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The Politics of Muslim Magic

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“Saudi Woman Beheaded for Witchcraft” read media headlines around the world on December 13, 2011. News reports described how a 60-year-old woman was executed after being convicted of practicing witchcraft on the basis of such evidence as books on witchcraft, veils, and glass bottles full of an “unknown liquid used for sorcery.

[1] Yet the majority of news accounts implied that the woman was a victim of persecution by the Saudi government; as one of Amnesty International’s directors declared: “The charge of sorcery has often been used in Saudi Arabia to punish people, generally after unfair trials, for exercising their right to freedom of speech or religion.”[2]

No Western reporters seemed to consider that the victim was actually practicing witchcraft, or why witchcraft is considered by the desert kingdom a crime punishable by death. In the West, there is a societal need to place this seemingly inexplicable incident in an understandable context such as the violation of human rights rather than examining this Islamic tradition that includes the belief, practice, and prohibition of magic.

In fact, the practice of what can be termed Islamic magic is prevalent throughout the Muslim world, manifested in the theological concept of jinn, inhabiting the entire sphere of the Muslim occult. Furthermore, magical beliefs can constitute an existential and political threat to Islamic religious leaders, provoking severe punishments and strict prohibitions of any practice not sanctioned by their authority. Conversely, political leaders, including Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, have employed magical beliefs to advance their political agendas.

Islamic Witch Hunts

Belief in witchcraft, sorcery, magic, ghosts, and demons is widespread and pervasive throughout the Muslim world. Magical beliefs are expressed in the wearing of amulets, consulting spiritual healers and fortunetellers, shrine worship, exorcisms, animal sacrifice, and numerous customs and rituals that provide protection from the evil eye, demons, and jinn. Fears associated with these beliefs range from hauntings and curses to illness, poverty, and everyday misfortunes. Supernatural practices that are intended to bring good fortune, health, increased status, honor, and power also abound. Magical beliefs are not relegated to rural or poverty-stricken areas. On the contrary, they are observable in every segment of society regardless of socioeconomic status.

One of the more popular customs is fortunetelling, which is different from the Western practice, which is usually relegated to the status of a carnival act and specific to predicting the future. Generally, the practice of fortunetelling in the Middle East focuses more on spiritual protection and family counseling than prediction and prophecy. In addition to reading cards, dice, palms, and coffee grounds, activities include selling amulets to ward off evil spirits and providing advice for marital problems. In Afghanistan, fortunetellers operate out of small shops or outside of mosques and shrines across the country but are rarely consulted to portend the future; most often their clients are women or the elderly seeking guidance for problems affecting their families. In Iran, fortunetelling has become increasingly popular, and people of all ages turn to fortunetellers in search of happiness and security.[3] In Pakistan, fortunetelling and belief in astrology is so widespread that practitioners appear on morning television shows.[4]

All magical practices are denounced as un-Islamic by clerics. Although they condemn fortunetelling, the practice is not punished as severely as witchcraft and sorcery. This is likely due to the fact that fortunetelling is viewed as using magic to acquire unseen knowledge while sorcery is viewed as intentionally practicing malevolent or black magic. Recently, in Afghanistan, Gaza, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, stricter laws, arrests, and executions have resulted in efforts to deter magical practices. In January 2008, Afghan religious elders banned dozens of traditional fortunetellers in Mazar-i-Sharif from the area near the Hazrat Ali shrine.[5] In 2010, the Islamist group Hamas, ruling the Gaza Strip, conducted a campaign against witchcraft in the area, arresting 150 women, who were then forced to sign confessions and statements renouncing the practice.[6] According to Hamas “the activities of these women represent a real social danger, also because they risk ‘breaking up families,’ causing divorce and frittering away of money. Sometimes their activities also have criminal repercussions.”[7] In addition to the arrests, Hamas placed large anti-witchcraft posters at mosques, universities, and government offices warning women against magical practices and providing information to Gaza residents wishing to accuse their neighbors of the crime.[8] In August 2010, the campaign escalated to violence when a 62-year-old woman known as a traditional healer was murdered in front of her house by unidentified men after she was accused by her neighbors of practicing witchcraft.[9] In January 2012, Hamas declared the profession of fortunetelling illegal and “forced 142 fortune-tellers to sign written statements averring that they would stop trying to predict the future and sell trinkets that are supposed to offer personal protection.”[10]

In Egypt, Khalil Fadel, a prominent Egyptian psychiatrist, claimed that many Egyptians, including the highly-educated, were spending large amounts of money on sorcery and superstition and warned that growing superstition among Egyptians was threatening the country’s national security, dependent as it was on the mental health of the nation.[11] Under current law, people alleged to be sorcerers can be arrested in Egypt for fraud, but now that the Muslim Brotherhood has come to power and is drafting new legislation, it is conceivable that soon witchcraft could be designated a crime of apostasy, punishable by death.

In April 2009, Bahrain passed strict sorcery laws after x-rays revealed packages containing hair, nails, and blood were being shipped there; witchcraft and sorcery are now criminal offences that can result in fines or prison, followed by deportation.[12]

Neighboring Saudi Arabia enforces the most severe penalties for designated magical crimes. The threat of black magic is taken so seriously there that, in May 2009, an anti-witchcraft unit was created to combat it, along with traditional healing and fortunetelling, and placed under the control of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPV), which employs Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the mutaween. “On the CPV’s website, a hotline encourages citizens across the kingdom to report cases of sorcery to local officials for immediate treatment.”[13] Nine specialized centers were set up in large cities to deal with practitioners of black magic.

