Hassan Abu Hanieh, author and researcher on jihadist groups

Wake Up Call

One of the foremost experts on extremist groups in Jordan is worried we’re underestimating the true scale of the jihadist threat facing the country.

By Dina Al Wakeel

Few Jordanian analysts know more about extremist Islamist groups than Hassan Abu Hanieh. He’s spent years monitoring their development, while his books on the topic have been translated and published around the world.

At a recent conference on terrorism in the Middle East and Europe held in Amman by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung think tank, Abu Hanieh explained why he believes we’re still not doing enough to combat one of the gravest threats facing domestic and international security.

During the conference you said Jordan was in state of denial when it comes to the size of the jihadist threat. What did you mean by that exactly?

It is clear there’s no transparency in dealing with violent extremism and terrorism. We’ve heard contradictory numbers. The head of the army said 300 [Jordanians have joined ISIS], while international sources say 2,500 went to fight in Iraq and Syria. We are talking about more than 8,000 Salafi jihadists in Jordan who are divided between ISIS and the al Nusra Front. So it’s a growing phenomenon. We used to talk about jihadist hotbeds being specifically located in Zarqa and Ma’an. Today, other areas have emerged like Irbid and Karak, so the phenomenon is spread across all areas. We need to get out of this state of denial. And this was a major criticism made in a US terrorism report last year into the Jordanian strategy: that it’s in a state of denial. So we need to break out of this to be able to come up with solutions.

How does this relate to our understanding of the ISIS attack in Karak?

Maybe the Karak operation was a reminder that these people are not aliens, that these are people who we know, from families that we know, who may be our relatives, who are carrying out these operations.

What more needs to be done to combat extremism?

There have been talks in Jordan for the past five years about setting up a national strategy that addresses military, social, and economic issues. But so far we haven’t seen anything.

What’s your view on the government’s attempts to criminalize extremist opinions being expressed on social media?

We should differentiate between extremism and violent extremism. Even if a person adopts views that we think are extreme, without using violence to impose their ideas on others, then they are just opinions. Unfortunately, Arab regimes sometimes use these views to suppress political opposition, not to combat terrorism, which is what’s been happening here recently. Sometimes instead of combating terrorism, these laws help spread it.

How important is economics in pushing today’s youth into the arms of extremism?

There are clear signs that some of the youth have no hope in the future. A university graduate has little hope of building himself financially to start a family, so they turn to extremist ideologies. The economic factor is an important factor and we need to work towards combating poverty, unemployment, marginalization, and the lack of social justice.

Do we need any reforms in the way religion is instructed?

There needs to be some sort of restructuring of the religious body. What is the role of religious institutions? Who is authorized to issue religious edicts? And in terms of the school curriculum, which teachers are qualified to teach these courses? We need to address this fragmented religious field, then come up with a different discourse that counters the discourse of ISIS. We notice that sometimes it’s almost the same discourse.

So is one of the solutions to unify Friday sermons, like the government is currently doing?

Not at all. I believe that this will lead to more extremism. It isn’t solved by creating some sort of religious dictatorship.

Do any changes need to be made to the way religion is taught in schools?

I think the problem lies in the need to reform the curriculum in a more comprehensive and holistic perspective or approach, and to focus on critical thinking. Not only in religious courses, but across all courses, because we need to realize that most leaders of terrorist or extremist groups graduated from technical universities and not from religious institutions. Bin Laden was an engineer. Ayman al Zawahiri is a surgeon.

What role does the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and the region now play in the fight against violent extremism?

Unfortunately, there has been a change in the way people view the Muslim Brotherhood. The international community used to consider them a protective wall against extremism. But following the Arab Spring, they are now considered a transmitter of extremism, and they are viewed as a terrorist organization. I think this is a crazy approach. In Egypt for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood is preventing the country from sliding towards all-out violence. Had they legitimized violence, we would have seen the whole of Egyptian society slide into complete chaos. Although the Brotherhood were under a lot of pressure and some of its members started to join ISIS, they still managed to maintain their peaceful approach. I think that we need to integrate the people who are the most moderate into the political system, just like Morocco did, and not exclude them from the political process and push them into taking more radical options.

What ramifications could President Trump’s travel and immigration ban on some Muslim-majority countries mean for the war on ISIS?

It reinforces and strengthens ISIS’ discourse and even gives it credibility. Those who are most happy about Trump becoming president are ISIS. Being anti-immigrant and Islamophobic, his approach is a disaster. The problem is not with Islam. We all know that during the Cold War, there were no Islamic movements on the terrorist lists. All of them were leftists and nationalist movements. Now, at the end of the Cold War they became Islamic movements that want a bigger role in political life.

How positive are you about the future of the region?

The region’s future is bad. At least for the short-term, these terrorist organizations feed on instabilities and internal conflicts, like in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and other parts of the region. So in parallel to the military solution there needs to be a political solution. I don’t think that the political, social, and cultural solutions are going the same pace as the military solution. In Syria, it’s different. We will live the coming years with the presence of ISIS, which might be defeated in some areas but it will not be completely annihilated because the ideas and the reasons for its presence are still there. And as long as the matter is not resolved in Iraq and Syria, then we will see some aftershocks here, either by lone wolves or by, God forbid, ISIS taking a decision to directly target Jordan.