Undermining Extremism

The Jordanian Center for the Prevention of Extremist Ideology Opens in Amman


Col. Mohammed Aref Al-Athmat,
director of the center

There is no doubt that the post-Daesh era poses a challenge to leaders in both the political and security realms. Children and others living under Daesh control have been brainwashed and traumatized by slaughter, torture and constant bombing. What’s more, ideologies can’t be defeated by tanks and aircraft, but must instead be intensively studied and researched.

For this reason, countries have focused on building specialized centers for refuting extremist ideas and immunizing young people against such poison. These centers help to ensure that extremism does not reappear under different names. In cooperation with Japan, the kingdom of Jordan opened a specialized center in Amman to counter extremism.

Unipath met with Col. Mohammed Aref Al-Athmat, director of the center, to learn more about the its goals and activities.

Unipath: What is the purpose of establishing this center?

Col. Mohammed: The Jordanian Center for the Prevention of Extremist Ideology is a new idea in Jordan. Though similar specialized centers exist in many places around the world, we see that their performance has been very modest in the face of the challenge posed by extremist ideas. We, too, have a special counterextremism unit in the Ministry of the Interior, but the unit’s activity doesn’t match the scope of the challenge.

So I partnered with Dr. Majid Al-Drawsha, the grand mufti of the armed forces, to study the importance for the Armed Forces having serious, efficient and academically qualified officers running these specialized centers. Thankfully, we could establish this center with the help of the Japanese, who covered the cost of the building. The building was handed over to the Jordan Armed Forces in May 2017. Our hope is that, beginning with its first class, the Armed Forces benefit from this center. We also focus on specific categories within Jordanian society.

We have a special vision to begin strongly, rather than performing simple studies. Therefore, we have created a specialized master’s program along the lines of the National Defense University’s program in the United States. In this one-year program, students will specialize in methods of combating extremism, after which they will be granted a master’s degree in this specialty.

Unipath: What are the specialties of the center’s employees, and how are they selected?

Col. Mohammed: We don’t have employees, and we don’t expect to have many employees in the future. Instead, our goal is to contract with experts to achieve specific objectives. For example, for our master’s program, we have contracted with Mu’tah University, the largest public university in Jordan, to provide the center with academic staff specialized in teaching master’s programs.

In the future, if we have a research program, or if we want a field survey of extremism in a specific region in Jordan, we can contract with experts in that field. There is no need for them to be from Jordan: The doors of the center are open to all, and we hope to benefit from the world’s experience.

Staffers at the Jordanian Center for the Prevention of Extremist Ideology in May 2017 [The Jordanian Center for the Prevention of Extremist Ideology]

Unipath: What are your plans to develop this center?

Col. Mohammed: Frankly, I owe the U.S. plenty. I originally studied law and earned a chance to study for a year at the National Defense University, where I fell in love with this unusual field. When I returned to Jordan, I began my doctorate research on the causes of extremism among Jordanian youth.

My goal is to link this new center with the National Defense University to allow for the exchange of experiences by hosting experts and building partnerships with institutions that specialized in extremism ideology in the Middle East.

Extremist ideas are a global problem, not just a local one, so we can’t address it in just one environment — there should be international solidarity on this matter. My main plan is to build relationships with research centers around the world, as well as specialists in this field.

Through Unipath, I’d like to invite American specialists and researchers interested in studying extremist ideology to visit Jordan. It is not enough to study salafi-jihadism, extremist organizations and other terrorist groups in Washington or New York. In my opinion, one must come to the Middle East, live with the people and understand their troubles and way of life. In a country like Jordan, visitors can live safely and walk freely throughout the city, listening to all dialects of Arabic and meeting all ethnic and religious sects. Studying in this environment will help students and researchers understand the phenomenon of extremism better than if they had studied it overseas.

Unipath: How receptive have other countries been?

Col. Mohammed: We are just beginning. I spoke with a European Union organization in Jordan because it finances numerous other counterextremism programs, and I offered to cooperate with it. I found them very welcoming — they offered to connect me with supporters and with the media. So far, we don’t have a formal relationship with anyone, but interactions like these have made me hopeful about the responses we will receive.

Unipath: Is the center directly connected to the Armed Forces?

Col. Mohammed: The Armed Forces play a supervisory role, but the center is ultimately independent in its character, finances and publications. With their dedication and resources, the Armed Forces have helped us carry out this project within nine months by providing the necessary staff. Still, the relationship won’t be one of dominant and subordinate partners. The center is independent, and it has the capacity to work with specialized international bodies in any way that doesn’t conflict with Jordan’s interests.

Unipath: What challenges does the center face?

Col. Mohammed: The reality is that extremists do not want to speak with journalists, researchers or other academics. They are wary of us and very difficult to reach. Even with those in prison, it is difficult to get them to divulge secrets. Studying extremism depends on understanding each individual’s experience, finding out why he left his university or job to join this group. Why would he leave behind his family for a distant place and a different society to fight for slogans he doesn’t understand or believe in? The fact is that we cannot answer these questions without hearing from the person himself.

The first challenge is to begin a dialogue with these people. I was able to speak with one person who joined the al-Nusrah Front in Syria and subsequently returned to Jordan. (This person had a doctorate in Shariah and an open mind.) Fortunately, after three months with the terrorist group, he realized that his beliefs about jihad were vastly different from what he saw the group doing, so he decided to leave it.