A large segment of the “witches” arrested by the CPV were Africans and Indonesians as black magic is often attributed to foreign workers, particularly maids.[14] In September 2011, hundreds of Saudi women complained when the Shura Council (an advisory body) granted permission for Moroccan women, internationally reputed by Muslims as masters of black magic, to work as maids in Saudi households.[15] The wives claimed it was “tantamount to allowing the use of black magic in their homes to steal their husbands … the issue was not lacking trust in their husbands, but their men were powerless to ward off spells.”[16] Foreign domestic workers in the kingdom are accused of sorcery regularly either due to their traditional practices or because Saudi men, facing charges of sexual harassment, want to discredit their accusers.[17]

Nor is prosecution for witchcraft in Saudi Arabia restricted to women. In 2010, Ali Sabat, host of a Lebanese satellite television program that provided psychic advice for callers from around the Arab world, was imprisoned while on the hajj pilgrimage.[18] In a closed court hearing with no representation, he was sentenced to death “because he had practiced ‘sorcery’ publicly for several years before millions of viewers.”[19] As a result of international pressure, he received a last minute reprieve, and his sentence was eventually reduced to fifteen years in prison.

Others had no such luck. There have been several executions for similar crimes: In September 2011, a Sudanese man was beheaded for the crime of witchcraft and sorcery, having been caught in a sting operation set in motion by the religious police and then convicted in a closed trial. In April 2011, thirty officers from the CPV attended a three-day training workshop in the Eastern Province to investigate black magic crimes. The anti-witchcraft unit’s specialized training apparently also involved learning Qur’anic healing rituals to destroy the effects of black magic. There are detailed Islamic treatises on neutralizing black magic that include entire exorcism rites and purification rituals for the destruction of amulets and other magical items. Thus the irony results that neutralizing the effects of spells also constitutes magical practices, albeit legalized ones.

In brief, there are sorcerers, fortunetellers, and traditional healers throughout the Muslim world; many are in violation of interpretations of the Shari’a (Islamic law), and in some countries, that is punishable by death. European witch hunts ended when the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment brought empirical reason to the fore, and rationality eventually replaced the West’s superstitious world-views. The Islamic view of sorcery and witchcraft is significantly different. In contemporary Islamic witch hunts, there is an accepted, long-established, theologically-sanctioned supernatural tradition. Although science was cultivated in Muslim lands during Islam’s Golden Age, witch hunts never ceased because the Enlightenment’s rationalist ideologies did not replace the Islamic magical world-view. Rather, Islamic witch hunts have evolved into a combination of primal ritual and modern technology where videos of exorcisms and beheadings are available on the Internet.[20]

Jinn and the Muslim Occult

To fully comprehend contemporary witch hunts and the prevalence of magical beliefs in the Muslim world, it is necessary to understand the concept of jinn. Jinn provide Islamic explanations for evil, illness, health, wealth, and position in society as well as all mundane and inexplicable phenomena in between. The word jinn (also written as jinnee, djinn, djinni, genii or genie) is derived from the Arabic root j-n-n meaning to hide or be hidden, similar to the Latin origins of the word “occult” (hidden).

In the West, occult practices are marginalized and relegated to pagan traditions or the mystical aspects of religious traditions. In Islam, however, jinn are an integral part of Islamic theology. According to the Qur’an, God created humans from clay, angels from light, and jinn from smokeless fire: “Although belief in jinn is not one of the five pillars of Islam, one can’t be Muslim if he/she doesn’t have faith in their existence. … Indeed, the Qur’anic message itself is addressed to both humans and jinn, considered the only two intelligent species on earth.”[21] While frequently described as angels and demons, jinn are actually a third category—complex, intermediary beings who, similar to humans, have free will and can embrace goodness or evil.[22] Like humans, they are required to worship God and will be judged on the Day of Judgment according to their deeds.[23]

Evil jinn are referred to as shayatin, or devils, and Iblis (Satan) is their chief.[24] They can take the form of humans or animals with many of the fears associated with Islamic purification rites expressed in the symbolic attributes of the jinn. For example, in Islam, dogs, urine, feces, and blood are intrinsically impure, and jinn are known to shape-shift to dogs, accept impure animal sacrifice, and dwell in bathrooms, graveyards, and other unclean places. Muslims believe that evil jinn are spiritual entities that can enter and possess people and exercise supernatural influence over them. Women are considered to be more vulnerable to jinn because they are thought to be weaker in their faith and impure several days of the month.[25]

While jinn have been relegated to fantasy characters in the West, to countless believing Muslims, there is no doubt that they exist. An August 2009 Gallup poll, for example, found that 89 percent of Pakistanis respondents surveyed, believed in jinn.[26] Witches, sorcerers, and fortunetellers are all believed to be under the guidance of jinn and are sometimes referred to as “jinn catchers.”

Jinn are intrinsically intertwined with the practice of both licit Qur’anic magic and illicit black magic (sihir). Black magic is considered to be worked by those who have learned to summon evil jinn to serve them while Qur’anic magic invokes the guidance of God to exorcise the demons. Even spiritual healers with good intentions who do not employ Qur’anic healing methods can be designated as witches and sorcerers: In Saudi Arabia, only qualified individuals, usually natives designated by the religious authorities, are allowed to practice Qur’anic treatment methods; most of those arrested and beheaded for sorcery and witchcraft tend to be foreigners regardless of whether or not they were practicing Qur’anic medicine.

