A boy in Syria, no more than ten-or eleven-years old, faces the camera clutching a passport emblazoned with the words “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.”
Surrounded by jihadist fighters, he begins to threaten the Jordanian monarch and his intelligence services with “tons of tons of explosive car bombs.” The scene, punctuated by cheers and chants of Allahu Akbar (“God is great”), reaches a climax when the Jordanian passport is thrown into a fire.
As the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-influenced jihadists, it is Jordan, nestled between Israel and Iraq, that will serve as a crucial buffer from the terrorist movements that threaten to spill over into the region. It is unlikely that Jordan’s King Abdullah II and his forces will take threats from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (commonly known by its acronym ISIS) lightly.
A MULTI-FACETED SECURITY THREAT
Following ISIS’s capture of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, Jordan’s monarch, who also serves as commander-in-chief of its army, released video footage of himself training with a new batch of the country’s special forces. The Hashemite Kingdom houses a state of the art counterterrorism training center, built partially through a $99 million dollar appropriation by the U.S. government. As the threat of jihadist spillover from Syria and Iraq escalates, Jordan’s security services are needed now more than ever.
Following clashes with rebels on Sunday, Iraqi forces withdrew from Turaibil, the only legal border crossing between Jordan and Iraq. While it appears that Iraqi Sunni tribesmen, friendly to Jordan not ISIS, moved into this border area following the withdrawal of Iraqi troops, the development underscored the shaky security situation that now exists along the Iraqi border. Jordanian armed forces have responded by sending convoy tanks, troops, and rocket launchers as precautionary measures. Less reported than the border instability, and more troubling in the longer term, is the opening of ISIS’s office in Jordan to accelerate the group’s goal of expanding an Islamic caliphate according to jihadist sources.1
The proximity of hostilities in both Syria and Iraq to the Jordanian border is worrying senior military commanders. This fear is coupled with the sporadic and random daily entry of thousands of refugees from unofficial border crossings. While Jordanian security is accustomed to monitoring the local jihadist movement, it will be increasingly difficult to monitor potential threats among Jordan’s growing refugee community. Al-Qaeda's suicide bombers, who killed many innocent civilians in the 2005 bombing in Amman, for instance, were Iraqi. Back then, attackers were able to hide among the influx of Iraqi refugees to Jordan following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Most Syrian refugees, moreover, are residing in urban areas, making it more difficult to monitor potential threats hiding among them. A similar attack would not only lead to human losses, but would also increase animosity from the Jordanian community toward Syrian and Iraqi refugees. For many Jordanians, refugees are already seen as competition for scarce jobs and resources.
Living in Jordan at the moment, moreover, are two of the most notorious spiritual leaders of the global jihadist movement. The first, recently released from prison, is Abu Muhammed al Maqdisi, mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the infamous founder of what eventually became ISIS. The second is Abu Qatada, the man who planned the millennium attacks, a foiled plot to attack Western targets in Jordan in 2000. Among Qatada’s followers is Mohamed Atta, the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The recent ISIS victories in Iraq have increased the fear of potential ISIS attacks in the Hashemite Kingdom.
A MULTI-FACETED SECURITY RESPONSE
Jordan has responded to these new risks by doubling security forces along its 180-kilometer Iraqi border, following a reported withdrawal of Iraqi forces from neighboring border towns in western Iraq. In mid-April, Jordanian airplanes targeted three vehicles attempting to cross into the country illegally.
In order to control its local jihadist threat, the government has amended its anti-terrorism law to minimize content that spreads radicalism and helps in recruiting young Jordanian jihadists. The counter-terrorism law has been coupled with an amendment to the Telecommunication Law, seen by some critics as a way to regulate and limit criticism of the government. These actions have increased worries among Jordanians that the direct control the state has on their lives will increase. International organizations such as Human Rights Watch fear the law will be used against peaceful protesters calling for political reform.
Videos, social media, infiltration attempts, and direct threats makes one thing clear, however: the jihadists across the border want to establish an Islamic caliphate. This Sunni empire will inevitably include northern Jordan, which, with its a strategic location, serves as the so-called “jewel” in ISIS’s crown. ISIS represents a threat, however, not only to moderate Arabs and Muslims, but also to Israel, with many jihadists declaring Jerusalem as their ultimate destination. In response, Israel has announced plans to build a 550-kilometer wall on its shared border with Jordan to protect itself from jihadist infiltrators.
U.S. President Obama’s recent decision to create a $5 billion counterterrorism partnership fund for countries on the “frontlines” of the United States’ fight against terror will certainly benefit Jordan. After all, the Hashemite Kingdom is home to the United States’ strategic intelligence partner, the General Intelligence Department (GID), Jordan’s intelligence agency. The extent of this alliance is so strong that ex-CIA chief George Tenet once famously described the GID as being “owned” by the United States. This bilateral security cooperation benefits both countries. Roughly 6,000 U.S. troops took part in Jordan’s annual “Eager Lion” training exercises, providing much needed military training to the Hashemite Kingdom. And it was the Jordanian security services that arrested Bin Ladin’s son-in-law in 2013.
Jordan has an important role to play in the regional fight against terror, one that is likely to accelerate in the coming months. Rather than monitoring borders and keeping a close eye on potential Jihadi recruits however, some believe that this money could be better spent in the long run on addressing problems of inequality and poverty that fuel extremism in the region. With the influx of even more refugees from Iraq and Syria into Jordan, adding further strain on the country’s resources, the Hashemite Kingdom’s biggest challenge is yet to come.
1While the information regarding an ISIS branch in Jordan is based on a report in the Jordan Times, the report mentions the opening of an "unofficial" branch sourcing "senior Islamists." As such, this claim is difficult to substantiate and should be treated with appropriate scepticism.
Nikita Malik is a Middle East political analyst. Follow her work on www.nikitamalik.com.
Abdullah Shami is a political commentator from Jordan.