Before news outlets in the West continue to highlight Jordan’s strong stand against the Islamic State, or Daesh, they ought to take a closer look at all of its efforts to combat this group. For there is mounting evidence Jordan’s shortsighted strategy to degrade Daesh’s influence on aspirant jihadis will ultimately create more problems for the U.S. and our allies — including Jordan itself.
Part of Jordan’s strategy to delegitimize Daesh’s narratives and diminish its appeal is elevating the profile of an influential figure in the global jihad movement and a de facto al-Qaida recruiter, Mohamed al-Maqdisi. While his criticisms of Daesh may serve to impair that group’s capabilities to raise support beyond the territories it controls in Syria and Iraq, concurrently, al-Maqdisi’s rhetoric and guidance for Muslims will serve to redirect much of that support to al-Qaida. Given the implications of this situation, president Obama’s silence regarding Jordan’s decision to play with fire is shocking.
The president’s aversion to employing expressions like “radical Islam” and “Islamic terrorism” is certainly odd. Yet his critics should take note of the bright side of matters: Implicit in his strategy focused on degrading the influence capabilities of groups like Daesh is an acknowledgement that radical Islamist narratives espoused by influential ideologues are crucial tools for terrorist groups waging a global war in the name of Islam — or, more appropriately, their adulterated versions of it.
As the president knows, the narratives of ideologues like al-Maqdisi reinforce the frameworks established last century by reformist-minded Islamist theoreticians to legitimize the vicious agendas of groups like al-Qaida and Daesh.
The promotion of these narratives by the likes of al-Maqdisi, who was at one time a spiritual guide for the founder of the group now known as Daesh, also helps those groups with their recruitment and fundraising efforts. Further, as we now see in Syria and Iraq, promotion of such narratives has been a vital component of Daesh strategy for asserting and retaining control over vast swathes of territory. From which it will seek to expand its “caliphate” while planning and inspiring attacks in the West.
Given the president’s awareness of the toxicity of radical Islamist narratives it is strange that he has not publicly admonished the government of Jordan for releasing Mohamed al-Maqdisi from prison. Indeed, even though al-Qaida’s former Iraq branch is more likely to employ terrorism against local Muslim populations and kill its foreign hostages than al-Qaida, ideologically, there is little that differentiates the group from its former parent organization that al-Maqdisi supports.
Is it likely that any significant movement toward crippling Daesh’s top-down-directed operations by rapidly killing all of its leaders will largely be the fruits of the Jordanian intelligence community’s field activities? If that happens, yes.
Is it therefore understandable that the president would not want to upset the country’s king right now? Perhaps. However, if the president looks at the bigger strategic picture, the answer to this second question should be No. Particularly as Jordan’s security officials are clearly not taking into consideration just how ill-fated their effort to leverage al-Maqdisi’s influence truly is.
For the Hashemite Kingdom, equally important to the objective of disrupting Daesh’s operations in neighboring countries is the objective of thwarting Daesh’s influence operations targeting Jordanians, as well as Palestinian and Syrian refugees living in the country, particularly as Daesh’s growing provocations suggest it is planning to open a new jihad theater in Jordan. Few know the Kingdom’s vulnerabilities better than Jordanian jihadis.
As with most nearby countries — not to mention a number of European states — in Jordan one finds growing Salafist communities whose members’ worldviews are very similar to those of Daesh and al-Qaida members. Meanwhile, a certain desperation is evident in the Kingdom’s plans to enlist a top ideologue from the Global Jihad movement in its effort to dissuade them from supporting Daesh, and a dangerous quotient of two-dimensional thinking.
Last year, al-Maqdisi failed to restore an important component of al-Qaida’s infrastructure in the Middle East with a dubious effort to broker reconciliation between the leader of al-Qaida’s official branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusrah, and the leader of the former al-Qaida branch now calling itself the Islamic State. Since then, he has sided with Jabhat al-Nusrah and other terrorist groups operating in Syria and nearby environs that have rejected Daesh’s claim that it has established a “caliphate.”
In effect, al-Maqdisi is aiding al-Qaida in its competition for resources from the same pools of prospective recruits and donors targeted by Daesh.
Given this, al-Qaida, which has long considered Jordan an important target, will almost certainly harness the resources al-Maqdisi will steer away from Daesh, and to al-Qaida, in order to advance its own interests in opening a new jihad theater in Jordan. From this new home base, al-Qa’ida will next launch strikes against Israel in concert with those launched by al-Qaida members in Syria and the Sinai.
Just as the leaders of Daesh, leaders of al-Qaida view the development of logistical infrastructure in Jordan as an important step in their plan to wage jihad against Israel. Both have been developing a flanking posture around Israel, and the leaders of each enterprise recognize that launching a war against the Jewish state will galvanize support for their respective brands among more members of the global jihad movement.
Put simply, whoever can launch a war to liberate al-Aqsa Mosque and raise the banner of jihad over Mount Scopus first will probably gain control of the global jihad movement.
But in the nearer term, al-Qaida operatives in Syria like Sanafi al-Nasr, a top figure in the so-called “Khorasan Group,” require the support of high-profile ideologues like al-Maqdisi to elevate the appeal of the al-Qaida brand in the eyes of new arrivals to the Syrian Jihad. Eventually, these foreign fighters will comprise a majority of the forces al-Nasr and his “brothers” will deploy to expand al-Qaida’s operations in nearby states like Jordan — a plan that has been in the works for nearly a decade. Plus, as they operationalize this plan, those foreign fighters still able to maneuver in the West, or to refine al-Qaida’s efforts to inspire attacks in the West will be used to expand al-Qaida’s operations here.
By helping to boost the profile of an ideologue like al-Maqdisi, whose preaching encourages jihadis to support al-Qa’ida versus Daesh, the government of Jordan is accelerating al-Qa’ida’s capabilities to achieve these ends. If he hasn’t already, President Obama should take note — and, as his administration’s Homeland Security initiatives compel Americans to do, he should say something.
Michael S. Smith II is COO of Kronos Advisory, a senior analyst with Wikistrat, and founding editor of DOWNRANGE (InsideTheJihad.com).