Anger in Jordan at Islamic State won’t last if poverty allowed to fester, experts say

AMMAN, Jordan — In Amman’s Hussein slum, where jobs and hope are scarce, many were once drawn to the militant ideas of the Islamic State group as a way to a better life.

AMMAN, Jordan — In Amman’s Hussein slum, where jobs and hope are scarce, many were once drawn to the militant ideas of the Islamic State group as a way to a better life.

A video showing a Jordanian pilot being burned to death triggered a national backlash against the extremists, including in Hussein, which is home to about 40,000 Palestinian and Syrian war refugees and their descendants.

But public opinion can be fickle, and some experts say the festering problems that feed militancy across the region, such as high unemployment, remain a threat to the stability of Jordan, a key U.S. ally. The government’s approach — arresting IS sympathizers at home and bombing its strongholds in Syria and Iraq — is not enough to combat extremism, they say.

“Poverty, isolation, feeling left out of development drives a lot of the grievances among the youth,” said Sultan Barakat, a Jordan expert at the Brookings Doha Center. Among these groups, anger at IS will eventually make way again for the appeal of jihadi ideas, he said.

The pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, was captured in December after his F-16 crashed into Islamic State-controlled territory in northern Syria. Earlier this week, the militants released a video showing him being burned to death in an outdoor cage.

In the Hussein neighbourhood, residents rallied behind the government’s pledge of a “harsh” response against the militants. Jordan has been carrying out airstrikes against IS since September, as part of a U.S.-led military coalition.

“Everyone was angry here,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, 23, who sells coffee from a small roadside stall. He and two friends, sipping black coffee from paper cups, said they watched the video repeatedly. One in the group, 22-year-old Mahmoud Khaled, said it gave him nightmares.

A white banner strung across a garbage-strewn alley declared that the local youth club “condemns the crimes” against the pilot. A delegation from the neighbourhood — considered a refugee camp, although it is blended into the city — drove to the pilot’s home village in southern Jordan on Thursday to express condolences to his family.

Emad Issayed, head of the neighbourhood council, said there had been widespread sympathy for the Islamic State group in Hussein before the pilot was killed.

“They had new ideas, new projects,” he said of the appeal of the militants, who declared a caliphate, or Islamic state, in areas under their control last year. “People believed they (the militants) represented an Islamic way of life, and could improve their lives as well.”

In recent years, life in Hussein has only gotten harder, he said. About 4,000 refugees displaced by Syria’s civil war have moved into the neighbourhood, driving up rents and competing for scarce jobs.

“They impose a real burden on us,” said Issayed, 57.

A majority of young men are unemployed or underemployed, spending time in small family shops where they are not really needed. Issayed said drug and alcohol abuse is common. “It’s a desperate situation,” he said.

Sympathy for Islamic State isn’t only limited to the poor, said Marwan Shehadeh, an expert on jihadi groups.

“Before this heinous crime, Islamic State enjoyed wide support in Jordan,” he said. “Supporters came from all walks of life, the educated, the poor, the well-to-do.”

Shehadeh and others have estimated that jihadi groups, including the Islamic State and an al-Qaida rival, have about 9,000 to 10,000 hard-core supporters among Jordanians, including about 2,000 fighting in Syria and Iraq

Government officials have dismissed claims of growing support for Islamic militants in Jordan as an exaggeration.

Still, Jordan launched a crackdown on the jihadis and their sympathizers last year, detaining and putting dozens on trial under a tougher anti-terrorism law. In the current climate, “no one can dare to raise his head” and express support for the Islamic State group, Shehadeh said.

The government ramped up its anti-IS rhetoric dramatically this week, highlighting Jordan’s military prowess and appealing to patriotic sentiments.

State TV showed video of new airstrikes Thursday, including fighter jets taking off from an air base in an arid plain, followed by images of bombs hitting their targets and huge balls of fire and smoke. Pilots were seen scribbling messages with chalk on their missiles. One read: “For you, the enemies of Islam.”

Throughout the day, the station filled air time with archive footage of the king in military fatigues speaking to the troops and interviews with politicians and intellectuals praising the war against IS.

The kingdom is “mobilizing for a long war against Islamic State,” said analyst Saad Hattar.

The anger over the killing of the pilot has united Jordanians, said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister. “It will strengthen the king’s argument that this is a war for the true values of Arabic and Islamic civilization.”

He added: “As such, it is Jordan’s war, irrespective of whether it’s waged inside or outside our borders.”

But Muasher and others said Jordan must also make sweeping changes at home if it wants to defeat the militants. This includes opening up the political system, despite government fears that “doing this might be detrimental to stability,” Muasher said.

The West and its Arab allies, which consider Jordan as “too strategic to fail,” have given the kingdom billions of dollars in aid, loan guarantees and military assistance in recent years, said Barakat, the Doha-based analyst. In Washington, members of Congress this week called for increasing military assistance to Jordan’s fight against IS.

Barakat said Jordan and its foreign backers must try harder to fix the country’s chronic economic problems, such as rampant joblessness among the young, including university graduates.

It is misguided to try to defeat Islamic State only on the battlefield, he said, adding that “the real threat (to Jordan) is going to come from within.”