‘Operation Irbid’, a turning point
A pre-emptive operation by Jordanian special forces against a terrorist cell in the northern city of Irbid is a turning point in the country’s war on terrorism, marking the first time Amman’s troops battled a cell this large.
Seven terrorists armed with assault weapons and explosive belts were killed and 13 more captured in the March 1st operation.
It is very likely the cell had close connections and contacts with Islamic State (ISIS) leaders in Mosul and Raqqa and was planning attacks on Jordanian security forces, the northern headquarters of the General Intelligence Department (GID), and other targets.
The aborted militant plan signals a dangerous change in the thinking of jihadist groups. For them, Jordan was long considered as “support grounds” rather than “jihad grounds” but it seems that now the kingdom has become a direct target for active and dormant ISIS cells.
It has also become obvious that ISIS has been successful in recruiting Jordanians, not just to fight in Syria and Iraq but also in Jordan. The discovery of this “structured dormant cell” contradicts previous estimates by Jordanian security forces that long denied the existence of such groups in the country.
The Irbid operation reveals the great extent to which Salafist theories and thinking have succeeded in taking root in Jordan. This is not a recent development nor was it born with the “Arab spring”. It is much older than that and can be traced to the Cold War.
Decision makers in Jordan have often, during the last decade, envisioned using the Salafist movement to counteract and check the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The result was that the Salafists succeeded in consolidating their presence and influence in tribal areas and in the marginalised ghettos in the three major cities in Jordan: Amman, Irbid and Zarqa.
Many questions remain about the Irbid plan: Did the terrorist cell receive direct orders from the ISIS leadership or was it acting under a general “delegation” of authority from ISIS to carry out attacks on Jordanian targets? Were the members of this cell among those returning from the conflict in Syria or were they locally dormant all along? Was this an isolated cell or was it connected with other terrorist networks?
Whatever answers may come, we can be sure that the incident in Irbid was not the first of its kind in Jordan nor will it be the last. Police and military courts archives contain thick files detailing previous aborted terrorist attacks.
The Jordanian security forces, which are known for their competence and professionalism, stopped what could have been a disaster. As a consequence, they are enjoying the respect and support of large segments of the public. Jordanians are now more confident in the readiness of their military and security forces to face threats from inside or from outside the country.
But will Jordan succeed in preparing and executing national strategies for fighting religious extremism? Surely, the terrorists were not born out of nothing nor were they parachuted into Jordanian society. They are the product of social and cultural contexts and also of the educational and religious systems that failed to immunise them against extremism and violence.
Unless politicians and civil society in Jordan move quickly to eradicate the roots of terrorism, the battle against it and extremism will become harder to fight.