Castle attack exposes Jordan’s vulnerability to ISIS threat

Sunday 22/01/2017
Jordanian security forces patrol in front of Karak Castle last December. (AP)

Karak, Jordan - Bullet marks on the thick walls of a Crusader for­tress and shattered win­dows of nearby restau­rants — damage from a recent shooting rampage — bear witness to Jordan’s vulnerability to attacks by Islamic State (ISIS) extremists.
Some say the assault on Karak Castle last month by Jordanian fol­lowers of ISIS could signal a more aggressive campaign to destabilise the pro-Western kingdom.
The government dismisses ISIS as a fringe phenomenon and says Jordan’s security forces can con­tain any threat but the December 18th shooting set disconcerting precedents. It marked the first time ISIS claimed an attack on a civilian site in Jordan, a spot popular with tourists. A Canadian woman and two local residents were among ten people killed.
The four shooters were sons of Jordanian tribes, traditionally a pillar of support for the monar­chy. Local media said they were college-educated men in their late 20s and early 30s, underscoring the appeal of ISIS ideology among some Jordanians.
The security establishment faced rare criticism over its failure to pre­vent the attack, with more than one-third of parliament members calling for a vote of no-confidence in the Interior minister.
Marwan Shehadeh, an expert on militants, said the Karak shooting signalled “a remarkable change” in ISIS tactics. “The year 2017 will be the year of great security chal­lenges in Jordan,” he said.
Government spokesman Mo­hammed Momani said Jordan, a member of the US-led military coa­lition against ISIS, is a target but has countered threats because of social cohesion and what he said were well-trained security forces.
“We know we have been suc­cessful in stopping them on many other occasions,” he said. “If you look at what is happening in coun­tries around us… you see our abil­ity to preserve our stability and security.”
Jordan’s confrontation with ISIS goes back to 2014, when the king­dom began air strikes as part of an international campaign to dislodge ISIS from large areas of neighbour­ing Syria and Iraq.
Jordan’s military strikes, how­ever, have not kept the militants from its borders and have made the kingdom a target.
Last year, seven ISIS supporters and a Jordanian officer were killed in a shoot-out during an arrest raid. In June, ISIS sent a car bomb from Syria that killed seven Jorda­nian troops. Lone gunmen carried out three separate attacks at Jor­danian security installations, with five Americans among the dead. Jordanian officials have remained silent about the attackers’ motives.
As ISIS comes under growing pressure in Syria and Iraq, a grad­ual retreat there might generate an even stronger incentive for the group to carry out attacks else­where to affirm its relevance.
Jordan is a logical target because of the visible presence of Western installations and foreigners, said David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The United States is expected to provide $1.6 billion in economic and military support to its belea­guered ally in 2017.
“The narrative here in Washing­ton is that the threat is pretty large but that Jordan can handle it,” Schenker said.
Jordan began a clampdown on suspected ISIS sympathisers in 2014, with several hundred people now serving prison terms and five recently sentenced to death.
After the Karak shooting, secu­rity forces detained dozens more people. Twenty-two hard-line preachers who refused to pray for the Karak victims would be pun­ished, said Religious Affairs Minis­ter Wael Arabiyat.
Critics say Jordan fails to address the wider causes of the militants’ appeal among Jordanians, hun­dreds of whom have fought in the ranks of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Musleh Tarawneh, a Karak leg­islator who led the recent push in parliament to dismiss the Interior minister, noted that unemploy­ment in his district has risen to 25% and that university graduates cannot find jobs. “Islamic State found a way to enter the Jordanian tribes through poverty and unem­ployment,” he said.
The rise in unemployment is a result of long-term trends, includ­ing an economic slump caused in part by regional instability, that could take years to reverse. The Karak shooting dealt another set­back to an already struggling tour­ism industry, once a vital part of Jordan’s economy.
Atef al-Saoud, the head of the Public Security Directorate, said this month that the cell had planned to carry out New Year’s Eve attacks with explosives belts.
Individual tourists from the United States, Italy and Switzer­land seemed undeterred, walking outside the castle a day before it reopened.
They said they felt safe because the probability of a second attack in the same spot was low. They also said that attacks by militants can happen anywhere, pointing to recent incidents in Berlin and Istanbul.
Emily Clymer, 31, a US academic from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said she felt safer in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where she works, than in the United States. Jorda­nian security forces “take precau­tions; they react quickly”, she said.
(The Associated Press)