trees. They could also include graves, a reference to the Sufi and Shiite practice of visiting the graves of saints and imams. And "tyrants" could also include the laws made by men. It was the duty of the faithful to expose the infidelity of all these forms of worship and idolatry and manifest their hatred of them.
According to Maqdisi, democracy is a heretical religion and constitutes the rejection of Allah, monotheism and Islam. (He mounted a full-scale attack in his book "Democracy Is a Religion.") Democracy is an innovation, placing something above the word of God and ignoring the laws of Islam. It places the people (or the tyrant) above Islam, but in the Salafist view only God can make laws. Maqdisi held that the regimes that ruled Muslims were un-Islamic. Therefore, Muslims did not owe them obedience and should fight them to establish a true Islamic state.
Initially, Zarqawi was subordinate to Maqdisi. But in prison the awkward and solemn Zarqawi began to bloom — and to eclipse Maqdisi. "Zarqawi was charismatic," Wasfi recalled when we spoke, whereas "Maqdisi was calm and passive. We were dealing with prison authorities in a very aggressive way, and Zarqawi was tribal" a member of the prominent Bani Hassan tribe and, unlike Maqdisi and Wasfi, not a Palestinian — "so his tribal position gave him more power than a Palestinian. If your roots are pure Jordanian and you have a big tribe, then you have more power. Prisoners liked a strong representative like Zarqawi, and he fought with the guards. He was very harsh and strong when dealing with members of the organization. He prevented them from mixing with other organizations so they would not be influenced by other ideas, and he prevented them from moving around freely in the prison, even me. But I rebelled against him."
Zarqawi organized what amounted to a coup, forcing Maqdisi to hand over control of their group, Bayaat al Imam, and accept a more advisory, theological position. Zarqawi's aggressive personality attracted the tough young men imprisoned with him. Like Salafis outside of prison, the Salafist jihadis in jail were embroiled in declaring one another infidels. "In prison a disagreement of ideas led to problems," Wasfi told me, refusing to get into the details but adding that "Abu Musab had many wrong decisions that I did not accept, like enmity with other groups." Five months before his release, Wasfi abandoned the movement to focus on "personal dawa." (Officially forbidden to teach, he still does in secret.) "After Zarqawi was released, he asked me to work together with him, but I refused," Wasfi said.
Their time in prison was as important for the movement as their experiences in Afghanistan were, bonding the men who suffered together and giving them time to formulate their ideas. For some, it was educational as well. One experienced jihadi who knew Zarqawi in Afghanistan told me: "When I heard Zarqawi speak, I didn't believe this is the same Zarqawi. But six years in jail gave him a good chance to educate himself."
After his release in 1999, Zarqawi left for Pakistan, where he was arrested and detained briefly before making his way to Afghanistan along with his key followers. He found both Al Qaeda and the Taliban insufficiently extreme, according to Mohammed Abu Rumman, a journalist for Al Ghad. A critical dispute was over whom to attack: Zarqawi criticized Osama bin Laden for not calling Arab governments infidels and attacking them.
For Zarqawi, the "near enemy" was the priority, while for bin Laden the "far enemy" was. This has been perhaps the most critical dispute within violent, extremist Sunni Islam. Al Qaeda, at least in relative terms, has always been concerned with making connections among groups that might otherwise expend themselves fighting one another. By focusing on the far enemy — the United States, Israel, European states and Russia; whether on their own territories or against their citizens, embassies or interests in Muslim lands — Al Qaeda could assert some charismatic leadership over an otherwise quite diverse and fractious "movement." And by leaving the many near enemies alone (or forming alliances with them), Al Qaeda could acquire a little breathing space.
The zeal for purity has led Zarqawi and Salafis more generally to focus on their close surroundings. This urge might, of course, lead to withdrawal; in the 1970's, one Egyptian Salafi group tried physically and psychologically to remove itself from society altogether, forming something like a commune. But an impatience for changing the world and perhaps, in some, an appetite for violence has led many Salafis into vigorous engagement with the nearest enemies they could find, even when those enemies were extremists with ideas little different from theirs.
