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Dallas terror plot: Troubled Jordanian teen or jihadist?

Hosam Smadi liked his American teachers, rarely visited the mosque, and came from prominent families that reject terrorism. Why was he talking about jihad on extremist websites?

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Many Jordanians blame the FBI's sting operation for encouraging the young teen, but are still left uneasy that a troubled Jordanian youth could so quickly be labeled a "terrorist."

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The Smadi tribe, which, according to Sheikh Abu Mohammed Al Smadi, numbers around 40,000 in Jordan, has had a longstanding stance against terrorism, with many members filling government posts.

"We are a nationalist, patriotic tribe. We oppose terrorism inside Jordan and abroad," he says, stressing that the tribe would excommunicate any member proved to be involved in terrorist acts. "They would receive no help from us."

Jordan defends peaceful image

The Jordanian government, which is actively following up with the US State and Justice departments to ensure Smadi receives a fair trial, has sought to protect the country's image against another terrorist association.

"Jordanian society rejects Al Qaeda, its activities and ideologies, and stands against terrorism in all its forms," says Minister of Media Affairs Nabil Sharif. "Amman itself was victim to attacks and we are very sensitive to this issue."

The bombing of three hotels in 2005 killed over 50 people in Amman – most of them Jordanians – in an attack masterminded by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who headed Al Qaeda in Iraq before being assassinated the next year. The bombings swung public opinion against Al Qaeda and its methods.

Prior to the bombings, approximately 66.8 percent of Jordanians considered Al Qaeda a "legitimate resistance group," compared with 20 percent in December 2005, according to polls by the University of Jordan's Centre for Strategic Studies.

Smadi is a totally different case than Zarqawi, says Oraib Al Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al Quds Centre for Political Studies.

"It took [Zarqawi] decades to evolve from (being)a loser in Zarqa to joining a Salafist movement.... This kid doesn't have such a history or background," he says.

'You cannot be guilty for what you think'

Jordan's General Intelligence Department, which often monitors extremist websites, takes a more lenient approach than the Federal Bureau of Investigation, says Mr. Abu Rumman, who covers security issues and Islamist movements in Jordan. He says many young people are overwhelmed with frustration about political developments such as Israel's war in Gaza.

Treating every impassioned youth as a potential terrorist would place all young persons in Jordan, from refugee camps to Amman's upscale western neighborhood of Abdoun, under suspicion, he claimed.

"You cannot be guilty for what you think, only what you do. In Jordan, if we adopt the same approach as the FBI, we will immediately have hundreds of cases in court," says Abu Rumman, who adds that the government returned the five youths similar to Smadi to their families after a few days – albeit with strict surveillance.

The answer, according to Mr. Sharif, the government spokesman, is education.

Sharif says the Amman Message, an international initiative started by the king to combat negative stereotypes and misconceptions about Islam, could aid fathers such as Maher Smadi in preventing their children from "getting caught up in the wrong crowd."

"I just don't know what happened," Maher Smadi says while holding a photograph of his son. "He was just a kid."

The evolution of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who became Iraq's Osama bin Laden.