Daesh, Jordan, and Foreign Fighters

Daesh, Jordan, and Foreign Fighters

It is a rare island of serenity amid a storm, known as the “Kingdom of Peace”: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Compared to its neighbors, Jordan is an oasis of modernity and security, seemingly unaffected by high numbers of terror attacks, especially when Daesh (Arabic for ISIS, ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’) burst onto the world stage in summer 2014. However, many Jordanians have joined Daesh. According to the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), Jordan has contributed about 3,000 fighters to the terrorist movement (Speckhard 2017). Per one million people, Jordan has about 315 Daesh militants, the highest number in the world (Speckhard 2017). To what extent do these large numbers affect the amount of terrorist activities in the Kingdom, now that many fighters are returning to their home countries?

The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) claims that most Jordanian Daesh recruits come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, a common trend among wannabe terrorists. But there are exceptions: for example, two fighters were the sons of Jordanian generals, and one was described as a “lover of adventure” (Speckhard 2017). Those who travel to Syria or Iraq are then trained, returning to their home countries to carry out terror attacks. However, the high numbers of Jordanians flocking to fight for Daesh do not necessarily translate to support for terrorism among the general population. In 2005, five percent of Jordanians did not view al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization, compared to the ninety-five percent who did (Speckhard 2017). A more recent survey on attitudes towards terrorism in Jordan post-2010 indicates that overall there is little support for terrorism. According to this survey, endorsement rates for Daesh are at three percent, for al-Qaeda and al Nusra at two percent (Speckhard 2017). Although these rates may seem high when compared to Western nations, they are out of sync with Jordan having one of the highest ratios of Daesh fighters to the general population in the world. And indeed, terrorist attacks in Jordan are much rarer than in its neighboring countries. Two factors contribute to this unique standing in the Middle East.

First, Jordan’s strong social cohesion and national unity both mitigates the effects of and helps to prevent terrorist attacks. Despite the high numbers of Jordanian Daesh fighters, a history of social harmony in society relative to its Syrian and Iraqi neighbors means that in the face of emergency, Jordanians are more likely to unite. After Daesh militants attacked the city center of Karak, Jordan, in 2016, civilians took up arms and resisted the terrorists. This type of unity is unseen in much of the Middle East. But Jordan, according to Hussein Mahadeen, a professor and sociologist at Mutah University in Jordan, “has a shared experience of different faiths and backgrounds living together in harmony […] anything that threatens that harmony is seen as a threat and will be confronted” (Luck 2016). According to the King of Jordan, Abdullah II, Jordanian unity is a sense of national pride, and Jordanian citizens tend to always put their community first, which minimizes the effects of terrorist attacks (The Jordan Times 2015). As Hassan Abu Haniya, an expert on extremism, puts it: “even though some individual Jordanians may join [Daesh], the society as a whole comes together to fight it” (Luck 2016). So even if terrorist attacks do happen in Jordan, such as the 2016 shootings in al-Karak, they are not devastating to societal unity. As terrorists do not see Jordan as a place where they can achieve their goals, they are more likely to turn to more vulnerable countries instead.

In addition to Jordan’s social cohesion, its intelligence service, the General Intelligence Department (GID), works effectively to prevent terrorist attacks, which is why the large numbers of Jordanian Daesh fighters do not necessarily translate into a high rate of terror attacks. Founded in 1964, the GID’s duty is to “safeguard the security of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan domestically and abroad by means of carrying out necessary intelligence operations” (GID 2017). In essence, the GID is Jordan’s equivalent to the American Central Intelligence Agency or the German Bundesnachrichentdienst. In 2012, Jordanian authorities arrested 11 people on suspicion of plotting to blow up “shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions” in Jordan (The Associated Press 2012). In 2015, a government raid in the Jordanian city of Irbid left 7 suspected jihadists dead and foiled an alleged plan to attack “civilian and military targets” in the country (BBC 2016). Jordanian officials say the GID has “thwarted countless plots targeting Jordan over the years” (Karadsheh 2016). The high ratio of foiled terror plots suggests an effective government response to any perceived terrorist threat. In addition, it means that any Jordanian Daesh fighter who has returned to wage jihad in Jordan has a higher chance of being arrested before an attack is even carried out.

