Terror Groups Compete With the West for Rebel Recruits in Jordan
Vice News, November 23, 2015
by Reese Erlich
Earlier this month, a Jordanian police captain opened fire at a police training center in Amman, killing at least five people before he was shot dead himself.
Among his victims were a South African and two US citizens working for DynCorp International, a military contractor used by the US government to train security forces in Iraq and elsewhere — raising fears the attack was aimed at sending a message about western involvement in foreign security.
The Jordan International Police Training Centre, which primarily trains Iraqi and Palestinian officers, is funded by the United States. Jordan has also been a key ally in efforts by a host of western nations to recruit rebels to fight the Islamic State (IS) and the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad.
But the country, now home to 1.2 million Syrians, has also become a fertile recruitment ground for IS and other extremist groups.
So far western powers appear to be losing the fierce competition to recruit rebels, because pro-US militias have failed to show success on the ground while extremist groups hold vast swaths of territory. At the same time IS’s glossy propaganda and promises of an Islamic utopia inside the so-called caliphate is proving captivating to many young men around the world, a fact recently underlined by the deadly Paris attacks.
US, Jordanian, Israeli, British, French and other intelligence agencies have recruited and trained rebels to fight in Syria since 2012. The agencies have set up operation rooms at Jordanian military bases to facilitate the recruitment of rebels and vet them to exclude extremists, according to Hassan Abu Haniah, a researcher on rebel groups and commentator for major Arab media.
These rebels are loosely referred to as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They use Jordan for rest, recreation, and as a safe haven for their families.
“The leaders are always on the move between Syria and Amman,” Haniah told VICE News. “They leave their families here. Sometimes they can be seen eating dinner at Amman restaurants.”
A 2013 expose by Associated Press showed pro-US rebels openly signing up recruits at Zatari camp located near the Syrian border and now holding 79,000 Syrian refugees.
However, years of training by both the CIA and Pentagon have failed to build a viable, pro-US rebel organization. The FSA is very loose, weak, and has little popular support, according to Haniah.
“They are not one organization,” he said. “They are just a group of leaders with their own militias. If there is no money and outside support, they will just go home.”
Nabil al Sharif, a former Jordanian minister of media affairs, told VICE News, “This whole program of aiding moderates has failed miserably. A number of members of this group have turned their weapons to Nusra [Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, the second largest rebel group in the country] and joined it.”
Sharif says the pro-US rebels were damaged politically by the US decision one year ago to focus militarily on IS rather than seek the immediate overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Ordinary Syrians perceived the FSA to be backed by a foreign country with its own objectives, according to Sharif.
“That’s why they couldn’t stand one battle,” said Sharif. “They just gave up their weapons.”
The CIA reportedly spent $1 billion on the Syria training program in Jordan, while the Pentagon paid an additional $500 million for a separate program in Turkey. The Washington Post reported that much of the CIA money was spent on the secret Jordanian camps and providing arms and ammunition to the rebels. The budget figures were revealed in documents leaked by whistle blower Edward Snowden.
In one major incident this August, US-trained rebels crossed the border into Syria only to be confronted by al Nusra fighters, who seized their weapons and kidnapped their leaders. Then in September, a US-trained militia leader simply handed over his group’s weapons to al Nusra leaders, claiming he always been their operative.
Abu Qatada, an important al Qaeda leader deported from Britain and now living in Jordan, told VICE News the US-backed rebels would have had more popular support if the US had armed them with Stinger missiles and established a no fly zone that would have destroyed Assad’s air force. Unstated is the fact that al Nusra expected to capture such advanced weaponry from the FSA and use the protection of a no fly zone to seize power.
The US failures in Syria also reflected that the US was a declining empire, he claimed. “Even pro-American Arab leaders are fed up because of [Americans] lying for so many years,” he said.
Meanwhile, IS has stepped up recruitment of both Syrians and Jordanians. Some 2,500 Jordanians have joined IS and al Nusra, according to analyst Haniah.
Jordanian youth are attracted to IS by clever propaganda and media manipulation, according to Dr. Munif Samara, another Al Qaeda leader in Jordan. Samara helped recruit al Nusra fighters from his home town of Zarqa, Jordan, and trained them in his ultra-conservative interpretation of Sharia law.
“Youth want revenge for what is happening in their society,” he told VICE News, arguing that young people are angry about Israeli treatment of Palestinians and the repressive policies of Arab governments.
IS is misleading young people, he said, through propaganda films and social media. Young people are “fooled by these things.”
He admits that al Nusra is losing the recruitment war to the IS because their rival has control of big parts of Syria and Iraq, what it calls an Islamic Caliphate. The IS has captured the imagination of hardline fighters and is able to pay a monthly salary.
Al Nusra, on the other hand, has lost territory to IS and has a harder time raising funds both from Arab governments and wealthy individuals.
IS also recruits among the 99,000 Syrian refugees living in two Jordanian camps near the Syrian border, according to former media affairs minister Sharif.
Recruitment in the camps is officially banned and not acknowledged, says Sharif, but such “activities in the camps are causing a serious degree of worry for the authorities.”
The UNCHR, the UN agency in charge of the Jordanian camps, has no knowledge of rebel recruitment in the Zatari camp, according to spokesperson Nasserddine Touaibia.
He has seen no such incidents since 2013 when he began working in Zatari. There was “no evidence” of recruitment, he told VICE News.
The UN and other agencies working in the camp maintain a strict policy of political neutrality. “We don’t look at the political affiliation,” he said. “We don’t look at what religion people might belong to. If they are refugees, they need assistance.”
But it’s hard to keep tabs on the nearly 100,000 refugees in two sprawling camps, notes Sharif. He said the camps have “some recruitment of people for extremist organizations.”
Zatari, he said with a sigh, “is really a security nightmare.”