Jordan’s Abu Sayyaf: The Key Islamist Actor in Ma’an

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Publication: Volume: 2 Issue: 11
November 30, 2011 02:39 PM Age: 3 hrs
Category: Militant Leadership Monitor, Middle East, Featured, Home Page

By: Murad Batal al-Shishani

One of the significant yet underreported impacts of the Arab Spring on the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was the visible participation of jihadis protesting in the streets of Amman and other major Jordanian cities such as Ma’an, Salt, Irbid and Zarqa. Inspired by the power of the Arab Spring revolutions to effect demonstrable change in Tunisia and Egypt, Jordan’s jihadis, who have most often espoused political violence as the sole means to achieve their stated goals, joined alongside more secular minded protestors in calling for change in the kingdom.

The jihadi demonstrations in Jordan came to an abrupt end by April when a demonstration after Friday prayer in Zarqa, the hometown of the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, was followed by clashes. Violence erupted between jihadis and pro-government Jordanians and security forces that resulted in some 80 injured policemen. Jordan’s State Security Court charged 146 Islamists on April 24 with plotting terrorist attacks (Jordan Times, April 26). The principal demand of the jihadis has been the release of their imprisoned comrades. In the wake of the over 100 new prisoners added to their list after the Zarqa debacle, the jihadis then clamored for the release of the new prisoners as well. Some of these men were released by a special royal pardon in October.

Coat of Arms of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jorda...
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This movement showed that jihadis in Jordan are now clearly divided between the more pragmatic traditional faction, which supports peaceful action and the neo-Zarqawists who still hold that violent jihad is the most effective course of action. The latter consider themselves inheritors and defenders of al-Zarqawi’s destructive legacy. This new schism in Jordan’s Salafi-Jihadi movement has shown the influence of those who support the former such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi (see, Militant Leadership Monitor, May, 2011). A vital new member called Mohammad al-Shalabi (a.k.a. Abu Sayyaf) joined them after he was released from prison.

Abu Sayyaf, 47, is one of the most prominent figures of Jordan’s Salafi-Jihadi movement. He is considered the leader of this strain of thought in the tribal city of Ma’an, capital of the eponymous governorate in southern Jordan. Abu Sayyaf was sentenced to death in 2006 because of riots he was accused of leading in 2002 against Jordanian authorities. After being pursued by security forces for months, he was ultimately arrested. In 2007 a special pardon commuted his death sentence. He was instead meant to serve 15 years of hard labor in prison. However, in June 2011 a new special pardon permitted his release just four years into his new sentence ( August 29).

After locals suspected that Suleiman Fanatshe, a young man with alleged Islamist sympathies was killed by police while in their custody, riots erupted in Ma’an during Ramadan in January 2002. Abu Sayyaf was suspected of being the anti-government instigator. According to Jordanian officials, Abu Sayyaf, was also linked to various terror plots. The riots and Abu Sayyaf’s role in them was focused on by Amman largely because they occurred in Ma’an . Ma’an was the site of an historic demonstration in 1989 that lead Jordan to abandon martial law which had been in place for 22 years and announce resuming “democratic life.” Martial law had been imposed on Jordanian society in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war by the late King Hussein (AP, December 20, 1989).

Moreover, as it was led by jihadis like Abu Sayyaf it was more alarming for Jordan’s principal Western ally, the United States, which suffered the 9/11 attacks just four months before. Abu Sayyaf was then thought to have at least some level of involvement in the assassination of USAID official Laurence Foley outside his home in Amman on October 28, 2002. Abu Sayyaf denied any connection to the murder, though he did reportedly condone the action according to a leaked diplomatic cable. [1] Jihadis considered the Jordanian authorities’ crackdown on Abu Sayyaf and his peers as a punitive component of America’s “War on Terror,” a view supported by Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi on his personal website. [2]    

Unlike many Salafi-Jihadi protagonists, Abu Sayyaf was never known to have fought in Afghanistan (Asharq al-Awsat, November 4, 2002). Despite his lack of wartime credentials, a staple of many other such leaders, he remains a very influential Salafi-Jihadi in Ma’an and has been described as the sparsely populated region’s key Islamist actor (, July 17).

After serving eight years in prison, Abu Sayyaf, joined less radical jihadi efforts to foment a more ‘inside the tent’ political role for so-called progressive Salafi-Jihadis in Jordan. Some observers viewed this move as an important revision for violent ideology. But if al-Maqdisi gave jihadis the theoretical justification for the new development and al-Tahawi provided the spiritual rationale, Abu Sayyaf came with an idea that institutionalized the Salafi-Jihadi movement within Jordan’s broader polity —something successive governments in Amman have resisted for many decades.

Abu Sayyaf is leading the efforts of establishing a Shura Council that will represent Salafi-Jihadis across Jordan, comprising representatives from each of the country’s 12 governorates (Jordan Times, November 13). He was quoted in the Jordanian daily al-Sabeel as stating: “We will announce in the next few days the formation of the Shura Council, which will speak on behalf of the [Salafi-Jihadis in Jordan]…we will continue to demand implementation of Shari’a rule in the country, and to release all our prisoners who are detained by official bodies, without guilt.” Abu Sayyaf then added: “We will start work for the formation of political leadership.”

Al-Sabeel reported that Abu Sayyaf refused to give more details about the objectives and priorities of this political leadership and the Shura Council, explaining that this would be announced later. Sources who wished to remain anonymous told al-Sabeel that the Salafi-Jihadi leadership aims to establish two bureaus; the first would be tasked with managing the individual affairs of the council’s members while the latter would be its public relations arm responsible for disseminating the group’s views to various media outlets (, September 4).

Abu Sayyaf’s initiative could become a significant turning point involving Salafi-Jihadis into non-violent political action in Jordan especially considering Abu Sayyaf enjoys a good acceptance among both more mainstream Islamists such as the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood)—the Salafis traditional rivals—and other political forces in Jordan, as well as within legitimate Salafi-Jihadis circles (, October 5).

Abu Sayyaf being involved in physical jihadi action has made it difficult for other jihadis who strongly oppose any kind of political involvement to directly confront him. [3] Jordan’s radical Salafi-Jihadis view the monarchy and the elected government as illegitimate because they believe Jordan should be governed by edicts outlined in the Quran (Middle East North Africa Financial Network, November 16). The reaction of Amman to this development and to what extent it is willing to adjust its security perspective, which dominates the way it has dealt with Salafi-Jihadis for many years, will determinate whether Abu Sayyaf’s initiative will succeed. The other key factor is the ability of Salafi-Jihadis to produce lasting, serious revisions to their essential tenets regarding their traditional opposition to participation in democratic politics. Such revisions could in turn, over time, alter the political behavior of the wider Salafi-Jihadi community in the Kingdom of Jordan by bringing them in from the cold.     

Murad Batal al-Shishani is an Islamic groups and terrorism issues analyst based in London. He is a specialist on Islamic Movements in Chechnya and in the Middle East.


1. Embassy Amman, Islamist Abu Sayyaf Poses Challenge To Goj [Government of Jordan] In Ma’an, November 6, 2002. Available online at: Accessed November 15, 2011.

2. To view Maqdisi’s November 2002 statement concerning Abu Sayyaf, see (Arabic):

3. In the Ansar al-Islam forum, two discussion threads launched on the changes of Salafi-Jihadis in Jordan and Abu Sayyaf’s efforts. No one criticized him directly; see:, October 6, and, October 4.

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