MA’AN, Jordan—King Abdullah founded Al-Hussein Bin Talal University six years ago to counterbalance the radical Islamic Salafist movement that has deep roots in the isolated desert around the city of Ma’an in southern Jordan.
The king’s bid to inject a moderate intellectual influence into the community has been lost, however, on Mrowan Alenaimat, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student at the university.
“I’m not thinking of joining the jihad in Syria, but I do not view joining the jihad as a bad thing,” said Alenaimat. “It is blessed. It’s a reform movement that aims to get rid of the infidel system and spread Islam.”
Jordanians have participated in Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other radical, militant Islamic groups. But radicalism in Ma’an—a small, poor city around 250 miles south of the Jordanian capital of Amman—has grown recently as the Islamic State has secured territory against the forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and United States-backed forces in Iraq. Rallies in the city have featured citizens carrying the Islamic State’s black flag.
Around 300 young men from Ma’an have joined the Islamic State in the past year, according to locals interviewed in recent months. Around 100 have returned. Jordanian officials have arrested at least 70 for their involvement in foreign jihads. Approximately 120 were killed in fighting abroad, usually in the Syrian civil war.
The gruesome death of Jordanian pilot Mo’ath Al Kasasbeh that became public last week and King Abdullah’s vow to step-up Jordan’s attacks on the group that controls much of northern Syria and Iraq hasn’t fundamentally changed the pro-jihad atmosphere here.
In a hookah cafe, after a Ma’an resident, Abu Mohammed, said his son died in Syria fighting for the Islamic State other patrons applauded and called him “father of a martyr.” “My son Mohammed was a young man, only twenty years old, a student at Al-Hussein University,” he said.
The president of Al-Hussein Bin Talal University, Taha Al Kamees insists that Salafists don’t control the academic administration that oversees more than 7,000 students. But, as the inspection stations that check students extremely thoroughly before they enter campus illustrate, he acknowledges the school is located in a region where tensions run high and most residents reject Western-style higher education.
An English student, Musab Thunaibat, 19, was more blunt.
“There is no life in Ma’an,” he said. “The Salafists control the city, and it leads to intellectual suffocation. The problems at the university increase because of them. For example, they do not mind to stop their studies to pray, even in the middle of a test.”
Saleh Abu Tawela, a secularist and political activist who sometimes lecturers on Arabic literature at the university, said the problem stems from the network of Salafist clerics and Islamic State recruiters who have the funds to entice low-income Ma’an residents, including university students, to fight in Syria. The jihadists are masters at exploiting the young people’s frustrations, he said.
The Islamic State pays the families of fighters $1,500 a month—a huge sum in a country where the per capita income was $6,100 last year. “The preachers are mostly riding the current, the pulse of the street,” said Abu Tawela.
Abdul, 23, a Ma’an resident who did not attend university, said he went to Syria after Islamic State recruiters offered his family money. Jobless and without opportunities to land well-paying work, he had little to lose by traveling east to fight in the rebellion against the Syrian government.
“It was agreed that they would facilitate my trip to Syria by the Jordanian-Syrian border, claiming I was a merchant,” he said.
Abdul eventually returned to Ma’an after witnessing the atrocities the Islamic State perpetrated against other Arabs. Jordanian authorities arrested and briefly held him for fighting abroad but released him without charges, he said.
A former official in the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf—the government agency that administers religious endowments —said the government is also to blame for the steady stream of Ma’an residents, including university students, leaving for Syria. Funding shortages at Jordanian universities that train moderate imams have left a vacuum in isolated cities like Ma’an that Salafists have filled.
“The ministry allocations are scarce,” he said. “Therefore officials are not encouraged to take over private matters at mosques in Ma’an.”
International law professor Saleh Sharari said he knew of 10 students who left Al-Hussein Bin Talal University for Syria. Nobody knows how many in total had given set aside their books to take up rifles, he said.
“There are a large number of Salafists in the university,” said Sharari. “It’s difficult to count the number of students who dropped out. We can’t ask each student why he leaves the university.”