On 16 June, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the well-known Jordanian radical Islamic ideologue, was released from prison. In the six weeks since his release, many people have argued that there must have been some sort of deal between al-Maqdisi and the Jordanian regime that caused the latter to release him. This blog post looks into these claims.
A Secret Deal
The idea that al-Maqdisi has made a secret deal with the Jordanian regime is widespread. On Twitter, for example, several people expressed their suspicion about al-Maqdisi’s release, claiming that its timing amidst the turmoil involving the Islamic State (of Iraq and Sham, IS(IS)) could not have been a coincidence. Similarly, The Economist stated that al-Maqdisi was released only after “he had been persuaded to issue two fatwas declaring followers of ISIS as ‘deviants’ and telling them not to make attacks in Jordan”. The connection between al-Maqdisi’s release and his criticism of ISIS/IS as a reason for his being set free was also pointed out in the Jordanian media. ‘Umar ‘Ayasira, for instance, a regular columnist for the Islamist daily Al-Sabil, questioned the timing of al-Maqdisi’s release. Although he explicitly denies that al-Maqdisi made a deal with the authorities, he does claim that the shaykh’s critical views on the Islamic State serve the interests of the Jordanian government, which is concerned about that organisation’s rise in Syria and Iraq and therefore supposedly allowed al-Maqdisi to leave prison.
The latter closely resembles a general scenario I also suggested once. Writing in 2008 (after al-Maqdisi was released from a previous stay in prison), I stated that “Al-Maqdisi’s criticism […] could […] have a moderating influence on those committed terrorists who are unlikely to be swayed by anyone else. In practice, this policy would mean allowing al-Maqdisi to spread his ideas without interfering with him too much as long as he does not materially support terrorism. The drawback of such a policy is that, while possibly helping to moderate an extremely violent fringe among jihadists, al-Maqdisi’s still radical writings might simultaneously inspire a whole generation of new terrorists. Considering the fact that the Jordanian government apparently does not have a viable case to keep al-Maqdisi in prison, however, this policy of non-interference may be less unacceptable than it sounds.”
Scenarios like these and rumours of a deal with the authorities beg the question: what is the evidence for this after al-Maqdisi’s latest release? I asked one person on Twitter who was convinced of a deal whether she had any proof of her suspicions or was simply extrapolating from other, seemingly similar cases in other contexts. Her answer was that she did not have any specific evidence at all and was simply drawing parallels with other cases that she had seen before. This is quite honest, of course, but it is typical of those who claim that al-Maqdisi made a deal with the Jordanian regime: they offer no proof whatsoever.
To be sure, a healthy dose of scepticism towards what goes on in Jordanian prisons and how this is related to the country’s politics is perhaps quite justified. This scepticism becomes slightly conspiratorial, however, if one keeps suspecting fire without even a hint of smoke. When I asked al-Maqdisi about this when I talked to him a few weeks ago, he obviously denied it, yet not by adamantly rejecting these claims; he simply shook his head in disbelief, disappointed about people’s willingness to believe such rumours. It is indeed unlikely that al-Maqdisi made a deal with the authorities, but we don’t have to take his word for it.
Criticism of ISIS/IS
One thing that most claims about al-Maqdisi’s alleged deal with the authorities mention is his criticism of ISIS/IS. Since the latter organisation may develop into a threat to Jordanian security because of the relatively large number of ISIS/IS-supporters within the kingdom, the idea is that al-Maqdisi’s release might contribute to keeping the Islamic State at bay and to moderating its adherents within Jordanian borders. Such an idea is certainly not entirely absurd and al-Maqdisi has indeed penned a few anti-IS articles since being released (see here and here) – widely reported in the Jordanian press (see here, here, here and here) – and did speak out against its supporters after the Jordanian radical thinker Iyad Qunaybi was attacked.
The problem with this reasoning, however, is that the regime does not need a deal with al-Maqdisi to get him to speak out against the Islamic State. In fact, al-Maqdisi has expressed (increasingly explicit) criticism of some jihadis in Syria and particularly ISIS since at least late 2013, long before he was released. This criticism ranged from advice to keep jihad and da’wa (missionary activities) unified (see also here), urgent calls to stop infighting among jihadis (see also here) and to refrain from engaging in fitna (chaos, strife) and clearly siding with al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to a clear disavowal of ISIS. In other words, al-Maqdisi’s condemnation of ISIS was part of a gradual process of advice he gave to jihadis in Syria, which in turn was not only rooted in his broader ideology but also – and more directly – influenced by the failure to successfully mediate between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS and his perception that the latter was mostly (if not entirely) to blame for this.
Yet if there was no deal, doesn’t that make the date of al-Maqdisi’s release – right in the middle of debates about ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra – rather suspicious? Similar claims were made about al-Maqdisi’s release from prison in 1999 and 2005. With regard to the former year, it has been suggested that al-Maqdisi wrote a book in which he criticised what he considered excesses in takfir (excommunication) to get a more lenient prison sentence. As for 2005, several Jordanian journalists at the time suggested that al-Maqdisi had revised his radical views and that his 2004 and 2005 criticism of the alleged excesses committed by his former student and leader of al-Qaida in Iraq Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi played a role in his release then. Both claims are incorrect, however, as I have pointed out in detail elsewhere.
So what could explain al-Maqdisi’s release last June? Just like in 1999 (a royal pardon on the occasion of King ‘Abdallah II’s ascension to the Jordanian throne) and in 2005 (the regime acquitted him of the charges and had to release him), the immediate reason for al-Maqdisi’s release on 16 June was rather less conspiratorial than it seems: he had simply served his time in prison. Al-Maqdisi was arrested in September 2010 and was given a five year prison sentence. In Jordan, years in prison are not twelve, but only nine months long, making his sentence (5 x 9 months =) 45 months, which equals four years (48 months) minus three months. If one adds four years to September 2010 (September 2014) and subsequently subtracts three months, one simply gets to a release date in: June 2014. The fact that the Jordanian regime actually stuck to this release date instead of trying to keep al-Maqdisi in gaol a bit longer may have been inspired by the idea that al-Maqdisi might help dissuade a few more ISIS-supporters once he’s out, but it is clearly not evidence of any deal.
To deal or not to deal
All in all, it thus seems highly unlikely that al-Maqdisi has made a deal with the Jordanian regime to get released earlier. Even if the regime is willing to release a known radical scholar like him in order to allow him to fend off even more radical ideologues and militants, it is unlikely that they released him any earlier than necessary because of this. Given the fact that al-Maqdisi’s time had been served, the regime probably felt obliged to let him go, perhaps hoping that his ideological opposition against ISIS – a much more dangerous and immediate threat to Jordan than Jabhat al-Nusra, which al-Maqdisi does support – would serve them well. Whether al-Maqdisi’s freedom is actually going to contribute to greater security and stability in Jordan, however, remains to be seen.
While he may have lost influence on the outside I wouldn’t doubt that he has a lot of stature and respect with Jordan’s prison system. Control inside the walls is what this seems to be partially about. In exchange for allowing AQ to have dominance over IS within the “walls” the Jordanian government will probably get assistance in preventing any threats of IS incursions into Jordan.
More on the conditions that face “paid up” jihadis in Jordan