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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This historical reference is also known as the Asia Minor Agreement in 1916, from which the current layout of the Middle East was born in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire's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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Photograph of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden walking side by side in the Filoli Estate in the U.S. state of California​

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