Despite regulations, an entire industry of professional exorcists who perform Qur’anic healing has arisen to meet demand throughout the Middle East and among Western Muslims with exorcists openly advertising on the Internet, using Facebook and Twitter, and posting thousands of videos on YouTube demonstrating healing techniques and publicizing actual exorcisms. Qur’anicHealers.com, a division of Spiritual Superpower Inc., for example, has a Paypal account, contact information for Qur’anic healers in twelve countries and a post office box in Artesia, California.[27]

Clerics, police, and politicians carefully negotiate the political, religious, legal, moral, and ethical issues that arise from dealing with this world of spirits with each country having its own laws to regulate various practices. For example, although exorcists are not prohibited in Gaza, Hamas considers most of them con artists, claiming to have exposed thirty cases of fraud in 2010: “We caught some suspects red-handed … using magic to separate married couples … It was all an act of deception and exploitation. Some people handed over fortunes, and one woman gave all her jewelry to one of these exorcists.”[28]

Abusive, quasi-medical practices have also been committed in the name of Qur’anic magic. Despite the fact that there are hospitals with psychiatric sections in Afghanistan, a common practice there is to chain the mentally ill to shrines for forty days to ritually exorcise the jinn “possessing” them. Patients are fed a strict diet of bread and black pepper, do not have a change of clothing, and sleep on the ground. Those who do not survive the treatments are buried in earthen mounds around the shrine. While doctors in Muslim lands recognize physical and mental illnesses, some are inclined to attribute inexplicable cases to possession. And although there are mullahs and religious scholars reportedly against these practices, the custom continues. There is no doubt that clerics believe in the powers of jinn; they would no more question the existence of jinn than they would the Qur’an.

The Politics of Magic

Jinn can represent an existential and political threat to religious leaders. Religious clerics condemn or actively ban illicit spiritual healing not because of the atrocities that have been committed, or because people are being defrauded, or even out of a conviction to save people’s souls from evil but out of fear that jinn exist and can be induced to subvert their authority.

At the same time, some leaders have used the belief in jinn to further their political agendas. Sheikh Ahmed Namir, a cleric and Hamas leader, perpetuates anti-Semitic tropes, claiming that economic hardship and psychological traumas in the Gaza Strip have encouraged evil Christian and Jewish jinn to possess Palestinians.[29] Palestinian stories of jinn possession are full of classic anti-Semitic propaganda and symbolism; in one case of “possession,” for example, the attempted murder of a child by her mother was blamed on “sixty-seven Jewish jinn,” transforming the ancient blood libel accusation into a new and bizarre form.[30] Not surprisingly, exorcizing Jewish jinn has become a growing business in Gaza:

Sheikh Abu Khaled, a Palestinian exorcist, said the number of possessed Muslims has more than tripled: “I suspect that Jewish magicians send jinns to us here in Gaza. In fact, most of my patients are possessed with Jewish jinns.”[31]

Some leaders allude to possessing supernatural powers in order to self-aggrandize but this can also backfire. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told followers in 2005 that he “was surrounded by a halo of light during a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, in which the foreign leaders in the hall were transfixed, unable to blink for a half hour.”[32] But in May 2011, Ahmadinejad’s supernatural “powers” resulted in the arrests of two dozen of his aides, charged by opposing religious clerics with practicing black magic and invoking jinn. While most Western reporters scoffed at the story of imprisoned exorcists, The Wall Street Journal interviewed a renowned Iranian sorcerer, Seyed Sadigh, who claimed that dozens of Iran’s top government officials consult him on matters of national security and that he used jinn to infiltrate Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies: “Mr. Sadigh says he doesn’t waste jinn powers on trivial matters such as love and money. Rather, he contacts jinn who can help out on matters of national security and the regime’s political stability. His regular roll call includes jinn who work for … the Mossad, and for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.”[33]

It would appear that the accusations of sorcery were the result of a power struggle between the president and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, making this both an actual and political witch hunt. The primary target of the arrests was Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei whose “alternative Messianic version of Islam … includes aspects of the occult and a more limited role for clerics.”[34] Not surprisingly, Sadigh reinforced this notion, declaring, “I have information that Ahmadinejad is under a spell, and they are now trying to cast one on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamene’i to obey them blindly.”[35] Sadigh the sorcerer negotiates the politics of magic like a pro, changing allegiances to align himself with whoever seems to be on top and selling his services to him. Perhaps the real power behind the Iranian government resides with the jinn catchers.

Mullah Omar, the Pashtun founder of the Taliban, is widely perceived as magically protected.[36] Laying claim to the Afghan tradition of charismatic mullahs with supernatural powers, Omar adopted the same strategy, removing a cloak, believed by many Afghans to having been worn by the prophet Muhammad, from a shrine in Kandahar and wearing it openly.[37] Since legend decreed that the chest holding the cloak could only be opened when touched by a true leader of the Muslims, wearing it gave him the status of an Afghan hero endowed with extraordinary mystical powers. When Kabul fell to his forces, his supernatural status was confirmed.

Knowing that the Pashtun emphasize dreams as a form of revelation, Omar cultivated the idea that God spoke to him through his dreams and claimed that he based his most crucial policy decisions on them.

