Homegrown extremism is Jordan's greatest threat
AQABA, Jordan — A day after Islamic State fighters took the Iraqi city of Ramadi, two American B-52 bombers pounded a ridge line on a training range not far from here, a display of firepower that suggested a similar advance wouldn’t go as far in this country.
Yet experts say that even with recent gains by Sunni extremist groups in the region, the greatest threat to the kingdom remains the radicalization of its own citizens. They point to the public support shown for Sunni militants in some cities and the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of Jordanians have reportedly joined extremist groups fighting in Syria.
“It’s not a problem of troops crossing the border,” said David Schenker, a Jordan analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s a problem of ideology crossing the border.”
Jordan, a country of 7 million people and slightly smaller than the state of Indiana, has a reputation as one of the Middle East’s more stable nations. It normalized relations with Israel in 1988. It survived the Arab Spring protests of 2011, largely avoiding bloodshed. Its ruler, the Western-educated King Abdullah II, has endeared himself to cable news viewers in the U.S. for his outspokenness against Islamic State atrocities.
Instability in Jordan would pose a serious problem for the United States as well as Israel, which controls territory along the western Jordanian border. For decades Jordan has played a key, though often discrete, role in supporting U.S. interests throughout the Middle East.
In recent years, however, the black flags of the Islamic State and another Sunni extremist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida franchise in Syria, have become more visible in impoverished cities like Maan in the south and Zarqa in the north, traditional centers of opposition to the pro-Western ruling family.
Grievances in both communities echo those throughout the Middle East, from poor development to lack of opportunities for those outside the ruling class. Police forces routinely conduct raids, provoking a cycle of anger, violence and government reprisal.
“These provincial small towns have always been troubling political hot spots for the regime,” said Rami Khouri, a professor at the American University of Beirut who lived for years in Jordan, “mainly because they’ve been neglected or marginalized, because some lost their economic base or for other reasons.”
And so they’ve become ideal recruits for fighters, some say. The International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence estimated in January that 1,500 Jordanians had joined fighters in Syria. Others, including Schenker, say the number is likely closer to 2,500, most of whom have joined Jabhat al-Nusra.
The threat of radicalized citizens coming back as terrorists is a hauntingly familiar one to Jordan.
The 2005 suicide bombing of three hotels in Amman, killing 60 people and injuring more than 100, was directed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, the forerunner of the Islamic State group. The effort to stop similar attacks has put more power in the hands of Jordanian security forces, a development that has prompted complaints from human rights organizations about unlawful arrests.
Meanwhile, Jordan’s tribes, all Sunni Muslims and the nexus of the king’s support, remain ambivalent toward extremist groups operating in neighboring Syria and Iraq.
Although the capture and grisly immolation murder of Jordanian pilot Lt. Moath al Kasasbeh in February fired up public opinion against the Islamic State group and invigorated Jordan’s participation in the broader campaign against the insurgents, sect and kinship ties with tribes in Iraq and Syria continue to complicate that picture.
It’s difficult to predict how all this will play out. Although Jordan sits in the middle of the world’s most turbulent region, the ruling Hashemite dynasty has deftly steered the country through crisis after crisis with remarkable dexterity.
Despite ongoing threats, Jordan has not faced a grave, overt challenge to Hashemite rule since Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, drove out the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Black September fighting that ended in 1971.
The turmoil in Jordan’s poorer cities, some analysts point out, has been going on for decades and doesn’t indicate solidarity with outside groups.
“If we have in two weeks’ time another organization called the ‘Red Flag Organization,’ they would raise it,” said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst and longtime reform activist. “Because it is an expression of anger, of discontent. It is not a belief in the ideology that [the Islamic State group] represents or the red flag represents, or whatever. And there’s a big difference here.”
Jordan’s government has sometimes acknowledged its own excesses while targeting suspected militants. After two men from Maan stole a police vehicle, burned it and reportedly waved an Islamic State flag earlier this year, police forces moved on the city with helicopters and armored vehicles, raiding several homes and knocking down walls in the process. When residents protested, the government responded by firing several police chiefs, and the interior minister later resigned.
Such careful maneuvering continues to spare Jordan the unrest that has plagued its neighbors. In the meantime, the kingdom’s growing role in the fight against the Islamic State group, including its continuing airstrikes and decision to host U.S. military training for moderate Syrian rebels, has tightened its relationship with the U.S.
Congress promised more than $1 billion in financial aid for Jordan in the current fiscal year, including reimbursing some costs of securing its border with Syria.
Jordanian armed forces have also begun working with the U.S. military on a unit-to-unit level, focusing on tactics like urban warfare and clearance operations.
The goal for the U.S., as explained by Marine Maj. Gen. Burke Whitman to his men during an exercise in May, is to do whatever it takes to ensure Jordan’s stability.
“If this place were to go south,” Whitman said, “we’d have a problem.”