Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Islamic State and Jordan

As the Islamic State group is pushed back in Iraq and Syria, Jordan is emerging as a possible major front, as well as a source of jihadist recruitment, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Ruqban attack this month has exposed serious flaws in the Jordanian security system. Information received 32 days before the incident was apparently not taken seriously by the relevant authorities. In the case of Jordan, this was unusual as the country has been fighting the Islamic State (IS) group for years and has often succeeded in dismantling and defeating its terrorist cells.

It appears that developments affecting IS in Syria and Iraq may conspire with political and economic developments inside Jordan to pave the way for more and even fiercer attacks bent on weakening and destabilising the Jordanian kingdom. Although IS is waning in neighbouring countries, analysts fear an inversely proportional trend in Jordan.

While Amman is an important and key member in the international coalition against IS, it is impossible to overlook the fact that Jordan is a major jihadist storehouse and recruiting ground.

Since IS’s horrifying immolation of the Jordanian pilot, Lieutenant Muath Al-Kasasbeh, it is clear that the terrorist organisation has Jordan in its crosshairs. Moreover, not only have its attacks grown increasingly violent, they also increasingly rely on penetrating the gaps in the Jordanian defence wall.

When we consider this in conjunction with the developments and trends described above, it becomes essential to examine a set of factors that may be unique to the relationship between IS and Jordan.


THE REVENGE FACTOR: IS holds Jordan responsible of the assassination of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, founder of the “first edition” of IS. According to one account, Jordanian intelligence agencies had a major hand in the assassination of Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian citizen, during an American targeted aerial attack in 2006.

With the founding of its second edition, the organisation declared its intent to avenge the Zarqawi assassination. The organisation’s intermittent attacks against Jordan have also been motivated by other factors, not least of which is Amman’s role in the international coalition created to fight it.


JORDAN AS A JIHADIST STOREHOUSE: FIRST THERE is the recruitment factor. Jordan may not be attractive to the organisation as a base but its situation has enabled it to become a major exporter of IS recruits. With more than 2,000 members, Jordanians make up the third-largest Arab and foreign contingent in IS, after Tunisians and Saudis, despite the fact that Jordan’s population is smaller than that of both Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

Undoubtedly, geography helps account for why Jordan is a major source of IS fighters. Jordan’s proximity to Syria and Iraq, large tracts of which are controlled by IS, facilitates communications with cells and sympathisers in Jordan and the recruitment and selection processes among jihadist elements, especially in poorer areas, such as Al-Zarqa (where Al-Zarqawi hailed from) and Ma’in. This also helps explain IS’s occasional successes in penetrating Jordanian security barriers.

Then there is the ideological factor. Jordan occupies an important place on the map of Islamist organisations in general, and jihadist Salafist organisations in particular. The latter have gained considerable ground against other organisations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which has generally sustained a good relationship with the Jordanian authorities.

In addition, there is the extensive jihadist Salafist ideological breeding ground provided by jihadist Salafist pundits such as Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdisi. Currently one of the leading jihadist Salafist ideologues, Al-Maqdisi issued a statement in mid-March declaring his reservations against the war against IS by the international coalition and his opposition to the approval of this war by some of the militant factions.

He also retracted his description of IS affiliates as “kharijites” and condemned soliciting the assistance of non-Muslims to fight them. The fragile economic situation in Jordan has contributed to the rapid growth of these breeding grounds and the influence of the Salafist jihadist pundits.

There have been intelligence successes, but security failures. In most of the confrontations, Jordanian security agencies had sufficient intelligence at their disposal. This intelligence has enabled Jordan to play a central role in the international coalition’s war against IS, a role enhanced by Jordan’s good relations with most other Arab countries with which it shares intelligence. However, the increasing number and frequency of IS attacks against Jordan in the past year have raised concerns regarding the Jordanian intelligence/security matrix.

But intelligence prowess is not sufficient to guarantee security success. For instance, about a month before the Ruqban attack, information surfaced to the effect that IS was preparing for a terrorist attack in Ruqban, one of the three major Syrian refugee camps created by Jordan after it closed 43 border crossing points.

The security agencies are said to have had clear information on a pro-IS network in the camps. But military officials determined that it did not represent a threat and that the situation was under control. The assailants easily carried out their attack easily, however, exposing the excessive confidence of the security agencies.

Security precautions are not secure enough and insufficient. A three-metre-high, 370-kilometre-long earthen bulwark extends along the entire border with Syria and Iraq. But it is not sufficiently fortified and it is not impenetrable. As pressures mounts against IS in Syria and Iraq it will become increasingly essential to launch crackdowns inside Jordan against groups that might form IS sleeper cells or a Jordanian version of IS in the future.

It also appears that defence capacities along the border were insufficient. That the truck bomb was able to pass through a major security checkpoint, move past a rapid deployment force and reach a military facility where it was detonated offers clear proof that the units responsible for the security of these areas were not appropriately equipped or prepared to confront the attack.

Despite the fact that the US contributes financially to support Jordan and helps train Jordanian officers, and even though Israel has given Jordan a fleet of F-16s and exchanges intelligence with Amman, there remains a considerable deficiency in security preparedness against IS in Jordan.

Success against IS abroad must be matched by success at home. We should not underestimate Jordan’s successes in confronting IS abroad, especially in the period following the murder of Kasasbeh. Up to February 2016, Jordanian strikes killed or wounded about 7,000 IS forces or about 20 per cent of the IS combat force, according to official Jordanian figures.

While these figures may be exaggerated compared to other assessments, they nevertheless are indicative of major victories abroad. However, the counterattacks from the organisation began to intensify and the discovery of an IS cell in Irbid in March and the attack against a police counterterrorist training centre near Amman drove home the need to focus on the home front.

There is a relationship between beginnings and ends. Just as there was a concrete connection between the beginning of the organisation and Jordan — namely in the persons of the founder (Zarqawi) and the major ideologue (Al-Maqdisi) — it is conceivable that there will be a relationship between the end of the organisation or its future shape and Jordan as well.

Although IS is losing ground and human and material resources in Syria and Iraq, it has succeeded through its offshoot, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, in establishing a foothold in Daraa in southern Syria, near the border with Jordan and the occupied Golan Heights.

Observers believe that this faction will play an important role in the IS confrontation against Jordan in the coming period, and that it will not be easy to eliminate. Therefore, even as attempts to eliminate the organisation progress, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade will constitute a major fall-back line extending into Jordan by virtue of the numbers of recruits that come from there.

IS’ occasional successes in breaching Jordanian defences do nothing to diminish the major role Jordan plays in the confrontation against this organisation. However, they sound a warning bell and remind us of the organisation’s ability to rapidly adapt to new circumstances, change tactics and attack in different and unexpected directions.

More importantly, at this stage, they alert us to the fact that Jordan’s need for support at many levels from its allies is no less important than their need for Jordan as a frontline combatant against IS. Amman needs to contend with numerous problems and dilemmas at once.

In addition to deficiencies at the level of security precautions and capacities, and a continuing degree of porousness of its borders, there is the problem of the social and economic environments that form the soil for radicalisation and recruitment. It is a situation that requires more comprehensive and effective remedies that go beyond fortifying borders and abolishing the open-door policy for refugees. These measures alone will not stop extremists.

True, IS used the camps as an avenue for carrying out its terrorist attacks in Jordan. However, the terrorist organisation’s main source of manpower remains, as always, in the marginalised communities that are materially poor but rich in jihadist proselytising.

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