Conclusions

Whether to appease a superstitious people or out of sincerely-held belief, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari sacrifices a black goat nearly every day to ward off the evil eye and provide protection from black magic.[38] He, along with Ahmadinejad and Mullah Omar, understands that knowledge of local customs, jinn, and magical practices has significant political value. A superstitious population presents numerous opportunities to communicate fear, apprehension, or awe and to exert influence.

Knowledge of local myths, customs, and magical beliefs can present unique opportunities for diplomacy as well as warfare, but Westerners do not know how to deal with belief in supernatural phenomena, continually applying a rational, scientific approach to cultures that engage in magical thinking and refusing to acknowledge the political significance of these beliefs. Currently, U.S. policymakers cannot even publicly acknowledge that acts of terrorism are based on Islamist religious ideologies, much less give credence to jinn.

U.S. leaders tend to attribute the root causes of violence to secular, social, and economic factors such as poverty, illness, illiteracy, and hunger. This has resulted in a strategy to win the hearts and minds of the people by providing food, shelter, education, and medicine. These operations have consistently failed because Islamic religious and political leaders understand that their people primarily view the root cause of their difficulties as a spiritual problem. Instead of freedom, they foster faith. The Islamic strategy is to win souls by providing supernatural protection, via God or jinn. Hearts and minds will then follow.

Dawn Perlmutter is director and founder of Symbol & Ritual Intelligence and a leading expert on religious terrorism and ritualistic crimes. She trains and advises law enforcement and defense agency personnel.

[1] The New York Times, Dec. 12, 2011; ABC News, Dec. 13, 2011; CNN, Dec. 13, 2011; al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Dec. 13, 2011.
[2] Amnesty International, Dec. 12, 2011; al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Dec. 13, 2011; The Telegraph (London), Dec. 13, 2011.
[3] Reuters, Nov. 25, 2007.
[4] Chowrangi blog, May 18, 2011.
[5] Reuters, Jan. 27, 2008.
[6] International Mediterranean News Service (ANSAmed), Jan. 15, 2011.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ma’an News Agency (Bethlehem), Aug. 19, 2010.
[10] Arutz Sheva (Beit El and Petah Tikva), Jan. 3, 2012.
[11] The Huffington Post (New York), Sept. 6, 2009.
[12] Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain), Apr. 1, 2009; Muslim Media Network, May 13, 2010.
[13] The Jerusalem Post, July 20, 2011.
[14] Arab News (Riyadh), Apr. 4, 2011.
[15] Morocco Board News (Washington, D.C.), Oct. 1, 2011; The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 22, 2011.
[16] The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 22, 2011.
[17] Ibid., July 20, 2011; Uri Friedman, “How Do You Prove Someone’s a Witch in Saudi Arabia?Foreign Policy, Dec. 13, 2011.
[18] Emirates 24/7 (Dubai), Apr. 23, 2011.
[19] The New York Times, Apr. 2, 2010.
[20] All videos accessed Jan. 4, 2013, YouTube: “Islamic Exorcism,” June 7, 2006, “Exorcism in Islam,” July 29, 2007, “Ruyati Binti Sapubi—An Indonesian Maid in Saudi Arabia Beheaded,” June 18, 2011, “Man beheaded in carpark as per Muslim Shariah law.”
[21] Amira El-Zein, Islam, Arabs and the Intelligent World of the Jinn (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009), p. x.
[22] Ibid., p. xi.
[23] Reinhold Loeffler, Islam in Practice: Religious Beliefs in a Persian Village (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), p. 46.
[24] Sam Shamoun, “Qur’an Incoherence and Contradiction: Is Satan an Angel or a Jinn?” Answering-islam.org, accessed Dec. 28, 2012; “Jinn According to Quran and Sunnah,” Muttaqun.com, accessed Dec. 28, 2012.
[25] Gerda Sengers, Women and Demons: Cult Healing in Islamic Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 2003), p. 163.
[26]Pakistanis’ Belief in Super Natural Beings,” Gilani Poll-Gallup Pakistan, Islamabad, Aug. 31, 2009.
[27] Qur’anicHealers.com , accessed Dec. 28, 2012.
[28] Reuters, Mar. 11, 2011.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Celia E. Rothenberg, Spirits of Palestine: Gender, Society and Stories of the Jinn (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004), pp. 77-8.
[31] Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 56.
[32] ABC News, May 9, 2011.
[33] The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2011.
[34] ABC News, May 9, 2011; ibid., June 10, 2011.
[35] The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2011.
[36] Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason, “Understanding the Taliban and Insurgency in Afghanistan,” Orbis, Winter 2007.
[37] Ibid.
[38] The Guardian (London), Jan. 27, 2010; ABC News, Jan. 29, 2010.

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Syria’s difficult rebirth

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It is now ten years since a peaceful demonstration against Bashar al-Assad’s regime organised by students in Deraa was brutally repressed by police and government forces, thus triggering a chain of events that plunged Syria into a terrible civil war.

The fighting – which saw the total destruction of historic cities such as Aleppo and Raqqa, the UNESCO heritage site of Palmyra and a large part of the capital Damascus – caused the death of some 250,000 fighters of all sides of the conflict (loyalist soldiers, ISIS guerrillas, Kurdish irredentist fighters, Islamist militants of the Syrian Liberation Army, militiamen of the Syrian Democratic Forces), as well as the death of at least 230,000 civilians, victims of the brutal occupation by the troops of the Islamic Caliphate or “collateral victims” of the fighting and bombing of villages and towns.

