Two dozen men charged with supporting ISIS are squeezed into a cage in Jordan’s state security court. After brief questioning from a judge, they file back out, and guards usher in the next group of accused militants.
The court’s heavy load is part of a widening domestic crackdown on the extremist group.
Hundreds have been sentenced to prison, are awaiting trial, or are being held for questioning about links to ISIS. Under toughened anti-terror laws, even liking or sharing the group’s propaganda on social media can land someone a prison sentence.
Some say the crowded court rooms – along with recent attacks – signal that the pro-Western kingdom has a more serious problem with home-grown extremism than it has acknowledged in public.
“We have an extending of the network of ISIS in Jordan, not just among the poor, but also the middle class,” said Mohammed Abu Rumman, an expert on extremists. “It is a minority but it is very dangerous.”
The extremists underscored their reach last week when they launched a suicide attack from Syria, detonating a car bomb near a Jordanian border post and killing seven soldiers in the deadliest attack the kingdom has seen in years.
ISIS’s 2014 capture of large parts of neighboring Syria and Iraq sent jitters through Jordan. The US spent millions of dollars helping the kingdom fortify its borders, and Jordan joined the US-led anti-ISIS military coalition.
Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed Momani said that extremism is a global problem and that “Jordan is at a level just like any other society in the world.” The challenge is to reach and prosecute extremists and “make sure we have enough awareness in society against these elements,” he continued.
For the West, any sign of instability in Jordan, a key ally, is of great concern. This includes the rising support for jihadi Salafism, the violent version of Sunni Islam that underpins ISIS and its precursor, al-Qaeda.
US-based analyst David Schenker said that while it’s difficult to measure jihadi activity, the recent uptick “points to a threat that is not insignificant.”
Abu Rumman estimated that there are more than 10,000 jihadi Salafists in Jordan, most loyal to ISIS, and that about 2,000 of them are fighting in the ranks of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq.
Jordan’s domestic jihadi Salafi movement goes back almost three decades when Jordanians returning from Afghanistan spread the extremist message at home. Jordan produced a spiritual leader of al-Qaeda, Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, and the network’s first chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed by the US in 2006.
Over the years, jihadi recruitment has been fueled by high unemployment, restrictions on political expression and the perception that the world stands by as Sunnis are being slaughtered in Syria’s civil war and the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq.
In Jordan, militant strongholds include poor urban areas, remote tribal towns and Palestinian refugee camps, where some feel like second-class citizens.
The support was on display recently in Zarqa. Hundreds attended the funeral of Nasser Idreis, a resident convicted of ISIS support who died in prison from complications of a liver infection.
Clean-shaven intelligence agents mingled with the mourners, not even trying to blend in. One even introduced himself to a journalist as “mukhabarat” – intelligence – and asked why she was taking photos.
Some mourners wore Salafi attire – short robes or pants that stop above the ankle — though that didn’t necessarily mean they belong to the jihadi strain of Salafis that supports violence. Bearded men hugged each other outside a mosque, among them a leading local jihadi Salafi known as Abu Bandar.
Abu Bandar said the government has stepped up pressure in recent months, including with preventive arrests, “because they are concerned that something might happen.”
Idreis’ family denies he had ties to ISIS.
In 2011, dozens of Zarqa residents were arrested after clashes between local Salafis and security forces – including Abu Bandar, who was one of the last of the group to be released, about six months ago. Dozens of those have since left and joined the ISIS “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, said Moussa Abdallat, a lawyer who represented many of them.
In response to the rise of ISIS, Jordan toughened anti-terror laws, criminalizing social media support for the group. Sharing ISIS material on social media can carry with it between one and five years in prison, and involvement in an actual plot far more.
The Jordanian intelligence agency closely monitors social media with an “electronic army,” said Abu Rumman. “Anyone they find sympathizing with ISIS, they send him to court,” he said.
Abdallat said about 300 Jordanians have been sentenced or are on trial, most for social media support. About 300 more are being held for questioning, though the number changes frequently, he said. Most are in their late teens and early 20s.
“There is a notable increase in the number of detainees,” he said.
Court officials would not provide statistics.
During a recent session, a judge presided over a courtroom crowded with defense lawyers and family of the accused.
In the defendants’ cage, the men stood tightly packed. Some hugged new arrivals. Among them were five young men accused of being part of a cell plotting attacks on security installations, a charge their lawyer denied.
In recent months, other reports of such alleged plots have emerged, along with actual attacks.
In November, a police captain opened fire in an international police training facility, killing two Americans and three others. In June, a gunman killed five Jordanians in an attack on an intelligence agency branch in the Palestinian refugee camp of Baqaa.
The government has portrayed the police captain as troubled and clamped a news blackout on the June attack. Abu Rumman said he believes both attackers were inspired by ISIS.
In March, Jordanian commandos and suspected ISIS supporters exchanged fire during an arrest raid, leaving seven militants and a member of the security forces dead. The ISIS cell had allegedly plotted to carry out attacks in Jordan. More than a dozen suspects arrested after the gun battle were charged in the security court this week, Abdallat said.
Jordan defends its anti-ISIS strategy, saying it is part of a broader counter-radicalization program involving 13 government agencies. Critics however, say the focus on jailing ISIS sympathizers is counter-productive.
Prison, critics argue, forges more bonds among jihadis, while a security-centric approach risks neglecting other causes of radicalization, said Schenker, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
A survey among Jordanians, published last week by the US-based International Republican Institute, found a sharp rise in discontent with Jordan’s economy and political institutions. The poll also showed that 89 percent of Jordanians consider ISIS a terrorist organization, while 4 percent disagree and 7 percent are not sure – the same as in 2015.
“As jihadi Salafism continues to spread in the region, Jordan will have to adapt,” Schenker said. “Ultimately, you are going to have more Salafists, and the king can’t lock them all up.”