By speaking with him, I can better connect with others who had a similar experience. The main challenge I have encountered is winning the trust of people like this. The other challenge is: How can we deliver a clear message to society to deter young people from joining extremist groups. Therefore, our messages must be carefully selected and properly studied. This depends on using the vernacular of a society; that is, we must understand the society, its concerns and priorities. In addition, we must understand how these vary across different age groups. Through this understanding, we can achieve effective strategic communication of our center’s messages.

Unipath: Do you mean that some media outlets attempting to combat extremism have unwittingly become propagandists for extremists?

Col. Mohammed: Yes, exactly. Some media outlets covering terrorists’ activities have — without intending to — become promotional tools. Through my studies, I discovered that some of the young people who joined extremist groups sought to live like a fighter: carrying weapons, wearing black clothing, appearing on camera and in combat. In other words, media exposure helped recruit them.

Unipath: Has the center cooperated with any other state institutions?

Col. Mohammed: We cooperate closely with universities and have a formal relationship with Mu’tah University. We also have a close relationship with the Jordanian National Defense College, as well as a good relationship with the Center for Counter-Extremism Studies in the Ministry of Culture. We have a relationship with the religious institutions represented by the Ministry of Awqaf and the Directorate of Military Advisers.

I’d like to communicate through the center with education staff and religious leaders, but the mosque imams meet with young people only in groups for prayer and talk to a limited group of young people in their twenties who come to the mosque. But if we focus on teachers, giving them scholarships to study at the center for a year and making them specialists in the fight against extremism, they can help transmit our message across numerous generations. If we can educate and immunize children ages 10-18, we will have achieved great success. I aim to build bridges of communication with teachers — that way, I am confident our message will reach large segments of society.

Unipath: The refugee issue is highly complex. That is especially true for young people who have not had the opportunity to continue their studies. Do you plan to address this problem?

Col. Mohammed: I have begun researching what will come after Daesh. When al-Qaida formed in the mountains of Tora Bora, it posed little danger, but after its defeat in Afghanistan, it splintered into small groups all over the world. Years later, it regrouped in Syria and Iraq to form the dystopian political entity of Daesh. Daesh is breathing its last breath, but I’m sure that after Daesh we will see other extremist groups arise. We are now studying the factors and circumstances that led to Daesh’s formation, which will help us understand what will come afterward. I am not convinced that extremism will end with Daesh. But what I fear most is that the next terrorist organizations will be invisible, which makes it difficult to follow them and expose their lies, especially if their activity is primarily online.

Unipath: Do you know of cases in which similar centers saved people from falling into the clutches of extremism?

Col. Mohammed: There are many success stories. For example, the Munasaha Center in Saudi Arabia works with captured recruits who have been returned to their homelands. In Jordan, a specialized committee of academics interviewed extremists inside their prisons; the team found that some of the men were not fully indoctrinated into extremism, but rather had been pushed in that direction by social conditions.

Building on this group’s assessment, this group of captured recruits was further classified into smaller categories, so that each person’s punishment would be appropriate to his situation. That is, it was impossible to judge these people by acts alone. Their families were thus given scholarships and transferred to better conditions, which would help them become contributing members of society and keep their children from feeling the injustice and isolation that could make them easy targets for recruitment and extremism.

Unipath: You mentioned the story of a young man who joined al-Nusrah Front and changed his mind after three months. Can you relate this story in greater detail?

Col. Mohammed: The story of this young man is somewhat peculiar, because he is highly intelligent and has a degree in electrical engineering. He also had a fondness for studying Shariah and managed to study it along with engineering. After graduation, he dabbled in the engineering profession, but found he preferred religious preaching.  He worked as an imam at a mosque in northern Jordan, supervising pilgrims making the Umrah and Hajj.

During his time in Mecca, he met preachers from Turkey. After several meetings, they formed a close relationship and offered him a job at a charitable religious institution in southern Turkey, with better pay than he would have received in Jordan. He liked the idea and traveled to Turkey.

He was placed close to the Syrian border, where he distributed humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees. Through his work there, he met some mujaheedeen from al-Nusrah Front, who convinced him that the young mujaheedeen in their group needed a legitimate, experienced preacher like him. He joined the group after spending three months in the Aleppo area.

It was there that he began to spread the message of Shariah and the tolerance of Islam among al-Nusrah fighters, but he quickly realized that these young men were not interested in halal and haram, or the study of Shariah. He discovered that they had very different goals, and he knew this profession was not for him. Knowing that he would never find the group rewarding, he left it and returned to Jordan.

Particularly strange is that these extremist organizations seek legitimacy to win over young people and demonstrate their devotion to religion, but in reality, they do not care about Shariah.

Unipath: Who are the students at the center?

Col. Mohammed: We currently have 17 students, eight of whom are Army colonels. There are also three lieutenant colonels, a colonel in the security institutions and other government officials. All of our students are from the state security and military institutions.

Unipath: In the future, will you expand the center’s work and open offices in neighboring countries?

Col. Mohammed: We will visit the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to observe the work of similar centers, including the Sawab and Hedayah centers. We will try to build a relationship between our center and those in the UAE. We don’t need to have offices abroad, but we hope to build relationships and exchange experiences.

In my capacity as director of the Jordanian Center for the Prevention of Extremist Ideology, I have the honor to invite all interested people, researchers and specialists in the field of extremist ideology in the U.S. to visit us. I hope to have a close relationship with the institutes and universities of the American Armed Forces and security institutions, to whom we can provide great assistance because we read and understand the Arabic language, jurisprudence and Shariah. We can provide researchers with interviews with academics or professors of Shariah, as well as Jordanian researchers to accompany them in field research.