The civil conflict quickly turned into a “small world war”, with the armed intervention of various extra-regional players: Turkey on the side of Islamist rebels; Russia and Iran supporting the government in Damascus, and the United States

supporting the Kurds and the “democrats” of the “Syrian Democratic Forces”.

Over the last ten years, 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country and are living precariously in refugee camps in the neighbouring countries of the Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

6.7 million people have had to leave their homes and are considered “internally displaced”, i.e. refugees within Syria’s borders, while at least 5 million people – trapped in the north-west of Syria and in the Idlib region, where scattered troops of the Islamic Caliphate are still operating – are in need of humanitarian assistance.

According to data from the UN Refugee Agency, over 13 million Syrians have lost everything and are surviving on government aid and international charity.

Besides this humanitarian catastrophe, the government of Assad (who has been confirmed as President of the Republic for a fourth term) is facing an economic emergency that began after the first clashes in 2011 and has progressively worsened during the civil war.

According to the World Bank, the loss in terms of GDP between 2011 and 2016 was around 226 billion dollars, while the cost of destroying civilian housing and infrastructure exceeded 117 billion dollars.

The prices of basic necessities, such as food and fuel, have increased 20-fold compared to the period before the conflict, while the Syrian pound has progressively depreciated.

It is estimated that at least 70 per cent of the population currently lives below the poverty line and has limited food supply. According to World Vision International, life expectancy for Syrian children in 2021 has fallen by thirteen years.

The situation is further worsened by a huge water emergency: since last January, the water level of the Euphrates has dropped to the point that, due to the lack of water, the Tabqa and Tishreen dams risk closure, with severe damage to agriculture, electricity production and the supply of running water to the populations of the entire north-east region.

The Covid-19 pandemic has not spared this unfortunate country, although the official estimates of infected and dead people – albeit high – are not very reliable due to the impossibility for the health authorities to carry out the mass screening necessary to know the real extent of the contagion.

On the military front, the situation is still rather confused.

Government troops, with Russian and Iranian help, managed to inflict an almost definitive defeat on the ISIS militia.

The men of the Caliphate – after having been expelled from Aleppo, Palmyra and Raqqa (which had even been designated by Al Baghdadi as the capital of the Islamic State) – have partly fled to the Iraqi desert, from where they continue to carry out actions against the Iraqi forces, and have partly dispersed in small groups in the desert and mountainous area of Idlib and Deir Es Zor, in the so-called Aleppo-Hama-Raqqa triangle, where they continue a troublesome and sometimes bloody guerrilla warfare that has nothing to do with the overwhelming victories that brought them close to definitive military victory in 2014-2015.

Today ISIS is content with ambushing government military convoys and perpetrating extortion against the population trapped in the region, in view of self-financing for reasons of mere survival.

The Syrian army, however, is finding it increasingly difficult to definitively get rid of ISIS from the Syrian territory, both because of the difficulties connected with the need to effectively control a vast desert and mountainous area, and because it has not yet managed to completely defeat the Kurdish guerrillas of the “Syrian Democratic Forces”, still supported by the United States, and because it must also deal with the scattered Islamist armed formations of the “Syrian Liberation Army” supported by Turkey.

Therefore, despite having avoided the definitive defeat that seemed close between 2013 and 2015, Bashar al-Assad’s regime cannot easily and calmly tackle the problem of rebuilding the country.

After having secured his fourth term in office through elections (the outcome of which was a foregone conclusion because only Alawites and Christians voted massively for him, while the Sunnis mostly abstained or were “dissuaded” from taking part in the election), the Syrian President is trying to strengthen his government by reorganising his security apparatus with fully trusted and loyal men.

Last May the President appointed his loyal General Jamal Mahmoud Younes as Head of the Committee for the Security of the Eastern Region, who is also responsible for the security of the Homs Governorate.

Younes, who comes from the Assad family’s “fief” of Latakia, is considered to be very close to the President’s brother, Maher al-Assad, under whose orders he served in the Fourth Armoured Division from 2012 to 2013. Maher is considered to be very close to Iran and Russia.

Another prominent member of the new Syrian security apparatus is General Ramadan Yusef Al Ramadan, also an Alawite and subject to personal sanctions by the European Union – together with his colleague Younes – for his role in the repression of the first incidents in Deraa in 2011.

Ramadan has been appointed Head of the Security Committee of the Latakia Governorate, an extremely sensitive area because it is actually under Russian military control.

Assad therefore finds himself in the need to reconcile the difficult requirements of definitively defeating the insurgency, resolving the very severe economic situation and coexisting – as reasonably as possible – with the presence of two cumbersome allies, Russia and Iran, which – after having ensured his survival – seem determined to permanently establish themselves on Syrian territory.

Russia, whose help has been fundamental in preventing the collapse of the Damascus regime, continues to provide air and ground military support to the fight against the insurgents still active and to exploit the credit it has acquired with the regime to strengthen its presence in the region on a permanent basis.

In early June, the Russian Defence Minister authorised the start of works for the renovation of the Khmeimim air base in the Latakia region, after the runway had already been lengthened to support the fast traffic of Russian military vehicles (one aircraft per minute). The new airport was even used a few days ago for a mysterious mission that took a Russian aircraft to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.

