ISIS knocks at Jordan’s door
AMMAN - Jordanian officials had boasted their country was free of the Islamic State (ISIS), though they were anxious the jihadists were at the country’s doorstep in neighbouring Syria and Iraq.
But in late February, two separate crackdowns on armed groups in northern Jordan led to the arrest of dozens of militants, 13 of whom are said to be ISIS jihadists, including some non-Jordanian Arabs, according to two Jordanian officials.
The others are affiliated with the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, said officials who declined to be identified citing the sensitivity of their information during the investigation.
A third crackdown on March 1st was the fiercest and trickiest, disturbing the country’s relative peace and reputation as a stable and secure oasis in a region plagued by wars and violence.
The operation involved storming an abandoned four-storey, white-limestone building with 20 militants inside, the officials said, adding that all the militants were trained ISIS jihadists, with some having just returned from battlefronts in Syria and Iraq.
The militants were heavily armed and most wore explosive belts, 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 fighting just outside Irbid, Jordan’s third most populous city, according to a statement by the General Intelligence Agency. Thirteen ISIS jihadists were taken into police custody for questioning.
Jordanian Interior Minister Salameh Hammad said in late January that “there are no ISIS sleeping cells in Jordan”, although his predecessor had warned in early 2015 of an ISIS presence in the country.
The ISIS March 1st battles with Jordanian security forces, which lasted more than ten hours, indicated it was changing tactics to become more confrontational. In earlier crackdowns, alleged ISIS or other militants surrendered peacefully.
One of the Jordanian officials said the arrests foiled a serious terror plot just hours before it was due to be carried out.
“They had planned to attack several vital Jordanian institutions, using the arms they had and the explosive vests,” the official said. “Their zero hour was 12 hours after they were arrested.”
Jordanian analyst Mohammad Abu Rumman said the resistance was unprecedented and may point to a new fatwa that orders “ISIS jihadists and loyalists in Jordan not to surrender and instead to resort to armed resistance”.
“There’s also a significant changing trend,” Rumman said. “Militant elements from Jordan used to travel abroad to join the group but with the tightening of the borders and the beefed-up security measures, it seems that its loyalists are thinking seriously of bringing the confrontation to Jordan.
“We have seen what a little group was able to do in terms of destroying peace and tranquillity. I wonder if this may not incite other ISIS activists to follow suit,” he said.
ISIS has followers in Jordan, although government officials stress they are only sympathisers, while the 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 were killed in battles. Security officials would only say the investigation will determine a motive and the timing of the March 1st attack, how such large weapon stockpiles were purchased or smuggled into Jordan and whether this was an isolated incident or one of a series and what is the message to the government. Security was beefed up around various areas, such as public parks, malls, movie theatres, Amman airport, Western hotels and diplomatic missions across the country.
The potential target of the March attack that has emerged is the University of Yarmouk, a state college with thousands of students enrolled from Jordan and Gulf Arab states, primarily Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Jordan is an active member of a US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Hours after the bungled plot was uncovered, the United States delivered eight UH 60A Black Hawk helicopters to Jordan, worth $200 million. US Ambassador Alice G. Wells said the aircraft were intended to help “provide Jordan with another tool for safeguarding its frontiers”.
Since February 2015, the United States has reportedly delivered to Jordan upward of 26,000 weapons, more than 3 million rounds of ammunition and hundreds of bombs. Wells said the United States wanted to ensure the Jordanian military was able to continue to respond quickly to threats along its border.