Al-Zarqa, Jordan (CNN)Two days after his 18th birthday, Omar Khader disappeared.
He left home on a December morning in 2013 with 500 Jordanian Dinars (around $700) from his father to pay his university tuition. But instead he used the money to fly to Turkey — and called his family from Ankara to tell them he was on his way to Syria.
“It was a surprise to all of us, especially his mother,” his father, Zaid Khader, says. “She was devastated, we were really impacted, but we helped each other get through it.”
The family lived in a constant state of fear. Every time they heard news of an attack in Syria, they feared the worst.
Omar, a computer programming student, joined Sham al-Islam — a group in Latakia with links to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
His father describes Omar as kind and innocent, not an extremist. Like many other young fighters, it was the images coming out of Syria’s civil war — and atrocities committed by the Bashar al-Assad regime –that lured him into war, his father says.
It was through a Syrian who goes by the alias of “Abu Abdullah al-Suri,” a man Omar met online, that his trip to Turkey and onwards into Syria was arranged.
Omar spent the first few weeks there learning how to use a pistol and attending religious studies. Soon, he was driving fighters from the militant group around.
Six months later came a call his family did not expect: a disillusioned Omar wanted to come back home.
“This is not jihad,” he told his father in a call from Syria. “The different factions are killing each other and fighting each other … I do not want to die for nothing.”
From Syria to solitary confinement
Smuggled out of Syria and back into Turkey, Omar was on a flight back to Amman on June 5th of last year.
His anxious family waited at the airport, but Omar was detained by the Jordanian authorities on arrival.
Jordan’s State Security Court, which rules on terrorism-related cases, sentenced Omar to five years in jail for joining a terrorist organization.
We met Zaid, Omar’s father, at the family’s home in Al-Zarqa, a conservative city about a half hour’s drive northeast of the capital.
A soft-spoken religious man who works for an Islamic charity in the city, Zaid is one of few family members of Jordanian fighters willing to speak about his son’s case.
Once a week, Omar’s immediate family is allowed to visit him at Jordan’s al-Muwaqqar prison. After a few months in solitary confinement, he is now with others in a bigger cell.
His father says Omar is being treated well, and that he spends his time praying and memorizing the Quran.
“He has changed, I feel he is more religious now. He grew a beard, his religiousness is more apparent, he reads the Quran with his friends,” Zaid says. “His spirits are high and he is optimistic now, he does not care anymore.”
“‘They can sentence me to 20 years, I do not care,'” Zaid recalls his son saying in a recent conversation. “‘Don’t bother yourself father, this is their policy.'”
Zero tolerance for terror
Jordan has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to its broad and wide-reaching anti-terrorism laws — including on social media, in some cases.
“We apply the law, the Jordanian laws are saying that you cannot empathize, you cannot sympathize, you cannot do anything that will be perceived as supportive of terrorist or extremist organizations,” Mohammad al-Momani, Jordan’s Minister for Media Affairs, told CNN. “Any Jordanian who would do that would be subject to the Jordanian laws and the Jordanian justice.”
But not everyone agrees with the government’s policies or approach.
“I do believe they have to go to other solution, which is ideological and thought, to talk to people to solve problems to go toward political reform to go toward real democracy,” said Marwan Shehadeh, a researcher and an expert on jihadi groups.
Officials say Jordan has an ongoing political reform process, something that takes time.
Shehadeh says young Jordanians are drawn to jihadi groups for different reasons, although ideology and beliefs are the main drivers.
A breeding ground for extremism
Al-Zarqa, Omar Khader’s hometown, has a long history of being a breeding ground for extremist militants.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq — ISIS’s predecessor — came from Al-Zarqa. And in recent years, many of the estimated two thousand Jordanians who left to fight in Syria — the majority joining ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra — also came from here.
Like many parts of Jordan, people in Al-Zarqa complain about the economic situation and the high cost of living.
The city’s mayor, Emad Momani, says nearly 20% of his city’s youth are jobless, and tells us about men like Al-Zarqawi who over the years joined al Qaeda in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
“They managed to attract many of the frustrated and desperate young men impacted by unemployment, who lost hope in finding work,” Momani says. “They went to Afghanistan (and) when they came back, they were back with that mentality.”
“Many of Al-Zarqa’s youth were killed in Syria, Iraq, other conflict areas (including) Chechnya because of the economic situation, because poverty and neglect create fertile ground for these young men to join terrorist organizations, because they no longer have hope.”
The rise of ISIS
The country’s already struggling economy has suffered further in recent times with the rise of ISIS in neighboring Syria and Iraq.
Jordan, a staunch U.S. ally, has been at the forefront of the war on terrorism. It is the only Arab country carrying out coalition airstrikes against ISIS targets in both Syria and Iraq.
“We want to make sure that Daesh (ISIS) is defeated because this is important not only for the security and stability of the region, but also to affect the economic indicators which have all been hit strongly by terrorism and extremism,” says government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani, “be it transportation, be it foreign direct investment, be it tourism. All of it has been impacted negatively because of the spread of terrorism”.
Jordan this year announced a new economic vision and plans that aim to revive the economy. A third of working-age young Jordanians are unemployed, and one of the government’s main priorities is creating tens of thousands of new jobs in the next five years.
In the meantime, Omar’s father Zaid says he is advising jobless, disillusioned young men against joining the fight in Syria, regardless of what motivates them.
Officials say former fighters like Omar go through a rehabilitation program in prison; Jordan considers them a threat that it has to contain.
But Zaid has a message for the government. “Look at these youth with sympathy — my son is a young boy who was deceived into going at the age of 18” he says. “Whether it’s him or others, with what right do you jail these young men for three or five years?”
“It is a very harsh sentence, (and) it is in these cases that you are creating real terrorists out of them,” he continues. “How will these young men view the government? They will feel you took away five years or three out of their lives. They made a mistake and went, but (they) did not harm Jordan.”