This mysterious episode shows that Russia’s presence in the area could even be functional to the search for a stabilisation of relations between Israel and Syria (President Putin has never made a secret of his sympathy for Israel).

The Iranian military presence in Syria is of a very different calibre and dangerousness for Israeli security.

Iran already has a strong military presence in the region: from the Lebanon – where Hezbollah politically and militarily controls the whole south of the country and the sensitive area bordering the Galilee – to Iraq, handed over to the pro-Iranian Shiites by George W. Bush with the 2003 war.

While, as reported by Israeli intelligence sources, the Iraqi nuclear programme has resumed at full speed at the same time as the development of the capacity to construct modern ballistic missiles – effective also as carriers of nuclear warheads – over the next few years Syria could become – against its will – a dangerous nuclear outpost on the Israeli border.

A nightmarish prospect made even more worrying by the very recent election of a hardliner like Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi as President of the Republic of Iran. A prospect that would not help Syria to get out of its decades-long crisis, but would bring it back to the front line in the confrontation with Israel, if Russia did not make its voice heard.

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Intelligence and Evolution of Democracy in Jordan

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The relationship between democracy and the character of secret intelligence presents an interesting puzzle. The very concept of democracy demands that an intelligence agency serves democratic interests by providing one country’s security and preparedness against potential threats both internal and external. The core notion is that a stronger and safer country can turn itself into a heaven where democracy can continue to be practiced.

The role of intelligence in the building of democracy and political stability in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is crucial. Jordan, strategically located in the Middle East, presents a long-run import-export relationship.

On the one hand, Jordan, a country of few natural resources, imports oil products and natural gas to meet its energy needs. On the other hand, Jordan exports a valuable resource which is security in terms of intelligence, geographic security, and stability. Jordanian General Intelligence Department’s (GID’s), Dairat al Mukhabarat, primary objective is to defend Jordan from internal and external threats that target its political stability, violate its sovereignty, or undermine the security of its people.

The focus of GID’s operations is the collection of intelligence pertaining to security issues within the Middle East, including surveillance of paramilitary groups and guarding borders to prevent an influx of terrorists from the wider region. The agency is accountable to ministerial control, but in practice reports to the King briefing him on matters of national security. The GID also provides the Prime Minister with regular analyses of the kingdom’s political climate, and it is committed to preserving the power of the Jordanian constitution when executing its duties.

Justice, Human Rights and Transparency

Justice, transparency, the respect of human rights and security are key ingredients to build accountability, trust, and stability, which are necessary for the functioning of democracies and market economies. The GID has been at the forefront of efforts to consolidate Jordan’s architecture of democracy making the safeguard of these ingredients a cornerstone of its mission.

Practically, Jordan’s intelligence agency fully recognizes the International Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention against Torture. The detainment quarters of the agency meet internationally approved standards and are recognized as an official state prison making it accessible for inspection and review, in accordance with the “Jordanian Prison Administration laws.”

On Justice, the Jordanian Constitution provides that the judiciary is an independent power and divides courts into three types: regular courts, religious courts, and special courts. The Military Council of the GID falls in the third type of courts. Specifically, in accordance with Law 24 of 1964 on the General Intelligence Department (the so-called “GID Law”), the Intelligence Director appoints members of the Military Council and ratifies its decisions that pertain to officers and members of the GID. Judgments of the said Council are considered as final and are not open to any means of contestation.

The relationship between the intelligence agency and the judiciary, a key-component of democracy, is solid. The public prosecution at the State Security Court normally issues warrants and, provides them to the General Intelligence Department for the detainment of individuals connected to terrorism. The conviction of ringleaders of terrorist plots that originate from neighboring countries like Iraq and Syria is crucial part of the judicial-intelligence partnership to maintain internal stability, prerequisite for Jordan’s democratic evolution. A representative case of the intelligence-judicial cooperation is the conviction of an attempted suicide bomber who took part in the 2005 Amman bombings in Jordan but survived, when her explosive belt failed to detonate.

The GID also leads the national fight against corruption in all its forms, perceiving the phenomenon of corruption as major obstacle to the kingdom’s democratic evolution and economic development. In this regard, the GID has incorporated the anti-corruption directorate that was set up in 1996 and conducts secret investigations of corruption cases and collects relevant data, disrupts corrupt practices, makes referrals to the public prosecutor, and eventually to civil courts when sufficient evidence is available.

Senior members of the GID are not immune to secret investigations for corruption practices. In a self-cleansing process, the GID’s former head for the period of 2005-2008 was sentenced to 13 years in prison on charges of embezzling public funds, money laundering and abuse of office. The anti-corruption directorate has run a project titled “Strengthening the Capacity of Government and People to Act against Corruption” with the aim to expose the Department’s staff to international best practices in fighting corruption and attend specialized training workshops.

Since its establishment, the Anti-Corruption Directorate has uncovered numerous cases of fraud that helped save the state treasury hundreds of millions of Jordanian Dinars (JD). As consequence, people, including non-Jordanians, were referred to courts, including civil servants. In addition, foreign nationals have been expelled from the kingdom for fraud practices. The fraud cases involve bribes, embezzlement of funds, the forgery of official documents, smuggling operations, tax evasion, and copyright infringements. Last but not least, middlemen who are trafficking in the illegal sale of kidneys and other human organs have also been arrested throughout the years.

