Attack on intelligence agents rattles Jordan

Sunday 12/06/2016
Funeral of intelligence officer at city of Al-Salt, 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.