Diplomats and Jordanian government officials fear the terror group of Isis, also known as Isil, may be gaining ground in kingdom, The Telegraph reported.
The call to prayer rang out across the streets of Ma’an – its long, loud, lilting cry signalling the eve of the Muslim religious holiday of Ramadan.
Inside the white-marbled mosque the imam’s sermon was one of forgiveness. His words broadcast outside fell on the ears of young children as they handed out cakes to passers-by in the sunshine.
It was a scene of tranquillity in this southern Jordanian city, a very normal Friday. That was until the worshippers began to leave the mosque.
At that point a crowd of men, some in military camouflage jackets, others bearded and wearing long black tunics, burst into defiant cries. Shouting “Allahu Akbar” – thanks be to God – they unfurled a large black flag bearing the symbol of the jihadist militia, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
Strengthened by their victories in Syria and Iraq, where they have seized control of the north of the country, Isis and its followers are now also gaining purchase in Jordan.
Foreign diplomats and the Jordanian government have this week expressed fears over the ability of the country, a crucial Middle East ally of the West, to remain stable, with extremist factions operating along two of its borders.
Jordanian troops rushed to the border with Iraq earlier this week, reinforcing their defences with convoys of tanks, troops and rocket launchers, as Sunni insurgents seized control of the official border post on the Iraqi side.
Jordan, whose General Intelligence Directorate works closely with the United States, has long been considered an essential “buffer” between the historically tumultuous Iraq and Syria and Israel. US President Barack Obama has sought to ensure this status quo remains, providing a $5 billion (£2.9 billion) counter-terrorism partnership fund for countries on the “front lines”.
However, rather than having to fight to keep extremists out of the country, the real threat to the Hashemite kingdom’s ruling monarchy is domestic.
The conflicts in Syria and Iraq and instability in Lebanon have reduced the relevance of national borders in the Middle East, with the map being increasingly redrawn to represent a supranational, sectarian, struggle between Shia and Sunni sects.
In Jordan, the actions of Isis in Iraq are inspiring radical factions of the country’s largely Sunni society, who sympathise with the group’s ambition to depose Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, and the Shia-dominated government.
“Isis is now being seen as a protector of Sunni identity,” said Hassan Abu Hanieh, an analyst of jihadist groups and childhood friend of the Salafist preacher Abu Qatada.
Before Isis moved into Iraq, when it operated primarily in Syria, there was little support for the al-Qaeda spin-off group in Jordan, he explained.
Jordanians associated the group with the spate of bombings that rocked Amman in 2005, killing dozens.
However, as Isis moved into Iraq and forged an allegiance with local Sunni tribes and Baathist remnants of the regime of Saddam Hussein, that perspective began to change.
When The Telegraph visited the Jordanian-Iraqi border this week, which remained open despite the Iraqi army having fled, Sunni tribal leaders were crossing calmly back and forth.
“We have been living in injustice for eight years!” said Jassim, a tribal elder of the Issawi tribe from Iraq’s Anbar province, as he drove into Jordan. “God willing Baghdad will soon fall too.”
Hanieh said: “The number of Sunnis in Jordan who now subscribe to the extremist ideas of Isis is increasing. They are drawn to the new-found power of Isis. People revere them now.”
Hanieh estimated that, despite the best efforts of the Jordanian government to mollify extremist sentiments, the number of citizens subscribing to fight with the al-Qaeda minded groups has more than trebled since the 1980s.
“Approximately 300 Jordanians went to fight in Afghanistan, and then 400 in Iraq after the allied invasion. Today there are approximately 1,200 Jordanian jihadists fighting with either Isis or al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Al-Nusra.”
Many of those Jordanian jihadists come from Ma’an, a poor, downtrodden city located in the southern desert.
In the past three years, many of its residents have expressed support for Jabhat Al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. But in recent weeks some have “switched” their allegiance to Isis, a group denounced by al-Qaeda’s leaders for being “too extreme”.
“These young people from Ma’an went to Syria to protect their sisters from the infidels,” a Salafi imam – who the locals referred to as “Sheikh Anbar”, invoking the Sunni stronghold province in Iraq – said on Friday.
The city’s governor Majid Sharai said the popularity of Isis here was also linked to the state of the local economy. “There are no job opportunities here,” he said. “The teachings and songs of the Salafi jihadists are enticing. All these young people with no jobs and little education, are easily won over by them.”
The support for the extremists has been matched by an increase in clashes between locals and government forces.
Residents showed recent videos of police firing their guns down the street from armoured personnel carriers.
Four people have been killed and up to 200 injured in recent clashes, and the number of police night raids on homes in the city has been increasing.
For now, Isis supporters in Jordan remain focused on the target of ousting the Shia leaderships in Iraq and Syria.
However, locals in Ma’an warned, that would be likely to change if the US supported Maliki in fighting Isis.
Sharai was imprisoned for his opposition to Jordan supporting American troops during the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003. If Jordan helped the US again, he said, the government would become a legitimate target for Isis. “Ma’an people are against any US involvement in Iraq,” he said. “If it happens we will see retaliation. Suicide bombs might start hitting Amman once more.”