Zarqawi was such a strict Salafi that he criticized the Taliban — for insufficiently imposing Shariah, for one thing, and also for recognizing the United Nations, an infidel organization. And thus he criticized Al Qaeda as well for associating with the Taliban. Zarqawi established his own camp near the western Afghan city of Herat, close to the border with Iran. When the United States attacked Afghanistan, American intelligence officials have said Zarqawi made his way through Iran to autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq, where he may have linked up with the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam in a region outside of Saddam Hussein's reach. With Hussein removed from power in April 2003, Zarqawi had a new failed state to operate in. And the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent American occupation presented the perfect opportunity to heal the rift within Muslim extremism: the far enemy had made itself the near enemy as well.
Few people are in a better position to understand how the jihadist aspect of the Iraqi insurgency took shape than Huthaifa Azzam, because he, a Jordanian, helped start it. He is the son of Abdullah Azzam, who was born near Jenin, Palestine, in 1941, left for Jordan following the 1967 Six-Day War and became something like the father of jihad in Jordan. Abdullah Azzam ran that wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood that was most influenced by the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb — the central figure in 20th-century jihadi thought.
Following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Abdullah Azzam moved to Pakistan, where he founded the Office of Mujahedeen Services, the main clearinghouse for arriving Arabs. Abdullah Azzam's books and sermons presented his thoughts on jihad, and he was to mentor bin Laden until 1987, when, according to Huthaifa Azzam, bin Laden decided to form his own camp for Arabs. Abdullah Azzam was not radical enough for him — he considered jihad purely defensive — and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who was to become bin Laden's key deputy and ideologue, edged him aside.
Two years later, in November 1989, a car bomb killed Abdullah Azzam and two of his sons in Peshawar, Pakistan. In the car that followed sat Huthaifa, then 18, who had been waging jihad for five years and who had begun his training at 12. I met him in a cafe at the Royal Hotel in west Amman. Dressed in light blue jeans, a leather jacket and red polo shirt, fit and engaging with an easy smile and speaking excellent English, he did not look like a jihadi. Azzam was light-skinned like his father; his beard was clipped close. He ordered a hot chocolate and recounted his tale.
Azzam said that he had first trained in the Sada camp outside Peshawar and then, in 1984, in the Khaldan and Yaqubi camps in Afghanistan. He fought his first battle alongside his father and brothers in Jaji that year. It was an all-Arab unit, including Saudis, Moroccans and Algerians. When he was not fighting, Azzam studied at a school his father had established for the children of Arab mujahedeen. He got to know Ahmed Shah Massoud in 1985 and fought alongside the famed Afghan hero, taking Kabul with him in 1992. Azzam then followed a course of study at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, but for the next six years he also joined some Arab colleagues in trying to bring the warring parties in Afghanistan together, shuttling between Massoud's Northern Alliance and the Taliban's Mullah Omar. "We were the Arab mujahedeen respected by everyone," he told me and blamed the failure to reach an accord on the intervention of Pakistani intelligence.
In 1994 and 1995, Azzam says, he was in Bosnia, working to funnel money and supplies to the nascent country's beleaguered Muslims. He then tried to enter Chechnya but was forced to turn back. In 1996, on returning to Jordan, Azzam was arrested at the airport and held briefly. In 2000 Jordan returned his passport to him, and he was allowed to live freely, selling cars and nuts, importing and exporting and receiving a license to distribute mobile phones. (On his own phone that day at the cafe he showed me videos he had downloaded of Iraqi resistance attacks against the American military.) He has completed a master's degree in Islamic studies and Arabic and is now working on a doctorate, examining Arabic literature from classical Muslim Spain.
According to Azzam, his studies did not keep him from the occasional forays into jihadist activity. Three days after America's invasion of Iraq began, Azzam and other followers of his late father crossed over from Jordan into Iraq and established a base for themselves in Falluja. The only source for this is Azzam himself, but his telling the story at all involved some risk to him, and his command of the detail and of the personalities involved lent him credibility; it also matched up well with information I had gathered on earlier reporting trips to Falluja and Baghdad. "We were trying to convince Muslim scholars to begin the resistance," he said. "They had no plan. They were sleeping. For one month they did not agree. They said, 'Go back to your country."'
