Attack on intelligence agents rattles Jordan
AMMAN - Whether speculation that the Islamic State (ISIS) is involved or not, as the Jordanian government claimed, news of a lone gunman killing five Jordanian intelligence agents in their offices rattled the generally peaceful Arab kingdom.
Police cordoned off large areas near Jordan’s largest Palestinian refugee camp of Baqa’a, 30km north of Amman, where the early morning assault took place on June 6th.
Dozens of people were rounded up for questioning as part of the manhunt to find the gunman, who was arrested hours later at a nearby mosque. Suspicious worshippers overwhelmed him after a brief shootout in which the suspect wounded a police officer at the scene.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II visited the General Intelligence Department (GID) to be briefed on the attack.
The moves underline Jordan’s security anxiousness. The kingdom, considered by many as a police state, boasts of its standing as a stable oasis in a precarious corner of the Middle East, credited with a strong and competent police and army that have traditionally provided a secure buffer against Israel, away from other Arabs.
The fact that the attack targeted the feared GID caught the security establishment off guard. GID is praised as the strongest Middle Eastern intelligence agency, even above Israel’s. It has an elite counterterrorism unit, known as the Knights of Justice, which is considered to have a primary role in the US-led war on terrorism, apprehending and questioning US-sought militants worldwide.
Political commentator Mohammed al-Adeeb said the state “had put quite an effort for damage control to ease public worry”.
“But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried,” he said. “It could be an individual act as the state says but to have such a young man contacting ISIS on social media and later carrying out his crime should make us worry.
“This could mean there are others like him who may want to inflict harm and disturb public peace and order.”
Jordan has been desperately seeking to keep ISIS at bay, although there have been incidents of a spillover of violence from neighbouring Syria and Iraq.
Initially, Jordanian Information Minister Mohammed al-Momani said the early investigation showed the GID assault was a “terrorist attack” carried out by those with the “criminal behaviour of people who are outside of our moderate religion” — an implicit reference to ISIS.
Hours into the probe, Momani said, however, that investigations showed that the attack was an “isolated incident and an individual act”.
Police identified the suspect as Palestinian-Jordanian Mohammed al-Masharfeh, 22.
Just before the officers’ shift started at 7am, June 6th, Masharfeh allegedly stormed into the GID office in the Ein al-Basha district on the edge of Baqa’a camp, shooting three intelligence officers, a security guard and a telephone exchange operator.
The gunman fled the scene but Masharfeh was arrested hours later at a mosque near Ein al-Basha, when his visible uneasiness drew worshippers’ attention.
A security official said Masharfeh wanted retaliation for alleged “harassment” by intelligence officers who had questioned him a week earlier on charges of communicating with ISIS jihadists on social media. It was not clear if the shooting victims were the officers who questioned Masharfeh.
Although there was no claim of responsibility for the attack, blame was quickly placed on ISIS, partly because the attack came on the first day of Ramadan, when ISIS jihadists mount their suicide operations against their opponents to claim what they believe will be bigger divine rewards.
Amid the government statement contradictions, a media gag order was imposed, even affecting internet sites and social media.
King Abdullah warned that Jordan “will act with all firmness and force against anyone seeking to undermine its security”.
“National unity is the weapon we will use to thwart all plans that aim to disrupt stability and cohesion,” Abdullah said while visiting GID.
Jordan is a leading member of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria and has seen a spillover from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria in the past.
In November 2005, near-simultaneous suicide attacks on three Amman-based Western hotels claimed by ISIS’s predecessor al- Qaeda in Iraq killed 60 people and wounded dozens.
On December 25th, 2014, ISIS militants captured a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot after his plane was downed over Syria. ISIS killed him and days later released gruesome video footage of the pilot being burned alive in a cage.
Jordan in March announced that it had foiled an ISIS conspiracy aimed at destabilising the country. It said seven fighters were killed in a shootout with Jordanian police in the northern city of Irbid and 13 jihadists were arrested.
King Abdullah has repeatedly warned that the peril from extremist Sunni groups poses the biggest threat to the long-term stability of Jordan, a moderate Arab country that loathes militancy and political Islam, and has close ties to the United States and a peace treaty with Israel.
Jordan has opened the Prince Hassan Air Base, north-east of Amman, to the US-led coalition taking part in the war against ISIS.
Amman has in recent years imprisoned dozens of hard-line Islamists, many of whom came from Syria or were arrested trying to cross the border illegally.