Núria Vilà As-Salt (Jordan)
A wave of young Jordanians has dropped in recent years their quiet lives in Jordan to join an unprecedented extremist group: Islamic State. Never before has a violent organization had attracted such a large number of foreign fighters and, paradoxically, what we really know about it is little. Mahmoud –fictitious name-, a young man from As-Salt, has witnessed helplessly how some friends, neighbors and relatives joined Daesh. Like a train that drags uncertainty, all of them have died in the battlefield in Syria or Iraq. In the midst of a conservative society marked by fear, Mahmoud tries to break the silence to prevent more young people to choose the path of “death contract”.
If there is someone who has lived close to the wars that have marked the recent history of Iraq and Syria, is this family from As-Salt, a town in northeastern Jordan. The father, now retired, is the only one still alive from the family, with the disastrous memory of having witnessed how his two sons were traveling against his will and later died in various battles in neighboring countries. To make matters worse, the mother had died when the children were small. Mahmoud, engineer 28 years old, is determined to break the silence, and does so through social networks and some programs in Jordanian televisions where he is invited, which has cost to him more than a threat by Daesh -acronym for Islamic State in Arabic.
Mohammed –fictitious name- could not remain at home when US troops entered Iraq in 2003 to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. Pushed by what he considered an injustice, finally died in the famous battle at Baghdad airport against the US army. As if that was not enough with the problems surrounding the family, a decade after his brother Khalil -also fictitious name-, was attracted by the rise of Islamic State. However, paradoxically Khalil was killed by the same Daesh.
“Khalil was an extremely religious person. Was a taxi driver but did not earn too much money”, explains Mahmoud, who belongs to this Jordanian family and for this reason he has been able to see first hand the details of what happened and so to explain it now. Moreover, Mahmoud notes that the reasons that drove Khalil to take part in Islamic State “can not really know”. When he reached the alleged caliphate, Daesh assigned him the task of working on execution operations. “He killed some people who should not have killed and after this Daesh putted him on trial and therefore executed him”. In addition, when Khalil joined Islamic State “he left behind him in Jordan his wife and son, who now face a hard life”, regrets Mahmoud, who used to meet these brothers and his father in the big family gatherings.
Since the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, following the US invasion in Iraq until the rise of Islamic state in the region, thousands of Jordanian families have seen their closest ones abandoning their conventional lives in Jordan to join battles on neighboring countries. In many cases, these have been no-return trips. Although no official data exist, various studies put the number of Jordanians who have joined Islamic State between 1.500 and 2.000, being Jordan the third largest contributor –just behind Saudi Arabia and Tunisia-, although Jordan is the leader in terms of per capita.
“What I remember most about him is the sadness in his eyes”
In addition to this family experience, the case that has marked Mahmoud more deeply is its flat mate Adam –fictitious name. Both originally from As-Salt, the end of the institute opened them the opportunity to decide which path to take for the future: to continue studying or start working. Mahmoud decided to study engineering at the University of Balqa -in Irbid, northern Jordan-, sharing this experience with his passion for riding horses and dynamism getting involved in youth activities in his beloved city. In the meantime, his new friend Adam began studying languages, specializing in French and English at the University of Yarmouk. He enjoyed watching films in these languages. Also, once he settled in Irbid he began working with youth organizations in this city.
The beginning of this new life made gradually establish a very close and friendly relationship, sharing many experiences outside the university. But despite the initial enthusiasm, the new life also brought some complications. Adam joined a group known colloquially called Ahbash. Mahmoud, which receives us in a cold night on the outskirts of As-Salt, explains that “everybody here rejects this group. These people are contrary to the true Islam. I knew them. Adam no”. During the time that Adam was within the group, Mahmoud used to say that “these are not good people; they do not have good behavior”. Finally Adam understood the warnings of his flat mate and left the group.
When they finished the university and it was time to look for work, Adam managed to find a job not related to their studies. So, he began working in children’s activities in Amman, the Jordanian capital. “He had a very low wage and worked hard from morning till night. This made Adam very disappointed about work and life”. It was during this sad period of his life that Mahmoud considers that Adam “began to be affected by some people of our city, and began to support the views of Daesh. He said Daesh was good, that they shared a good image of Islam…” recalls now Mahmoud.
“Suddenly we received the news that Adam is with Daesh in Syria”. According to information that Mahmoud and his colleagues could know, Adam was hired to work as a teacher of religion with children within Daesh. “The nature of Adam is education. I think Adam has the ability to affect the minds of others”. After joining Daesh, the two friends lost their contact. “He did not want to talk to me because I work against Daesh” considers Mahmoud. Still, Adam was in contact with other friends from As-Salt. Through them, Mahmoud could know how the life of his former flat mate was going inside the alleged caliphate, although they basically talked about aspects of everyday life. Sometimes, however, Adam complained about the attitude of Mahmoud against Daesh in social networks and television.
Now, what remains of Adam in the memory of Mahmoud is “the sadness that Adam always had in his eyes. This made him special compared to the other young people of As-Salt”. Adam’s relatives believe he died in early 2016, and Mahmoud heard the news through social networks. Thus, Adam lived with Daesh about a year and a half until his death, leaving behind a community unable to understand the wave of violence that take place only a hundred kilometers from their home.
“I was not surprised when he joined Daesh”
“He was not a person with strong beliefs, he was easy to influence”. This is the reason why Mahmoud believes that Jamil –fictitious name-, his friend and neighbor during adolescence, joined Daesh when this group was not yet known internationally. However, as Mahmoud considers, there was nothing specific in his environment that pushed him to take part in the most extreme violence.
When they were 17 or 18 years old, the two friends used to go to the mosque together and hang out walking in their neighborhood. “Jamil was a good guy; he liked to help his friends. I never saw him angry; he was a normal and quiet person”. Still, “he never talked about the future or what he would the next day”, recalls now Mahmoud. Shortly thereafter, Jamil “started working in the construction sector in As-Salt”. After he changed his occupation to work in a restaurant, where he earned around 400JD per month ($ 560).
To Mahmoud, it was this second job that irreversibly changed his attitude. “A year later we met for the first time he became a radical Muslim and began to meet with sheikhs”. Mahmoud believes that this change in his personality was led by the radical beliefs of the head of the restaurant where he worked in As-Salt. “The boss was extremist and introduced him in this world”. To make matters worse, Mahmoud assures that the head of the restaurant continues to run the business. For Jamil, the change would be irreversible.
During the time that Jamil was in Daesh, he maintained contact with his family. Through Jamil’s brother, Mahmoud could get the latest news about Jamil, although they didn’t enter into details. Finally, Mahmoud believes that Jamil had died in mid-2014 in a clash between Asad troops and Daesh in Syria. By the images he saw on Facebook with him surrounded by weapons, Mahmoud thought that Jamil was a fighter within Daesh.
Following the death of Jamil, “his brother was furious and asked himself why Jamil had died in that way”. But shortly afterwards, the brother digested the impact of his death and explained to Mahmoud that “I agreed with what Jamil had done”, referring to him as a martyr. Jamil was 27 years old and had married one year before going to Daesh. A few months after his son was born, Jamil plunged into the most extreme violence, leaving behind life in Jordan. And that baby will never have the chance to ask his father why he took that irreversible decision.