Jordan attack points to security breach
AMMAN - A suicide bomb attack at a heavily guarded military outpost in Jordan’s desolate north-eastern desert near the Syrian border underlined a security breach and sent Jordanian investigators questioning whether the border with Syria and Iraq was truly protected.
Jordanian officials had publicly boasted of border defences in the face of attacks by Islamic State (ISIS) or other militants.
Brigadier-General Saber Mahayrah in May insisted that Jordan’s border with Syria and Iraq — 375km with Syria in the north and 198km with Iraq on the east — was “well-protected and tightly sealed with the Border Guard Units ready to deal with any security situation within a minute”.
To bolster defences when ISIS jihadists moved close to its borders, Jordan installed high-tech security systems with radar and cameras across the wide desert frontier. Sand walls and trenches that existed to prevent drug and weapons smuggling were reconfigured to cope with the new challenges.
The monitoring system, bought through the American defence contractor Raytheon, provides detection of movements along the border kilometres away. Jordan foiled 85 infiltration attempts in 2015 involving 132 people and dozens of vehicles. At least 38 people were killed in shootouts with Jordanian border guards. Hundreds of kilograms of narcotics and thousands of pills were confiscated.
The border attack on June 21st “points to a serious security breach on an area long thought to be secured”, said Mohammed al-Adeeb, a commentator on Jordanian security issues. “The attack was an eye-opener and forced a revision of security plans in the area.”
No claim of responsibility was made for the 5.30am attack in Rukban, although Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh pointed to ISIS. Rukban is in a remote desert area near an earthen berm, which is closest to the point at which the Iraq, Syria and Jordan borders meet.
The area has a refugee camp hosting 50,000 Syrians from Homs and others who fled from Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital in northern Syria. They have been stranded in the Rukban refugee camp inside Syria, surrounded by barbed wire to separate them from a Jordanian military installation and the border area in the vicinity.
Jordanian security has been letting in a daily average of 50-100 refugees, resisting pressure by Western nations to let them all enter the country before stringent security vetting is carried out. Jordan says ISIS may have infiltrated the ranks of the refugees to carry out terror attacks in the country.
Thousands of Syrian refugees are stranded at another camp on the border at Hadalat, about 90km west of Rukban.
In December, the United Nations admitted that Jordan had legitimate security concerns but urged the country to allow all the refugees at the two camps to enter.
The Rukban attack, the first of its kind since the Syrian revolution began with peaceful demonstrations in 2011, saw an explosives-laden pickup truck drive at a high speed across the sand wall into the Jordanian side of the border, according to a video of the incident taken by a security camera and shown to The Arab Weekly.
The truck crashed into a brick wall, continued at high speed until it exploded between prefabricated structures at the Jordanian outpost, comprising offices and dormitory, sending debris and a ball of black smoke into the air.
Seven Jordanian servicemen, policemen and civil defence personnel were killed and 14 others were wounded. One of the wounded died the day after the attack, raising the death toll to seven.
ISIS’s footprints were evident in the latest attack in Jordan as it resembled previous assaults on the eastern border with Iraq. ISIS in June 2014 spread its control of the vast desert in Iraq’s western Anbar province to near the frontier with Jordan.
At the time, ISIS launched several attacks on the Jordanian border, once with a great amount of explosives packed in vehicles driven by suicide bombers, just as in the June 21st attack. The earlier assault destroyed buildings at the border post, which once handled traffic between the two countries.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II vowed to avenge the attack, saying the kingdom would “respond with an iron fist” against any group that sought to harm its borders or security.
The Rukban incident followed a June 6th assault at Jordan’s intelligence office in northern Amman when a gunman, said to have acted individually, killed three intelligence officers and two aides before fleeing. He was captured hours later at a nearby mosque.
Following the attack on Rukban, Jordan declared its northern and north-eastern frontiers closed military zones. Jordan’s army chief General Mashal Mohammad al-Zaben said any movement in the area “without pre-coordination” with Jordan would be “firmly dealt with as hostile targets”.
ISIS has threatened in the past to “break down” Jordan’s borders.
Rukban is a rocky area, devoid of shade, water or vegetation and is far from any town. Aid workers say more than 50,000 refugees are stranded at the camp, living in deplorable conditions while awaiting entry into Jordan.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International said the Jordanian security moves must not descend into closing the border and denying humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees fleeing armed conflict.
Jordan is hosting 655,000 of the 4.84 million Syrians registered as refugees with the United Nations. The government says another nearly 1 million Syrians are living there, including those who arrived before the war.