AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordanian security forces arrested influential al Qaeda spiritual guide Abu Mohammad al Maqdisi on Monday on suspicion of fomenting terrorism on the Internet, security sources said.
They said Maqdisi was ordered to be held for 15 days after he was called in for questioning by the state security prosecutor. He was initially charged with “using the Internet to promote and incite views of jihadi terrorist organizations”.
The self-taught intellectual was seen as the spiritual guide of the slain al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the think tank of the U.S. West Point military academy has called him the most influential living Islamist mentor.
“He was arrested soon after he appeared at the prosecutor’s office and charged,” one security source told Reuters.
He has spoken out against Islamic State in recent months, saying their brutal methods of decapitations smeared the reputation of global jihadism. However, he has softened his criticism in the wake of U.S.-led air strikes against the group in both Iraq and Syria.
Although Maqdisi did not openly criticize Jordan and several Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia that joined the U.S. coalition against IS, he described it as crusader war against Islam.
“Don’t rejoice when one side or the other suffers from the aggression of crusaders,” Maqdisi said in a recent letter.
He was released from prison in Jordan last June after spending five years in jail for various terror-related charges. Some Jordanian officials suggested that authorities, fearful of militancy spilling across their own border, had agreed to free him so that he would speak out against the Islamic State.
The Islamic State emerged as an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq before expanding into Syria following the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad more than three years ago.
The expansion ignited battles with rival Islamist groups, including the al Qaeda-affiliate al-Nusra Front, in which thousands have died.
Maqdisi has mocked the Islamic State’s proclamation of a caliphate, saying it only deepened already bloody infighting among jihadists and said their acts deviated from true Islam.
However, Jordanian security began worrying when Maqdisi and other jihadist scholars across the region sought to broker a truce earlier this month to end infighting among jihadist groups following the strikes, a source close to security thinking said.
The truce efforts failed after the Islamic State did not respond to a three-day deadline set by the scholars.
Maqdisi’s detention follows a recent spate of arrests in Jordan of scores of Islamic State sympathizers who have expressed their support for the group on the Internet.
A number of IS supporters have also been put on trial on charges of incitement and “promoting activities of terrorist organizations on social media”, judicial sources say.
In the last two months, the Jordanian intelligence services have tightened security around sensitive government zones and stepped up surveillance of Islamist fundamentalists, diplomats and officials say.
Jordanian security services have been a major U.S. partner in fighting radical Islamists for several decades.
Since the civil war erupted in neighboring Syria in 2011, hundreds of Jordanians have joined a Sunni Islamist-led insurgency against forces loyal to Assad.
The authorities are worried by widening support for Islamic State among Jordanian Islamist fundamentalists inspired by its advances in countries that border Jordan to the east and north.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Crispian Balmer