Nineteen-year-old Ahmad stood at the brink of a waterfall, eyes closed, fists clenched as he counted to 10. He wore a harness to steady himself as he rappelled over the edge, but first he needed to breathe.
That’s how he’d been taught to calm down during a youth training session the day before in Salt, the western Jordanian city where he lives, a 90-minute drive away.
There were 15 young men in the programme run by Mercy Corps, an international nonprofit aid group headquartered in Oregon. The 12-week course provides, among other things, leadership training, local job placement, rock-climbing instruction — and lessons on controlling one’s emotions.
Ahmad had signed up with his friend Omar, also 19, whom he’d met in a fight. “He was beating someone up because of a card game, and I took his side,” Ahmad said. Fighting was no big deal to him, he said. What scared him was how he sometimes lost control and ended up cutting himself.
“I can only calm down when I see blood,” he had told Monther Altiti, one of the programme leaders.
Altiti showed him a scar on his own arm. “I used to cut myself when I was younger, too,” Altiti said. Experiencing nature had helped him stop, and he wanted Ahmad to find the same kind of release.
“I told him, how do you feel when you’re climbing or hiking? You think of nothing, right? Next time you’re angry, go outside, close your eyes, breathe and count to 10,” Altiti said. “Amazing that he’s doing it.”
Countering violent extremism is critical for Jordan which hosts 2.7 million refugees from neighbouring conflicts and remains vulnerable to the threat of domestic terrorism. Several attacks have happened on Jordanian soil, including a shooting in the southern city of Karak in December and several bombings on the Syrian border. And experts say several thousand young Jordanians have joined militant groups in Syria or Iraq.
Jordan’s government and civil society groups are struggling to prevent such radicalisation, using methods that include administrative detention, job training and workshops with local imams. But those who work with the country’s at-risk young say the most effective programmes don’t explicitly allude to religion or extremism at all.
More than 70 per cent of Jordan’s population is under 30. The overall unemployment rate is 14.7 per cent; for those ages 20 to 24, it is 30.6 per cent. Many Jordanians are of Palestinian descent, with relatives living under occupation, in refugee camps or with memories of expulsion from their ancestral homes. Jordanian millennials have known multiple regional wars, foreign invasions with corresponding waves of refugees, and a failed Arab Spring.
The result is an overwhelming sense of victimhood, said Hasan Abu Haniyeh, whose analyses of extremist groups are published by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
“Most Arab people want an Islamic state to take control,” Abu Haniyeh said. “They dream of this utopia of dignity, justice and righteousness.”
The idea of a caliphate contrasts with the realities of corruption, dictatorship and foreign invasion, he said, which is why groups that promise resistance to the status quo automatically seem legitimate to many Arabs. “The Taliban, Ansar Al Sharia, Isis [Daesh] and other movements don’t need to prove if they have a good way of ruling,” he added.
Mai E’leimat, a co-founder of the Al Hayat Center, a Jordanian NGO that co-published a report last year on violent radicalisation in Jordan, agreed. “Youth are isolated, ignored, neglected,” she said. “They’re not part of the decision-making. I’ve been to so many conferences on youth empowerment where there are no young people in the hall.”
E’leimat noted that even after Daesh burned a Jordanian air force pilot alive in 2015, young people here were still drawn to the group’s cause in Syria. Two sons of Jordanian lawmakers have died fighting for militant groups there.
Jordanian fighters who return from Syria are arrested immediately and held for up to 15 years, according to Abdelqader Al Khateeb, a lawyer who works with returnees and detained terrorism suspects. Since the Karak attack, intelligence and security services have also targeted anyone suspected of communicating with extremist groups. Some 600 people have been arrested, Khateeb said, most of them under 30, including many who say they had merely posted support for the Syrian revolution on Facebook.
“There’s no court, trial or justice process,” he said. “We don’t have law. It’s just reaction.”
Sharif Al Omari, the government’s director of programmes to curb violent extremism, said the detentions were necessary to ensure national security. “The law doesn’t distinguish between stupid or not, intentional or not,” he said. But he acknowledged that the state must confront the core problems facing Jordanian youth: unemployment and an education system that doesn’t prepare graduates for the job market.
If a young man “has something in his pocket, a salary and stable work, he will start thinking about marrying and building a house,” he said.
The worst way to combat violent extremism, practitioners agreed, is to label vulnerable young people as potential terrorists.
“The pitch that Isis gives to young, Arab, Muslim males is one they hear from no one else: You belong here. You, specifically, are our greatest strength,” said Mercy Corps country director Hunter Keith.
Meanwhile, global rhetoric against “radical Islamic terror” deepens young people’s sense of victimhood, he said. That’s why the Mercy Corps programme avoids talking about extremism or religion, focusing instead on stress relief, self-awareness and community.
Perceived victimhood and profound stress have a neurological effect, said Jane MacPhail, the group’s director of youth programmes.
“You detach. You become more impulsive, and you rationalise actions against your values in order to fill your need for belonging,” she said. “We work on reattaching young people’s hearts and heads.”
Abdallah Hijazi, a co-leader of the youth project, said he had the same struggles as the participants when he was younger.
“People are scared of these guys on the streets,” he said, but added that it doesn’t mean they are potential extremists.
“They’re lost, like any Jordanian guy,” Hijazi said. “They need a place to feel safe being themselves.”
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