Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 11/2014

TSG IntelBrief: Jordan and the War Next Door

October 2014

The Soufan Group


• In neighboring Iraq, over 1,100 Jordanians are believed to be fighting for the so-called Islamic State (IS) according to Jordanian former Prime Minister Maruf al-Bakhit, with another 200 having already died fighting

• Although that's only 0.0203% of Jordan's 6.4 million population, and enough for serious concern, it's testament to Jordanian society that with the constant fighting next door such a small percentage have taken up arms for IS

• After the 2005 Amman bombings, al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to IS) was widely despised in Jordan; now nine years later, over a thousand Jordanians are fighting for the same group

• In his October 18, 2014 remarks, Bakhit stated that there were between 2,000-4,000 Jordanians who adhere to the violent takfiri ideology most famously espoused by the late Jordanian Abu Mus'ab al Zarqawi

• Along with the fear of a radicalized population after a decade of war raging across two of its borders is the fear of what happens next in Iraq and Syria

• According to Bakhit, a partitioned Iraq is too problematic to work despite its obvious appeal amid the current fighting, with resources unevenly distributed across the country and Baghdad far too mixed for one side to claim.


The percentage is small but the number is still startling: Over 1,300 Jordanians have taken up arms in support of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, and 200 of them have already died fighting.

This number appears to be in addition to the estimated several thousand thought to have traveled north to fight for the various sides and groups in Syria since 2011. This latest estimate comes from Jordanian former Prime Minister Maruf al-Bakhit during a speech on October 18, 2014 in Amman and then in his following remarks to the state-run news agency Petra. Jordan's history with IS and its precursor group al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is complicated. While the group's founder Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi is from Jordan, the group itself became widely reviled after the 2005 hotel bombings in Amman. Outside of extremist population pockets in Zarqa and Ma'an, AQI-now IS-was generally despised. That over 1300 Jordanians would decide to fight for this same group nine years after the hotel bombings is a cause for concern but is more a reflection of the decade of war on two of Jordan's borders than it is a sign of deep trouble in the country.

Though the percentage of Jordan's population fighting for IS is relatively small in comparison to regional neighbors, less than .03% (for perspective, a similar percentage for the United States would mean 65,000 fighters), the cumulative impact of never-ending war is corrosive even for the most stable countries, and Jordan faces more challenges than most. Even a small fraction of those fighters returning to Jordan presents serious security and societal concerns. The threat of returning fighters does tend to be somewhat exaggerated but this exaggeration doesn't negate the threat entirely. With sustained fighting to its north and east, and an estimated over 1,100 of its citizens currently fighting for IS, it is reasonable to state that no other country is at greater risk than Jordan.

However, there is a larger concern for the Hashemite Kingdom, and that is the larger geopolitical issue of what will happen next in Syria and Iraq. While IS and its online supporters rail against the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which set many of the borders now being contested, Jordan doesn't want to see the maps redrawn. The concern is more for regional stability, not for redrawn maps.

During his remarks, Bakhit maintained that a partitioned Iraq-which increasingly looks less radical given the current chaos and the de facto separation of much of Iraq-would not work, primarily for two reasons. First, he said Baghdad as a city overall is far too mixed between Sunni and Shi'a (even if individual neighborhoods and areas are not), and neither Shi'a nor Sunni could exclusively rule. Second, Iraq's resources are not evenly distributed, with the oil residing mostly in Kirkuk and in southern Iraq. An Iraq split 3-ways would result in an impoverished Sunni federation and constant battles to enlarge its borders, with control of Kirkuk certain to be a constant source of friction.

The obvious best-case scenario is a political reconciliation in Iraq that leads to less sectarian tension and actual fighting, thereby draining the well of discontent from which IS drinks. The Iraqi parliament has finally approved the prime minister's cabinet (the all-important positions of Interior and Defense were filled two days ago), but few believe radical positive change is coming on the ground in the short-term. This is where Jordan and the other members of the anti-IS coalition will prove vital, to provide time and breathing space for the Iraqis to resolve their problems. Jordan has seen this same strategy succeed and then fail before in Iraq, and now at least 1,100 of its citizens are there fighting for the wrong side.