Jordan gets shrewd in war against Islamic State group

Jordan gets shrewd in war against Islamic State group
Comment: The release of firebrand cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi was a way of isolating Jordan's Salafis from the more radical Islamic State group.
3 min read
26 Feb, 2015
Jordan's release of Maqdisi from jail is part of a strategy to isolate IS [AFP]

When Jordan released Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, many hoped that the prominent Salafi-jihadi ideologue could be used in the kingdom's fight against the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS).

His release was generally well received in Jordan, even by the vocally critical Islamist opposition group, viewing the decision as an exercise in soft diplomacy. However, many also saw the move as a double-edged sword.

Soft diplomacy

The interests of the Jordanian government overlap with Maqdisi's fears of the IS group tarnishing the image of Salafism. This would likely be the reason Maqdisi might have agreed to make a deal with the state he opposes, when he was released - although this has not been confirmed.

It is suspected that Maqdisi's release was due to his role in the negotiations with the IS group to secure the exchange of the captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh for al-Qaeda linked prisoners Sajida al-Rishawi and Ziyad al-Karbouli.

Moaz al-Kassasbeh was brutally murdered by his IS captors, and the two prisoners were executed by Jordan the following day.

Another theory is that Maqdisi's release was an attempt to distance his popular brand of Salafism from the more extreme Salafi-jihadist current that is represented by the IS group.

It is believed that Jordanian authorities have managed to contain Maqdisi's supporters and that a "truce" with the preacher might be achieved. It might yet be some time before Jordan's Salafi trend distances itself from the IS group in public.

Respected scholar

Maqdisi is widely respected among Jordan's Salafis, but has been described as an "apostate" by the IS group for refusing to pledge allegiance to its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The release of Maqdisi could be described as characteristic of the Jordanian state's policy of containing rather than confronting internal threats.

Ironically, while authorities have been using a variety of tactics in its war against IS, it has continued to attack more moderate Islamist strands - such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Maqdisi was released at the same time Jordan announced a "relentless war" against the IS group. This "war" is being fought both through its military and on an ideological front by attempting to rehabilitate Salafi-jihadi supporters.

     Abu Qatada described the IS group as 'the dogs of hell'.

It is likely that more anti-IS Salafi-jihadi figures will soon be released from Jordanian jails.

The controversial preacher Abu Qatada described the IS group as "the dogs of hell" in September, and was acquitted of charges against him by a Jordanian court.

TV appearance

When Maqdisi was released he appeared on Jordanian TV channel and described the Islamic State group as "liars" and "cheats" who did not represent Islam.

He also revealed that, during the communication with the Islamic State group for the release of Kassasbeh, IS negotiators promised the safety of the pilot. The TV appearance was Maqdisi's public rejection of the IS group.

Maqdisi is seen as representative of the al-Qaeda faction of the extremist trend in the region, since the IS group broke away from it. Although Maqdisi has attacked IS and called for members to abandon the organisation, he also vocally supports the group in their fight against the US-led coalition.

Maqdisi was arrested in October last year when he described the international coalition against IS as crusade against Islam. Jordan is one of the Arab members of the coalition.

It appears that the Jordanian government's plan is to fight IS "incubators" and prevent the group from recruiting Salafists in Jordan.

Disagreements between Maqdisi's supporters and the IS group serve the country's security policies and keeps Jordan's extremists from joining the most radical trend in the Salafi-jihadi movement. 

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.