For Azzam, leaving Iraq alone to work out its own fate was not an option. He said he believed that resistance would start, and he wanted to shape the process as well as hurry it. "We were more than 30 or 40 Arabs, without weapons," he said. "We went from mosque to mosque, from school to school. People said, 'The U.S. brought us democracy!' They believed the lies of Bush that he will bring democracy and freedom."
Everything changed, he said, on April 28, 2003, when American soldiers killed 15 demonstrators in Falluja, then killed 2 more in a subsequent demonstration. (Iraqis said that the first demonstration had been to protest the Americans' using an elementary school as a military base.) After that, rumors spread of four American soldiers raping a 17-year-old girl, with pictures distributed on the Internet. (Those pictures may well have been fabricated.) "This story was the main cause of starting the resistance in Falluja," Azzam said. It "made them reconsider, but there was still no action. I was watching from afar — with a smile. In the beginning they had said, 'Go make jihad in your own country.' After the rape story, they said, 'O.K., we want to start now, or tomorrow we will find our mothers or daughters or sisters raped.' This story exploded the resistance in Falluja. They called us for a meeting and said, 'You were right.' We had told them from the first day that the Iraqi Army abandoned weapons that they should take, but they said this is stealing, haram, looting. You could buy an R.P.G. for three U.S. dollars in those days."
Azzam says he spent four months in Iraq imparting his knowledge of guerrilla warfare to the indigenous resistance. His background, he told me, gave him immediate currency. "I am the son of Abdullah Azzam," he said, "so everybody wanted to listen. And I have experience in three or four jihads in different countries, and a lot of the Iraqi resistance had no plan. We gave them our experience so they could start from where we stopped, so they don't start from zero. Jihad is an obligation as a Muslim. If you can't support jihad with fighting, you can support with ideas or teaching. So we tried, and we still do. Followers of Abdullah Azzam helped plan the resistance in all of Iraq, and we had hoped for a united resistance with Shias. We were aiming to bring unity between Sunnis and Shias with resistance on both sides, but the Shia leadership was against us, and Zarqawi spoiled it, making it fail."
Azzam was fiercely opposed to Zarqawi and his kind, who, he says, gave jihad a bad name: "We say to people who give funds: Don't give to Zarqawi. Give to Iraqis, give to the Association of Muslim Scholars. They are the right way; our school supports them." The association was founded in the summer of 2003 in Baghdad to unite Iraq's Sunnis and to increase their political leverage. It was led by Sheik Harith al-Dari, whose grandfather had been a leader of the rebellion against the British and whose son, according to insurgents I spoke with, organizes armed resistance. The association, according to members I interviewed, is affiliated with several Iraqi national resistance units, the most important being the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Iraqi Islamic Army. It also, on occasion, aided Shiites who were opposing the American and allied forces.
Azzam viewed his support for Iraqi resistance as consistent with his support of other indigenous Muslim movements fighting in what the jihadis consider self-defense. "Iraq is a defensive jihad," Azzam insisted. "Troops from abroad came to a Muslim country." He said that the Iraqi jihad was going very well. "Praise God, we were successful," he told me. "Everything is going much better. Much better than we were planning. It won't take like Afghanistan, nine years, to kick the U.S. out. It will be much faster. But we must know our aims and goals. Just exploding cars is not enough. We need a plan for the future. When the Americans leave, we will look for the next place."
When they find that next place, will the Americans be there? The specifically Salafist form of jihad doesn't require a "far enemy" like the United States. Given the rigidity of Salafism, it will always have a range of near enemies to choose from. Al Qaeda is different: the kind of force-projection missions it has favored, taking the fight to the far enemy, will presumably occur as long as there is an Al Qaeda. But what of the "defensive jihad" fought by people like Huthaifa Azzam?