The Fight against Terror

Most important, the GID carries out intelligence operations to protect the security of the state. Specifically, the GID maintains several task forces devoted to specialized areas of intelligence, including counterintelligence. The government employs GID staff to monitor the security of government information systems and personnel.

Additionally, an anti-terrorism task force conducts operations to gather information on organizations active in Jordan and throughout the Middle East. It is not coincidence that Jordan has aided international anti-terrorism efforts and has repeatedly succeeded in foiling terrorist plots and dismantling terror organizations that planned to launch attacks in or outside of Jordan. Such organizations included, for example, Mohammad Army (1989), Bay’at Al-Imam Organization (1994), Khader Abu Hosher (1999), Jordanian Afghans (2001), and the Reform and Defiance Movement (1998).

Jordan’s geopolitical position has long made it a prey for terrorist activities targeting Jordanian and foreign nationals. For example, in 2005, rockets aimed at two US warfare ships visiting the Jordanian port of Aqaba narrowly missed their targets. There were two claims of responsibility, both from groups believed to be affiliated with Zarqawi, then militant leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In 2004, Jordan became target of the Al-Jayousi terrorist group that planned to unleash a Chemical Weapons attack against GID’s headquarters. The objective was to damage its facilities and image of a fortress agency, because of GID’s major role in combating terrorism at the national and regional levels. In late 2006, the Jordanian intelligence thwarted a bomb attack against foreign tourists traveling through Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. Several of the convicted conspirators were Iraqis. An attack against American troops deployed at a military base in the south of the kingdom was foiled by the Jordanian intelligence in 2019.

The Kingdom has also been repeatedly targeted by the terrorist group of ISIS, but all planned attacks have been thwarted by GID. An ISIS-linked planned combined attack against Jordanian military and security sites, moderate religious scholars, and media stations was prevented in 2018. Notably, in 2018 alone, the GID foiled 62 terrorist operations abroad and 32 internal operations. In 2020, the GID thwarted several ISISlinked terrorist operations including a major one that aimed at simultaneously targeting the intelligence building in the city of Zarqa, security officials in the northern city of Irbid and an Armenian Orthodox Church in the Ashrafyeh area near the Al-Wehdat camp. 

Jordan has long experience in the fight against terrorism since Afghanistan became fertile ground for the first generation of jihadist groups, the second generation coming from Iraq and the third generation active in Syria. Given this reality, Jordan’s efforts focus on the rule of law, and the fight against terrorism through mechanisms and operations supported by GID. As King Abdallah pointed out in a letter to the GID in mid-February 2021, the agency must remain a model of efficient intelligence in countering terrorism and security threats to the kingdom and be in position to provide the best modern intelligence assessments to decision-makers in the political, economic, and security-related fields.

In practice, Jordan’s GID supports a four-track plan in the fight against terrorism. The first track is Legislation. Jordan has endorsed in April 2014 the amendment of the 2006 anti-terror law that focuses on terror-related crimes and funding. The 2014 amended law foresees the death penalty for those who commit terrorist crimes that result in the death of people, partial or total damage of facilities, and use explosives, chemicals, and radioactive materials. Financial activities in support of extremist groups, attempts for recruitment to terrorist organizations, and the creation of websites encouraging terrorist activities are penalized under the amended law.

The second track lies in Executive Measures. Following United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 on countering terrorism, Jordan has taken a series of measures to comply with the resolution, including the adoption of the anti-money laundering Act of 2007. Jordan has also updated the specifications of personal identification documents in compliance with international safety standards, thus minimizing forgery risks.

The third track is based on Treaties and Conventions. Jordan is party to both formal and informal anti-terror treaties and conventions and has contributed to a number of regional and international treaties with the aim to combat terrorism.

The fourth track highlights GID’s cooperation with government ministries. A representative cooperation is with the interior ministry’s programs to contain jihadist ideology applied since 2007 to prisoners. The programs include religious lessons and interviews with scholars and imams to fight this ideology, through dialogues and by holding sessions of psychological counseling and social rehabilitation.

Jordan continues to be in the eye of a storm as armed jihadist groups and al-Qaida as well as ISIS militants attempt to pour into the country. Because of this reality, Jordan employs its intelligence agency to mobilize regional and international cooperation with sister agencies based on defensive, operational and intelligence strategies to counter takfiri and jihadist groups emanating from crisis ridden Syria. Jordanian intelligence has foiled in 2012, one of the largest terrorist attacks planned on Jordanian; the attack was scheduled to be executed by militants from Syria who intended to attack western diplomats and to detonate explosives in two shopping malls and in the district of Abdoun. In late April 2014, the Jordanian air force destroyed vehicles transporting weapons to the kingdom from Syria. Throughout the last years, Jordan’s GID has intensified actions to alert friendly countries and strategic allies on armed jihadist organizations active in Syria and the possible infiltration of militants to neighboring countries, through unannounced visits and meetings with security strategy makers and implementers in certain Arab countries, and western capitals.

Public Opinion Perspectives

The main characteristic of the GID like all intelligence agencies is that they operate in secrecy, and unlike governments they do not seek popularity or public approval for their activities, nor are they expected to seek popular ratings within public opinion. The secret nature of GID’s tasks and duties limits the ability of any study to explore public opinion perspectives and restricts any opinion poll to general perceptions.  

