Will Isis Target Jordan Next? Inside Jihad Stronghold Of Ma'An

The driving force of multiple and competing jihadist groups here is the dream of returning to the three original Arab states, and overthrowing the King and his Palestinian wife.

A file photo of Ma'an, in southern Jordan
A file photo of Ma'an, in southern Jordan
Maurizio Molinari

MA'AN"Welcome to Ma'an, in the nation of al-Sham..." Sitting behind a huge wooden desk, with the large golden scimitar of the Bedouin tribes on his hip, is Fawaz al-Sharari, the mayor of Jordan's most pro-jihad city: Ma'an.

Sharari lays out his vision of "an Arab world that is returning to its origins."

The nation of al-Sham that he references is the same one a group of elderly Bedouins are talking about in the "mosque of martyrs." It is also the nation that men in Suleiman Square are protesting for, and thatt academics debate in the city's only garden.

"Al-Sham is one of the three only and true Arab nations," says Mohammed Saleh Jahrar, leader of the "People for Ma'an" movement.

"Together with Hijiaz and Egypt," he continues, "the nations existed until the Sykes-Picot Agreement, when France and Britain decimated the first two nations and weakened the third thanks to fictitious boundaries created from nothing."

This historical reference is also known as the Asia Minor Agreement in 1916, from which the current layout of the Middle East was born in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire's dissolution.

"Biladi al-Sham" referred to territories that spread from Baghdad to Haifa, or the current Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, while Hijiaz overlapped the entire Arabian peninsula, and Egypt was the undisputed driving force of the Maghreb.

"This is the Arab world from which we came, and this is the world that is now emerging," says Mohamed Abu-Saleh, spokesman for the militant group "Citizens of Ma'an."

These opinions explain the lure of ISIS to this town of 60,000, which Jordanian security forces consider "the stronghold of the jihadists" in the Hashemite kingdom. In reality, nobody openly talks of welcoming ISIS, but the choice of proclaiming the Islamic caliphate in an area on the border between Syria and Iraq has had a strong impact.

"The Arab way, here in Ma'an as elsewhere, is identified more in al-Sham rather than artificial borders and corrupt governments," says Mayor al-Sharari. Around him, co-workers and secretaries agree, remembering mothers and grandmothers "who lived in Amman, shopped in Nablus and dined in Damascus without crossing any borders."

Ma'an — a three-hour drive south of Jordan's capital — has been home to fundamentalists since 1989, when the revolt against the abolition of subsidies on bread forced King Hussein to enter the souk's mosque to avert attack. The more recent Arab Spring has witnessed the emergence of the Islamic Front — the Jordanian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood — which security forces stalked in manhunts that ended in bitter clashes, arrests and more than just a few victims in 2013.

Competing jihadists, all hate the king

Since then, Ma'an has been in a constant state of siege by special troops sent from Amman to preside over the courts and governmental offices. The sheer volume of local Islamic groups illustrates what is happening in Jordan and elsewhere.

"The Muslim Brotherhood is an opposition party, hostile to the government but pragmatic and willing to operate within the law," says Jahrar Mohammed Saleh, a professor at the city's Al-Hussein Bin Talal University and considered one of the leading experts on Jordanian jihadism. "There are also the Abu Sayyaf Salafists who pursue a society built on the basis of Sharia, and then the jihadist Salafists who preach the armed fight of the caliphate."

It's a world of ideological acronyms, tribal identities and clan loyalties that are all completely different, except for one single uniting fact: hostility towards the king, the royal family and a government "regime."

"In 1989, King Hussein and Queen Noor came here and walked our streets," recalls Kreishan Akran, an academic and human rights expert. "Yet King Abdullah and Queen Rania haven't been seen in 15 years."

The reason for this, say the men in Suleiman Square — which was renamed Tahrir in homage to the symbolic Egyptian square where Hosni Mubarak was overthrown — is that "this country is in the hands of a small group of people, fewer than 10 of them, who do not care about the people, only about protecting their gigantic system of corruption that only has the interests of the West, the U.S. and the Jews."

This attack is aimed foremost at Queen Rania, as she is a Palestinian beloved by the Bedouin south loves. It always comes back to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, declares one young Islamic militant, because "the division of Palestine, the creation of Israel and the invasion of Iraq was only part of the plan to break up the Arab world by forming smaller, weaker nations to prevent a resurgence of al-Sham, with its legacy of power and culture."

The Jordanian security forces fear the jihadists in Ma'an more than ISIS infiltrating through the Syrian and Iraqi borders because, according to local press reports, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has already set foot in these parts. To prove it, black flags fly and jihadist graffiti is scrawled on the streets, and they've heard confessions of those already arrested.

If more than 1,000 Jordanian volunteers for ISIS in Syria and Iraq come largely from Zarqa and Salt — small towns not far from Amman — then it's in Ma'an that the most local cells are created, not so much attracted by the war on the Shia as a "return to Biladi al-Sham."

The biggest surprise in the past few days, as it turns out, has actually come from Amman, where an ISIS cell was discovered. There were six people, living in the poor neighborhood of Jabel Jofeh, and from whose windows you could see one of the three royal palaces of King Abdullah II.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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