Jordan remains vulnerable to ISIS but the fight is on

Jordanian officials have portrayed Syrian refugee camps as hotbeds for extremism but Jordanians themselves have not been immune to radicalisation.
Sunday 18/11/2018
Jordanian special forces participate in  a drill at King  Abdullah II  Airbase in  Amman,  last May. (Reuters)
Gearing up. Jordanian special forces participate in a drill at King Abdullah II Airbase in Amman, last May. (Reuters)

LONDON - Jordan has been the site of several terror attacks in the past two years, including ones carried out by the Islamic State (ISIS), a trend that is likely to continue, observers warned.

One reason for the threat of terrorism is the expected return of Jordanian militants who joined ISIS in Syria.

“As ISIS continues to decline in both Syria and Iraq, we can expect foreign fighters to make their way back to their respective countries of origin. In the case of Jordan, 250 of them already have,” wrote Emily Przyborowski, a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, in the National Interest magazine.

“These foreign fighters, equipped with the Islamic State’s corrosive ideology and armed with combat training and battlefield experience, will have the ability to recruit and mobilise vulnerable populations directly — or influence them through proxies and family connections,” she added.

Przyborowski said the ISIS threat against Jordan has been overlooked. “The international community has generally paid little attention to Jordan’s vulnerability, preferring to focus on dismantling the Islamic State’s Syrian ‘caliphate’ and fighting ISIS fighters headed to Europe,” she said.

Jordanian officials warned that the fight against ISIS is not over and the militant group may regain strength if the conflict in Syria isn’t resolved.

“Stabilisation in Syria is key, otherwise we will encounter something worse than Daesh in the future,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said in late October, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Jordanian officials said they hope they would be able to send Syrian refugees back home. It is engaged in discussions with the United States and Russia to evacuate a refugee camp that houses some 50,000 Syrians in the desert border area.

“Jordanian-US-Russian talks have begun with the aim of finding a fundamental solution to Rukban (camp) by ensuring the right conditions of their voluntary return to their cities and towns,” Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al-Qatarneh said in a statement. “Jordan supports the Russian plan to create the conditions that allow the emptying of the camp.”

Jordanian officials have portrayed Syrian refugee camps as hotbeds for extremism but Jordanians themselves have not been immune to radicalisation. The most serious terror attacks in the kingdom were carried out by Jordanian nationals.

In December 2016, ISIS claimed an attack on the popular tourist destination of Karak Castle in which seven policemen, two civilians and one Canadian tourist were killed. On November 13, Jordan’s state security court sentenced ten people to prison terms of between three years and life in connection to the Karak attack.

In January, Jordanian intelligence officials said they foiled a major ISIS attack targeting civilian and military facilities. In August, a Jordanian police officer was killed in an explosion at a public gathering. Authorities said the attackers supported ISIS even though they had “no organisational ties” to the group.

In October, the former head of counterterrorism in Jordan, Major-General Habes al-Hanini, was killed in the city of Madaba, reportedly in a revenge attack by a Salafist jihadist.

Despite setbacks in battlefields in Iraq and Syria, ISIS recruiters have remained active.

Research out by the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism in Jordan “suggested the need to focus on Facebook, as many vulnerable youth have and continue to be contacted by ISIS via Facebook,” wrote Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci for the Modern Diplomacy website.

Analysts warned that Jordan cannot rely only on counterterrorism measures and security help from the United States if it wants to defeat ISIS ideology.

“Washington should be deeply concerned about the situation in Jordan. Our military assistance to Jordan, no matter how robust, is no substitute for the king’s need to connect with his people or to eradicate the endemic corruption in the country,” retired CIA officer Emile Nakhleh wrote for the Cipher Brief security website.

Nakhleh added that some US policies are not helping Jordanian security. “The apparent shrinking of the American diplomatic footprint in the Levant, including in Jordan, coupled with Washington’s unwise rush to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, is detrimental to Jordan in the medium term,” he wrote.

“The situation in Jordan is unsustainable and if it continues along this path, we should expect to see more terrorist attacks in Jordan, which could undermine [King Abdullah II] and his regime.”

King Abdullah appears to be aware that the war against ISIS must include an ideological dimension.

“The greater jihad has nothing to do with the hate-filled fiction promoted by the khawarej — the outlaws of Islam, such as Daesh and the like — or the Islamophobes who also distort our religion,” he said November 14 while accepting the 2018 Templeton Prize in Washington.

“We are working, on every continent, to defend Islam against the malignant sub-minority who abuse our religion,” King Abdullah said.