Crackdown on jihadists after Jordan foiled ISIS plot
AMMAN - Jordanian authorities have rounded up dozens of suspected jihadists as an investigation continues into a stymied plot hatched by Islamic State (ISIS) militants to destabilise the pro-US Hashemite kingdom.
The crackdown on jihadists is meant to ensure that police do not miss anything in their search for more possible ISIS sleeper cells in Jordan, which has often been targeted by militants for its moderate stance on regional issues, its alliance with the United States and peace treaty with Israel.
For Jordan, ISIS is an enemy with Jordanian blood on its hands, having burned alive in a cage a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot in January 2015 after his plane was downed over Syria. Jordanian King Abdullah II vowed to avenge the grisly killing.
ISIS controls parts of neighbouring Syria to the north and Iraq to the east. Other militant groups, such as al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front operate close to the Jordanian border in Syria.
Thwarting the terror plot on March 1st, reportedly hours before the jihadists were to have struck, was another triumph for Jordan’s US-trained and -equipped special forces.
While the subsequent clampdown is widely seen as a pre-emptive move to root out any remaining sleeper cells , security experts insist it bears deeper signals.
“It instils fear so that some hiding militants may come forward to tip-off,” retired army general Qassem al-Hamad said. “It is also a display of power and the competence of Jordan’s top-notch security forces telling ISIS that not all birds are edible.”
Jordan said a 20-member ISIS cell, including some non-Jordanians, had planned to carry out terror attacks. Jordanian intelligence said the jihadists had large stockpiles of machine guns and that some wore explosive belts.
A Jordanian security official said more than 260 jihadists had been rounded up for questioning since the cell was uncovered.
“I can’t give an exact number because many were questioned and released, while some are still being questioned or are suspected of links to other militants, such as al- Nusra,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to make press statements.
He declined to disclose information on the investigation of the detained militants, pointing to a gag order imposed by Jordan’s military attorney-general. However, the official insisted that details would be released “within weeks, if not days”.
He said members of the ISIS cell would be charged publicly and put on trial in Jordan’s military State Security Court. If convicted of terror conspiracy, they could face the death penalty.
The March 1st arrest was preceded by two crackdowns on armed groups in northern Jordan in late February, which officials said included suspected ISIS and al-Nusra jihadists.
The crackdowns came after a Jordanian grabbed the microphone from a preacher addressing a Friday sermon and called on fellow worshippers to join ISIS. The mid-February incident at a mosque in Irbid, Jordan’s second largest city, ended when the man poured fuel on his body and set himself on fire outside the mosque.
Initially, police said it was an isolated incident that involved a man who had died of burns, but later officials said the man was alive and hospitalised with first- and third-degree burns and that he was being questioned.
It was not clear whether that incident led to the police action against the group of 20 suspected ISIS jihadists, which investigators previously said included experienced Jordanian fighters who had returned from fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The March 1st operation involved storming an abandoned four-storey, white-limestone building with armed militants inside. Police said the explosives were enough to destroy the neighbourhood on the edge of Irbid camp for Palestinian refugees, where at least 2,000 people live.
A Jordanian military captain and seven ISIS militants were killed in more than ten hours of gun battles. Thirteen ISIS jihadists were taken into police custody.
ISIS has followers in Jordan, although government officials stress they are only sympathisers and any actual jihadists are fighting in Iraq and Syria. It is estimated 2,000 Jordanians went to fight in Syria. At least 300-400 joined ISIS and half of them have been killed in clashes.
Government officials would only say the investigation will determine a motive, how such large weapons stockpiles were purchased or smuggled into Jordan and whether this was an isolated incident or one of a series and what message was being sent to the government.