Azzam and others along the spectrum of jihadi thought seem to expect the United States to continue, to some degree, as a "near enemy," now that it has become deeply involved in Iraq. Americans in the region will be subject to the chronic low-level violence carried out by men who, for years now, have done a bit of bombing here, a cross-border incursion there, all while spending the rest of their time selling cars or mobile phones.
The reason for a continuing defensive jihad may be Iraq, or the Palestinian struggle with Israel, or even Syria, or a combination of these. In some radical Jordanian circles, there is an expectation that the aim of Islam's enemies is to take control of all of Sham: Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. U.S. pressures being applied to Syria are sometimes seen by the Islamists as part of a larger "infidel" plan to attack Sham, the kind of paranoid prediction that can almost make itself come true. Muhammad Wasfi, the friend and former colleague of Zarqawi, expects the United States to continue to make itself an ever-nearer enemy. "What I am concerned with now is continuing the Islamic call and establishing an Islamic way of life and waiting for the correct jihad," he told me. "The next battlefield is Sham, and we must prepare the people of Sham for this. What happened in Iraq and before in Afghanistan will be extended. The U.S. wants to get inside the capital of Islam, which is Sham. This entrance will be through Syria. Syria will be the slaughterhouse of Americans and their supporters, so they are welcome to get inside Syria and be butchered."
What seems clear is that radical Islamism has not been vanquished by the U.S. military and that American policy in Iraq has had the unintended consequence of strengthening it. For many younger, radical Jordanians, and the Jordanians are not alone, the notion of jihad has come to seem like a natural part of things, a simmering struggle not about to be vanquished by more democracy, say, or a greater U.S. military presence.
The Marka military court is in a squat white building atop a hill in east Amman and across the road from a military air base. Apart from dealing with wayward soldiers, the court handles security and terrorism cases. Relatives of prisoners gather on the curb outside, most dressed in traditional gowns, waiting to be searched and allowed in. The winter winds blow hard on Amman's hilltops and muffle the sirens of an approaching police sedan, followed by a dark blue van, windowless except for some bars on the back. The van is always followed by a pickup truck, with two masked counterterrorist agents manning a heavy mounted gun on the bed.
On a Wednesday at the end of December, the van entered Marka through the main gate and then circled around the back of the courthouse. Ten shackled prisoners were taken out and led into a cage in the courtroom. Their lawyers, jovially chatting in a smoke-filled waiting room, made their way past the numerous police officers, security officers and soldiers — all bustling about in search of something to do — and entered the small courtroom, with its bright fluorescent lights and old wooden benches full of blue-uniformed General Security officers.
The prisoners ranged in age from 21 to 35. They were chatting spiritedly, smiling and waving at the few relatives sitting in the back of the room. All 10 prisoners wore dark blue denim prison suits, wool caps and slippers. Their beards were shaggy, as was their hair, which curled out of their caps over their ears and the backs of their necks. Some had a dark stain sunk in above their brows in the center of the forehead. It was a sign of intense piety, acquired by kneeling and bowing forward, placing the forehead on the floor in prayer.
The month before, Zarqawi had sent Iraqi suicide bombers to Amman, three of whom succeeded in detonating their vests in three different hotels, killing more than 60 and injuring more than 100, including many who were attending a wedding. It was Zarqawi's third successful attack in Jordan. Each time, he had used non-Jordanians to avoid infiltration by the Mukhabarat. In 2005 the Mukhabarat said it had captured the members of 13 terrorist cells; the year before, the number was 11, one of them in direct contact with Zarqawi.
All of the prisoners were from Irbid, up by the Syrian border. Six were of Palestinian origin, their parents or grandparents having fled from or been expelled from their homes west of the border in 1948, when Israel was founded, or as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. In court papers, the charges against all 10 (plus 5 more who had so far evaded arrest) described how they had met in the Qaqa mosque in Irbid's Hnina neighborhood. They wanted to fight the Americans in Iraq and planned to recruit others and raise money to go to Iraq via Syria. In late July last year, the court papers said, they pooled money to purchase a Kalashnikov rifle and some bullets. At different times, they sneaked into Syria, sometimes driven there by a friend who owned a school bus. In Syria, one of them met with a Tunisian who took him to an apartment where a Libyan and a Saudi were staying. They discussed what operations he could execute and urged him to drive a car bomb, but the court papers stated that he had refused to become "a suicidal." He tired of waiting in Syria and returned to Jordan, where his friends gave him a hard time for turning back.
