The Zarqa locals called him the “green man.” The liquor-loving thug and possible pimp earned his nickname in the poor Jordanian town for green emerald tattoos on his left hand. But the world knows him by his jihadi name: Zarqawi — meaning the man from Zarqa — the assassinated leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and godfather of the Islamic State.
IS has long declared its intention to conquer Jordan. But not since Zarqawi’s group claimed the 2005 Amman hotel bombings that killed 60 people has there been a single successful jihadi-inspired attack against the kingdom. Now, though, the conditions that fostered the green man’s transition into the founder of the vicious terror group are beginning to spread throughout the country.
Despite a nationwide 94 percent disapproval rating of IS, according to recent estimates, Jordan has sent 2,500 foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria. That is the third highest of any Arab country, behind only Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
Most of the foreign fighters hail from poorer cities like Salt, Ma’an and Zarqa. But a vastly deteriorating economy is threatening to bring destabilizing conditions to the rest of the country, especially the capital Amman.
Jordan is deeply reliant on foreign aid from the US, Europe and Gulf states. Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Jordan has received $12 billion in loan guarantees, development assistance and military aid.
But Dr. Yoav Alon, a historian of the Hashemite Kingdom at Tel Aviv University and author of “The Making of Jordan: Tribes, Colonialism and the Modern State,” told The Times of Israel that the current economic situation is unsustainable.
“It’s clear in the long run that occasional handouts from Jordan’s allies will not be enough,” he said. “What is needed is a fundamental solution to the ailing Jordanian economy, so it can meet the demands of its increasingly educated but unemployed youth” and help ensure that the young generation resists the brutal appeal of IS’s extremism.
Alon says that though the official government line is 15% unemployment, most assume it’s 30% and even higher among the youth.
Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), said that youth unemployment may be as high as 50%.
Case study: A pilot grounded
Muhammad al-Kurdi, 27, spoke to The Times of Israel over Skype about the difficulty of finding a job in Jordan from his home in the middle class Tla’ Al Ali district in northwestern Amman.
From 2002 to 2012, al-Kurdi was a national youth boxing champion. His dream, however, was to be a pilot. But without the money for costly flying training, he couldn’t get off the ground. “After high school, I spent a year searching for a scholarship in aviation. I found they are only given to people in the first level of society,” lamented al-Kurdi.
Still, eventually he engineered a meeting with a representative of Royal Jordanian Airline, who told al-Kurdi that if he completed a Bachelors of Science from a good university, the airline would give him a scholarship. The boxing champ finished his degree in computer information systems from the University of Jordan three years later with grades good enough for the Royal Jordanian scholarship. But his efforts proved vain. Royal Jordanian told al-Kurdi that the scholarship was no longer available. “For sure, they lied,” he said. “They reserved the scholarship for someone with the right connections.”
With his aviation dreams dashed, he searched for a job in computers. Despite his good grades — a final GPA of 3.6 out of 4.0 — for three years he found nothing. “I couldn’t get a job because, in government firms, they only hire people with families in the government. And in regular companies, they only give family members work.” Neither, al-Kurdi said, can he get a scholarship for a master’s degree.
Today, al-Kurdi works 12 hours a day in two jobs. During the day, he works as a human resources consultant, and at night he gives boxing lessons in a gym. His salaries are so low, he says, he barely make ends meet. Nevertheless, he says he is lucky to have a job at all.
According to Alon, young people like al-Kurdi who can’t find employment have been raising concerns within the Jordanian security establishment.
The depressed Jordanian economy doesn’t just affect outliers like al-Kurdi, whose name reveals his Kurdish origins. Members of the ethnic Jordanian community, the king’s natural partners, have also suffered due to major cutbacks in the public sector.
Because of recent regulations enacted by the International Monetary Fund, Jordan has had to cut back on salaries. “This has political significance,” said Alon. “The people usually close to the regime are employed in the public sector and many of them are disgruntled.”
What is Israel doing to protect Jordan?
With the rise of the Islamic State, Jordan’s peace agreement with Israel in 1994 is looking smarter than ever for both parties.
The Islamic State has lost a lot of ground, manpower and resources since the recent Russian intervention in Syria. At the same time, however, the IS-linked Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade has gained a foothold in the Daraa Governorate that borders northern Jordan and the Israeli Golan Heights.
Speaking at a conference hosted by the INSS last week, Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said that these developments “raise the probability, in my eyes, that we will see them turning their guns both against us and against the Jordanians.”
A week before Israel’s top military official sounded the alarm for an external IS attack, Amos Gilad, director of the Political-Military Affairs Bureau at Israel’s Defense Ministry, also voiced rare public concern over the massive influx of Syrian refugees in Jordan, now estimated to be around 1.4 million — nearly 20% of the entire population.
“There is no doubt that ISIS is trying to penetrate [Jordan] from there, on a small scale for now,” said Gilad in a January 13 interview with the Israel Defense Journal.
Jordanian authorities are not blind to the IS sleeper cell threat. Since Iraqi refugees started flowing into the kingdom during the early 90s due to the first Gulf War, Jordan has kept an open door policy for refugees from the region. This month, however, Jordan announced it would begin screening all Syrian refugees trying to enter the country. This decision has left tens of thousands of refugees stranded in camps at the border.
To prevent possible IS attacks against Jordan from within and without, Israel is also looking to assist the Hashemite Kingdom both militarily and financially.
Economic ties are already deep. Last year, before resigning from the government over a sexual harassment scandal in December, Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom signed two historic deals to address Jordan’s energy and resource needs — an $800 million water pipeline deal and an estimated $15 billion gas deal. (Jordan currently imports over 95% of its energy, at a cost of about one-fifth of its GDP.)
On the security side, there is close intelligence cooperation against Islamist militants. This includes Israel deploying surveillance drones on the Syrian-Jordanian border to provide the Jordanians with intelligence. Israel also supplied Jordan around 16 Cobra combat helicopters in July in order to patrol the border.
Still, Israel is not relying solely on Jordan for security. Mudar Zahran, the exiled activist who heads the UK-based Jordanian Opposition Coalition, noted that Israel is pouring nearly $1 billion into a security fence on the border with Jordan.
“What’s protecting Israel’s borders,” argued Zahran “is incredible military might, and a history that anyone who attacks gets severely punished.”