Amman, Jordan – Clad in a dark grey prison uniform, Ahmad al-Sheikh stood before Jordan’s state security court, clutching the black bars of the defendant’s cage. The gaunt, bearded 20-year-old pleaded with the three judges before him, asking for their “mercy and compassion”.
Within minutes, military judge Mohammad Afifi sentenced Sheikh to three years in prison for sharing videos produced by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – including footage of the beheadings of western journalists – via his WhatsApp account.
“Thanks to Allah,” Sheikh said before bowing in prayer. Unmoved, the judge gestured to the stack of files in front of the court clerk: “Next, please.”
For the ensuing hour and a half, 11 men would go on trial in the same courtroom for allegedly using the internet to promote “terrorist ideology”. More than half were convicted of promoting “terrorist ideology” and “ISIS propaganda”, or of attempting to leave or leaving Jordan illegally to join “jihadist” groups.
Such scenes have become familiar at Jordan’s state security court in recent weeks, where more than 50 young men have been going through the trial process on “terror allegations”.
While Jordan has made public its participation in US-led air strikes against ISIL in Syria, it has launched a quieter war at home, as authorities crack down on social media users and religious leaders who allegedly promote “terrorist ideology”.
Since Jordan began participating in the air campaign in mid-September, authorities have arrested more than 100 local citizens for allegedly supporting “terrorist” ideology. At the same time, the government has banned 30 imams for allegedly expressing sympathy and support for ISIL at the pulpit.
Just clicking 'like' or 'share' on social media in Jordan could get you in jail nowadays, which is alarming.
“Any gesture of sympathy with this terrorist group [ISIL] – whether it is via social media sites, regular media outlets, or via statement – is considered against the anti-terror law,” Jordan’s media minister, Mohammad al-Momani, said on state television a few days after Jordanian jet fighters hit a “terrorist” base in Syria.
Earlier this year, Jordan amended its anti-terror law, broadening the definition of “terrorism” to include jeopardising Jordan’s relations with other countries and using the internet to promote “terrorist” ideology. With more than 2,000 Jordanians fighting in Syria and Iraq, analysts say Jordan’s crackdown on social media is an attempt by authorities to prevent further recruitment of young Jordanians.
“The internet has replaced mosques, which used to be the only means to recruit jihadist fighters,” Amman based analyst Hassan Abu Hanniya told Al Jazeera.
But as arrests have been widened to include social media users who express their objection to Jordan’s participation in the war against ISIL, analysts warn the crackdown has also become an assault on free expression. Jordanian authorities arrested Salafi leader Abu Mohammad al-Maqdesi after he issued a statement in October criticising the war on ISIL and calling it a “crusaders’ war”.
“In this case, he [Maqdesi] did not carry weapons, fight, or even call on people to join jihad,” Abu Hanniya noted.
While Jordanian intelligence and security forces monitor social media sites for such instances, religiously devout citizens and followers of the Salafist movement are subjected to greater scrutiny, according to lawyer Abdul-Kader al-Khateeb and judicial sources.
“Just clicking ‘like’ or ‘share’ on social media in Jordan could get you in jail nowadays, which is alarming,” al-Khateeb told Al Jazeera.
Authorities have also tightened their grip on mosques, placing pressure on imams to condemn extremism.
“The mosque is our frontline to protect youths against such extreme ideologies spreading on social media,” Minister of Islamic Affairs and Awqaf Haiel Daoud told Al Jazeera. “Any attempt to use mosques to spread takfiri [accusing other Muslims of apostasy] ideas or extremist ideology will not be tolerated.”
Daoud alleged that five of the 30 imams recently banned had attacked the coalition against ISIL and “insulted” leaders of Arab countries, but the imams deny the allegations, accusing the government of attempting to use the pulpit to legitimise its policies.
“I only spoke against cooperating with the US after all the disasters it brought to the Arab and Muslim World,” Hamza Mansur, former leader of the Islamic Action Front, told Al Jazeera. In October, Mansur was banned from preaching at al-Madaress mosque in the Wihdat Palestinian refugee camp in southern Amman.
“The government expects Friday sermons to justify their decisions to the Jordanian people,” Mansur said.
Daoud – who denies the crackdown is violating freedom of expression – has been holding summits to meet with the 5,500 imams who deliver speeches in Jordan’s 7,000 mosques, urging them to “condemn extremism” and encourage “unity between Jordanians”. Meanwhile, trials and arrests of people on “terror allegations” have become commonplace news headlines in local media.
“These are hasty judgements based on very little evidence … and they want this to be made known to the public,” Sabri Rubaihat, Jordan’s former minister of political development, told Al Jazeera. He believes Jordan is fighting the wrong battle.
“Inequalities and social injustices are Jordan’s most pressing challenges,” Rubaihat said. “If they are not addressed, desperate people will continue to try desperate means.”