That said, a Jordanian research center has produced statistical evidence on the level of trustworthiness that GID enjoys within the public, and on relations between different branches of the Jordanian state, civil and military, not based on a single public opinion poll, but on an accumulating amount of data from polls conducted by the center over a 19-year period (2001-2020).

According to them, the General Intelligence Department along with the Armed Forces are the most trusted institutions in Jordan.

Jordanians have come to realize that the security and stability Jordan enjoys is no coincidence, but a result of the efforts of the Jordanian security apparatus, and the GID in particular. This perception has brought the agency that usually operates in secret and seeks no popularity or approval into the limelight as the first line of defense against groups that target Jordan.

As the kingdom has marked its second centennial, the political and security challenges plaguing the region, necessitate the effectiveness of GID’s role in safeguarding the security of Jordan and its state institutions, prerequisite for the kingdom’s sustainable democratization.

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Middle East

Washington’s less than selfless help to Syria

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Now that people everywhere start to realize the need for pacifism, the United States continues to train thousands of militants in Syria, who will later take part in attacks on the government forces.

At al-Tanf military base in the country’s southeast, and in the 55-kilometer security zone around it, still under US control, the American special services are enlisting former militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), now languishing in Kurdish-controlled prisons, to participate in acts of sabotage against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).

The selection is among persons whose next of kin are currently being held in the ill-famed al-Hol camp in the city of Al-Hasakah. According to available data, 1,500 ex-ISIS fighters from among those captured by the US-led international coalition are already completing their training at a US military  base.

The militants’ main priority is destabilization of the situation in Syria’s central and southern regions, including the establishment of control over the area between the cities of Abu Kemal and Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor province. The armed gangs also attack oil facilities, transport infrastructure, government forces, and mine roads.

The United States also believes that the transfer of terrorists will partially relieve the Kurdish prisons where the number of inmates, captured during constant raids by coalition forces in peaceful quarters has reached 7,000.

Judging by the increased activity of CIA-linked terrorists and saboteurs in the country’s southern provinces, it becomes clear that there is a general plan to undermine the process of a political settlement aimed at restoring peace and ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic.

From a historical perspective, terrorism has been viewed by Washington not so much as something to fight against, as an instrument of its own struggle against geopolitical rivals. Previously, the US recruited former SS members in Germany and their collaborators in Western Ukraine and the Baltic countries to pit them against the Soviet Union. Even though those people were Nazi criminals, many of them found refuge and employment in the United States. The same tactic was used against the USSR and the legitimate government in Afghanistan when outright criminals and terrorists became America’s allies. One of them was Osama bin Laden, who became a US agent and subsequently created al-Qaeda, which, in turn, gave rise to ISIS. Both of these terrorist organizations – the world’s largest – have on many occasions been found to have links to the United States. The years of the Syrian crisis provide additional evidence of this collaboration, and its volume keeps growing. Well, it looks like the Americans never learn from history now that in Syria, for example, they are working ever more closely with Islamic radicals…

America’s “dirty wars” in the Middle East

When it comes to the number of wars waged anytime in history, the United States leaves all other countries far behind. With rare exceptions, American incursions were not justified by any security threats. For the most part those were military interventions that breached international law, caused numerous unnecessary casualties among civilians, destroyed infrastructure and plunged entire nations into chaos.

The root cause of the current unrest in the Middle East was Washington’s ill-considered decision to impose development paths alien to the region.

At the same time, the Americans were quick to realize that by creating long-lasting conflicts they could derive real economic benefits from them. “Controlled chaos” sometimes tends to slip out of control, however, but overall it still remains extremely beneficial for the United States.

In this sense, the Americans have become the greatest source of terror of our day and age. Not a single coup anywhere in the world can be done without the US having a hand in it. Each time the Americans try to force their idea of democracy on others, the result is civil conflicts, chaos, and an upsurge of terrorism. When they invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaeda appeared; when they entered Iraq under a false pretext, it gave rise to Sunni radicalism; when they brought democracy to Syria the result was a protracted civil war and a humanitarian catastrophe.

During the past 15 years, the United States has turned the Middle East into a zone of permanent conflicts and wars.

After the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was plunged into permanent civil war, losing part of its territory and actually falling apart into several regions controlled by various Islamic groups, including ISIS. Until recently, slave trade flourished in some areas there.

Today, the territory of Libya is peppered with foreign military bases and awash in militants and mercenaries from around the globe – around 20,000 are currently active in the country. Libyan officials are mired in total corruption, and ordinary Libyans suffer all the hardships caused by the war and the raging economic crisis.

In Yemen, the US-inspired civil war, stemming from the conflict between the Houthis and the Saudis has been raging for more than five years now. The country, torn apart by internal conflicts and outside interference by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, has practically lost its statehood.

There is a humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding also in Syria. The country lies in ruins, roughly divided into three parts: the part controlled by Assad (60%); the area to the east of the Euphrates (30%), which is occupied by the Syrian opposition and the remnants of the ISIS army, forced to retreat to the lower valley of the Euphrates; the third region (10%) in Idlib province is controlled by Turkey and its Islamic allies.

The most volatile area is controlled by the Syrian opposition, mainly led by the Syrian Kurds, who have a large, well-armed army. They are supported and actually supplied by the Americans.

Cynicism, lies, and double standards are the keystones of American foreign policy.

From our partner International Affairs

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