Others later sneaked into Syria and discussed joining the fighters in Iraq. The papers mentioned that they also engaged in theological discussions about when and how to apply the label "infidel" to common people, rulers and scholars. (Their plans included warring with Shiite Iraqis and probably others, like Iraqi policemen and soldiers who might well be Sunni. So the question of whom to excommunicate was an immediately practical one.) Another of the defendants was also invited to be a "suicidal," but he refused and returned to Jordan. Still others sneaked into Syria with a Kalashnikov and four magazines full of bullets only to fall into an argument, after which two returned to Jordan, where they were arrested.
In the Marka courtroom, three military judges in olive uniform sat behind a long wooden bench. Behind them were framed pictures of the late King Hussein and King Abdullah. As the chief judge prepared to read the charges, one of the prisoners shouted to him, "Say Allahu Akbar!" ("God is Great.") The prisoners erupted in unison, yelling fiercely, "Allahu Akbar, the way of God is jihad!" The chief judge waited for them to finish and read the four charges, which were possession of an automatic weapon with intention to use it in illegal activity, initiation of illegal activities that could harm Jordan's relations with a foreign country, illicit travel from and to Jordan with an automatic weapon and aiding illicit travel into Jordan.
When the judge got to the part about "a foreign country," he was interrupted by a prisoner who shouted, "Infidel countries, not foreign countries!" The judge looked bored and tapped his pen on the table for silence, asking the man to stop interrupting. The judge read each of the prisoners' names, asking if he pleaded guilty or not.
He was interrupted again, by the same prisoner, who shouted: "This is a play — when is it going to end? We know that the verdicts have been decided and written in the files!" The judge tapped his pencil impatiently. "I am not guilty — you are guilty!" snapped a prisoner. "Jihad is not guilt," shouted another. "Is jihad in the way of Allah guilt? Fighting the Americans and Jews and infidels is now guilt? We are protecting the honor of our sisters in Iraq. Is that guilt? God is our master, and you have no master. Your regime is rotten, and it stinks. You and your regime and your ranks, you are all guilty!"
The judge tapped his pen and told the prisoners to answer without comments. "He who opens alcoholic bars is guilty!" one prisoner yelled. The judge lost his temper and angrily told the guards to take the loudest prisoner out of the cage and back to the van — and the prisoner quieted down. The judge ordered the families to leave the court, as a punishment for the prisoners' recalcitrance. The military prosecutor, also in uniform, informed the judge that he had no witnesses, and the trial was postponed for one week. "Allah is our master, and you have no master!" the prisoners shouted in unison. "He is the best master and the best supporter. America is your master, and you have the worst master."
The following Friday, I drove up to Irbid's Hnina neighborhood and to the Qaqa mosque, hoping to learn more about what might have motivated the young prisoners in their failed attempt to join the jihad in Iraq. My taxi driver recounted how his own cousin had suddenly picked up and left for Iraq in March 2003. Many young men from his own town of Zarqa, he said, including some who were not even religious, had poured over the border to fight the Americans.
Irbid sprawls over rolling hills, the elevation making the air cleaner than in Amman. Since it was a Friday, the streets were nearly empty. In the Hnina neighborhood, two boys sat on a curb sharing a bag of potato chips. A short line of men and women lined up in front of the Jowharat al Zein bakery to purchase piles of large flat bread for Friday lunch. Children played in the street, and the few women walking by were not conservatively dressed.
