Looming confrontation with ISIS in Jordan
WASHINGTON - Jordan’s counterterrorism strategy since 2014 has included joining the US-backed military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) inside Syria, while making overtures to an anti-ISIS Salafist movement at home.
Recent developments, however, raised questions about how much longer this strategy can maintain the Hashemite kingdom’s relative stability.
The rise of ISIS on Jordan’s northern border and the influx of Syrian refugees reaffirmed the military’s counterterrorism mindset, a trend reflected in the defence budget’s projected growth to $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2016, up from $1.5 billion in 2015.
Nearly $400 million of defence spending is for procurement of weaponry and technology, in particular armoured vehicles, aircraft, missiles and artillery to counter ISIS. Widespread public support for the military helps tolerate the high level of defence expenditures.
To alleviate the fiscal pressure, Jordan signed with the United States a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding to receive $1 billion of foreign assistance. The United States recently delivered UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to strengthen rapid response in border security. Amman has requested US drones to detect ISIS targets across the border.
There were signs recently of a more aggressive US-Jordanian approach that could lead to a confrontation with ISIS inside the kingdom. Even though Jordan has not been prominent on ISIS’s radar, pressure on the extremist group in Syria and Iraq is forcing Jordanian jihadists fighting in Syria to return home.
US forces in Jordan on March 4th launched rocket artillery from the country to support Syrian rebels’ assault on a military base controlled by ISIS in the border city of al-Tanf, which links the extremist group’s territories in Iraq and Syria.
A few days earlier, Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate arrested 13 suspected ISIS militants in Irbid for allegedly planning to strike civilian and military targets. Seven other militants, wearing suicide belts and carrying automatic weapons, attacked Jordanian security forces. All seven were killed as was a member of Jordan’s security forces.
The first direct confrontation between both sides means Jordanian nationals are no longer only travelling to Syria to join the war but are prone to become active inside the kingdom. Authorities estimate that more than 2,000 Jordanians have joined ISIS. One of the most vocal supporters of ISIS, Abu Mohammed al-Tahawi, has been in administrative detention since December 27th.
The “divide-and-rule” strategy against a weak Salafist movement helped Jordanian authorities win public opinion against extremist groups and allowed the necessary environment for security forces to remain vigilant. The Jordanian authorities’ September 2014 release of Abu Qutada, a prominent Salafi cleric supportive of al-Qaeda, signalled not only an attempt to offer an anti-ISIS platform but also to make a distinction between ISIS’s regional ambitions and the Syrian-restricted agenda of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate.
When Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh was burned to death by ISIS in January 2015, after his F-16 aircraft crashed over Syria, Jordanian authorities followed the same approach and released one month later Salafist cleric Abu-Mohammed al-Maqdisi with the understanding that he speak out publicly against ISIS. Even though Maqdisi was the spiritual guide of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was allegedly behind the 2005 bombing of hotels in Amman, Jordanian authorities saw ISIS as the greater threat.
As Maqdisi was released, Jordan’s King Abdullah II went to Washington to request additional munitions to fight ISIS. Jordan’s balancing act of maintaining a close alliance with the United States while appeasing Islamists at home has been successful so far and helped shield the kingdom from ISIS attacks similar to ones in Turkey and Lebanon.
Kasasbeh’s death unified the country against ISIS and was the first sign of the coming confrontation. However, the battlefield remained in Syria, not inside Jordan. The new generation of ISIS loyalists is far more effective as a recruiting tool than the old guard of weakened al-Qaeda-inspired clerics in the Levant.
Jordan may sooner or later go into an open confrontation with ISIS at home, testing its nascent rapprochement with the Salafists and further altering its security outlook.