Countering Violent Extremism in Jordan – Time for a Rethink


Recent months have seen a rise in terrorist attacks in Jordan, including a shooting in the largest Palestinian refugee camp and the bombing of border guards near the border with Syria. But the violence could have been much worse, and the government has been successful in averting most of the planned attacks. With figures emerging late last year showing that Jordan has the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in the world (see figure 1 below), it would seem that there is an opportunity to apply more solutions alongside the hard-line policies currently in place to stem the causes of radicalisation.


Figure 1

Deeper scrutiny of the topic revealed a baffling, and also concerning, lack of local, accessible research[1], not least in Arabic, into drivers of violent extremism. However, there have been local journalists and government officials who have voiced their opinions on what the possible causes might be, citing the usual suspects of youth unemployment and other economic factors as the key drivers to violent extremism. While these may be contributing factors, ignoring other driving factors would be a grievous oversight. That is not to say that youth unemployment is not a factor in unrest, as was seen in the recent protests in the town of Madaba where protestors demanded employment.

In examining which areas of Jordan foreign fighters were coming from, the findings show a surprising landscape that is both far reaching in it geographic and socioeconomic scope, as demonstrated in (figure 2) below. The cities in the north predictably featured, as well as Jordanian tribal strongholds such as Karak and Salt. The recruits included a Jordanian army captain from a prominent family defecting to Daesh, and the sons of two parliamentarians who died after joining extremist groups in Syria. The indications are that recruitment is far reaching, with access to the educated middle class.

Figure 2

Figure 2

The findings of research conducted by international agencies such as MercyCorps [2] point to the existence of a more multifaceted and diverse story of why Jordanians join violent extremist groups. The cited paper set out to fill in the gaps in knowledge relating to lack of data regarding push and pull factors, methods of recruitment and foreign fighter motivations. Based on a series of interviews with foreign fighters and their families, MercyCorps’ findings help us begin to see a clearer (if still not comprehensive) picture of push and pull factors involved.

According to the MercyCorps study, monetary incentive and compensation, is a common myth. Indeed, some of the fighters actually receive financial help from their families in Jordan. The resounding narrative, however, is that they were spurred by emotive reasons, acting on a deeply ingrained masculine drive to “protect Sunni women and children”, further fuelled by videos of atrocities they had seen. Religion did not seem to feature much in fighters’ reasoning, although it was a supporting factor. The religious angle plays on the protection narrative, providing context for sectarianism. This is a differentiating narrative from the one that draws foreign fighters from elsewhere in the world, replacing the liberation of Palestine as the most popular call to arms. The actuality is further aided by the fact that going to fight is a more geographically accessible, and practical, with recruiters falling over each other to get people across the border into Syria and Iraq.

Violent extremist groups have mastered soft power to an extent that recruitment in Jordan is possible across most locations, and across the socio-economic divide, and it is happening at the grassroots level. This is why more “soft” approaches have to be implemented alongside the existing “hard” strategies[3].

The conclusions indicate that it is imperative that soft power is both initiated and implemented at grassroots level. Especially as there is evidence that government sponsorship sometimes undermines the credibility of messaging[4].

There is an opportunity to utilise a wealth of local talented intellectuals, a strong independent and private cultural sector, a thriving film industry, and a penchant for social and political humour and satire. Equally, there are a wealth of opportunities for creating narratives in Jordan which could have the traction bring about change.

There is also a clear need for more multidimensional approaches to countering violent extremism. Solutions implemented elsewhere in the world, even in neighbouring countries, cannot solely be relied upon as a blueprint for success in Jordan. There is value to positioning it within a broader context and insight from a cross cultural response, in the same way that groups promoting violent extremism have consistently, and successfully, used a ‘glocal’ approach. There is an opportunity to learn from successful campaigns implemented in other areas such as peace building in places such as Northern Ireland, as well an opportunity to learn from the successful role that women have played in conflict resolution in the Middle East[5].

But all of this will not be enough unless we are able to make a concerted effort towards a more diverse approach to research, that is locally produced, by Jordanians; that also looks into multidisciplinary cooperation, supported by research done globally.

Finally, as the case of Jordan demonstrates, there needs to be a recognition that push and pull factors are extremely complex and malleable. Our thinking and methods need to constantly evolve, and be based upon relevant and genuine local research.

We cannot afford to remain in complacent stasis.


This article was written by our Senior Associate, Noor Mo’alla.

[1]A new research paper on Women and Violent Radicalization in Jordan was published in August by UN Development Jordan, Al Hayat Center, and RASED.
Another piece of research we are looking forward to seeing will be published by The German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) Secondary Theatres of War: The Syrian War in Jordan
Other articles have been published regarding this since publication such as Lawfare’s The Social Terrain of Islamist Radicalization: Insights from Jordan.
[2] See MercyCorp’s paper From Jordan To Jihad | Mercy Corps. Policy Brief. From Jordan To Jihad: The Lure. Of Syria’s Violent Extremist Groups. Research And Recommendations.
[3] See Countering Violent Extremism in the MENA Region: Time to Rethink Approaches and Strategies –
[4]See examples in RAND’s report: Promoting Online Voices for Countering Violent Extremism
[5] See UN campaign highlights unsung work of women in Middle East peace-building and the work of Women without Borders

Related posts