Upstairs at the mosque were about 600 men. Small children played by the door or prayed by their fathers. The mosque was unfinished, and unpainted cinder blocks and plaster were visible on the walls. The sun came in from a skylight around the dome. As the men completed their prayers in a low murmur, Sheik Jihad Mahdi stood up and began with a short prayer. "Thanks to Allah, supporter of Islam," he intoned, "for his victory and his humiliation of infidelity with his power and managing all the matters with his orders and deceiving the infidels with his cleverness, the one who estimates the days going over and over by his justice. Prayer and peace on the one who raises the flag of Islam with his sword." This was no ordinary prayer; it was the same prayer used by Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in every message they put out.
After a sermon on the theme of making the pilgrimage to Mecca (it was pilgrimage season), Jihad offered another prayer. "God support the Muslims and give them victory everywhere," he said, as the crowd responded, "Amen."
"God support the mujahedeen and give them victory everywhere, in Iraq, in Palestine."
"God give us the power to break the thorns of the Jews and the Americans and the Crusaders."
"God give us the opportunity to face them."
"Bless us and show us the way to jihad in the path of God."
Jihad repeated this last prayer for jihad three times. He left out the customary prayer for the good health of the king.
Where will this quiet but constant low-grade jihadi mobilization lead? If the American invasion of Iraq called forth a jihadi response, American withdrawal might likewise lead many men to put their rifles away and go back to selling cars, nuts and mobile phones. At the same time, the withdrawal of the far enemy may leave jihadis with the feeling that they should return to battling the near enemies: their own governments and the multitude of other infidels, including Shiite infidels. It might also be that some governments in the region would prefer that their jihadis find something to do other than overthrow them — like wage jihad against Shiites. Zarqawi's intensely anti-Shiite comrade Abu Anas al-Shami — another Palestinian who moved to Jordan from Kuwait following the 1991 gulf war and the spiritual leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia until his death in 2004 — was disappointed when the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq called for cooperation with Iraqi nationalists and moderate Shiites. As a Salafi, Abu Anas considered Shiites "vicious" and against Islam. Anti-Shiite feeling runs very high among jihadis in Iraq, and the murder of Shiite civilians by Sunni militants has increased.
The prospect of Shiite power in Iraq also worries Iraq's Sunni neighbors, including Saudi Arabia (which has a discontented Shiite minority) and Jordan. These countries are often said to be the main sources, along with Syria, of foreign insurgents in Iraq. Iraq's Shiites have demonstrated against Jordan in the past for just this reason. King Abdullah warned in December 2004 of an emerging "Shiite crescent" from Lebanon to Iraq to Iran that could destabilize the region. In September of last year, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, warned of a possible civil war in Iraq because of the dominance of Shiites.
Again, the politics of Shiite-Sunni friction are nothing new (and many Sunni jihadis, including Huthaifa Azzam, as well as the Association of Muslim Scholars, have condemned attacks on Shiites, and even Maqdisi broke with Zarqawi's policy of killing Shiite civilians). What is new is a population of experienced jihadis and willing recruits who are ready to travel from country to country in search of battle. Radical jihad may never appeal to a majority of Muslims, but for enough young Sunni men, their order galvanized by Iraq, it seems to be becoming a way of life.
Abu Saad called me one night and picked me up in his car. In the front passenger seat sat Abu Muhammed, a giant of a man, 37 years old, who spoke rough Arabic. Soon after the fall of Baghdad, Abu Muhammed made his way to Baquba, a town east of Baghdad near the Iranian border. "I was thirsty for jihad," he said. "I felt I had a duty to go to Iraq. It's a duty of any Muslim if he can." He had previously lived in Iraq for five years and so had established relationships, he told me, with "good people on the right side." He and his friends soon met fighters from western Iraq and became more involved in the insurgency.
Abu Muhammed supported attacks against Iraq's Shiite civilians: "The infidel sects are one, if they are Jews or Shias." Citing Ibn Taimiya, a 13th-century scholar loved by Salafis, he said that Shiites "were worse than Jews or Christians." Abu Muhammed longed to return to Iraq. "I am addicted to Iraq, addicted to jihad," he said. "Iraq has a different taste, the water, the dates, the yogurt. It is the country of the caliphate."
Nir Rosen, a contributing writer for the magazine, is the author of "In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq," due out in May.