Despite all the work the GID has done in preventing terror attacks, there are legitimate concerns about the human rights situation in GID jails. In 2006, Amnesty International reported that prisoners of the GID were beaten and tortured into confessing (Aslam 2011). While Jordan has started some prison reforms, detainee mistreatment still occurs, according to a 2011 report (Aslam 2011). Indeed, the Jordanian government should ensure that the GID is held responsible for any human rights abuses that do occur under its watch. There are countless editorials arguing that human rights abuses committed by the US only increase support for jihadists (Postel 2013). In order to ensure that Jordan does adhere to international conventions against torture, as well as eliminating the “government hypocrites” rationale for jihadists, the Jordanian government should exercise more oversight over the GID and prosecute those who commit human rights abuses.

Even though Jordan contributes large amounts of fighters to Daesh, social cohesion and a powerful intelligence service mean terror attacks in Jordan are much rarer than in neighboring countries. In Iraq, suicide bombings of civilian areas occur regularly and Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe. But Jordan stands out as an island of peace. Although imperfect, Jordan is an example for the Middle East for how to use intelligence to effectively prevent terror attacks. The only question now is whether the region will follow in Jordan’s footsteps.



Aslam, M.I., 2011. Jordan’s Mukhabarat: Inside the Snakepit. Foreign Policy Journal, [online]. Available at: <https://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2011/08/03/jordans-mukhabarat-inside-the-snakepit/>

BBC, 2016. Jordan raid: Eight killed in Irbid as forces ‘foil IS plot’. BBC, 2 March [online]. Available at: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35701841>

General Intelligence Directorate, 2017. About G.I.D. [online]. Available at: <https://gid.gov.jo/gid-info/about-g-i-d/>

Speckhard, A., 2017. The Jihad in Jordan: Drivers of Radicalization into Violent Extremism in Jordan. International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [online]. Available at: <http://www.icsve.org/research-reports/the-jihad-in-jordan-drivers-of-radicalization-into-violent-extremism-in-jordan/>

Karadsheh, J., 2016. Why Jordan, ‘Kingdom of Peace,’ is no longer immune from attack. CNN, 19 December [online]. Available at: <http://edition.cnn.com/2016/12/19/middleeast/jordan-terrorism-attack-analysis/index.html>

Luck, T., 2016. Against ISIS, Jordan has a big gun: social cohesion. The Christian Science Monitor, 21 December [online]. Available at: <https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2016/1221/Against-ISIS-Jordan-has-a-big-gun-social-cohesion>

The Associated Press, 2012. Jordan says al Qaeda-linked terror plot foiled. CBS News, 21 October [online]. Available at: <https://www.cbsnews.com/news/jordan-says-al-qaeda-linked-terror-plot-foiled/>

The Jordan Times, 2015. Jordan’s solid national unity is what makes it special — King. The Jordan Times, 16 September [online]. Available at: <http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/jordan’s-solid-national-unity-what-makes-it-special-—-king>

Postel, T., 2013. How Guantanamo Bay’s Existence Helps Al-Qaeda Recruit More Terrorists. The Atlantic [online]. Available at: <https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/how-guantanamo-bays-existence-helps-al-qaeda-recruit-more-terrorists/274956/>

© Picture: Vyacheslav Argenberg 

Nidal Morrison is currently a boarding student at King's Academy in Madaba, Jordan. Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, USA, she is passionate about international relations and Middle Eastern politics. She writes for The Youth Journal, a youth-run international affairs publication, and is a member of United Youth Journalists, another youth-led journalism initiative. In addition, she has published articles in The New Arab and her former high school's international news publication The Contour. She speaks English, French and Arabic, and is learning Turkish on Duolingo.