The Kingdom of Jordan and Daesh: external and domestic threats

Even though Jordanian authorities vowed a security crackdown after the attack on al-Karak castle on December 18, the episode seems to have found the security apparatus largely unprepared, and it is now imperative for the country to increase the awareness of the external and domestic threats posed by Daesh.

On December 18, 2016, the Jordanian role as the regional stronghold against violent radicalism has been challenged by an attack to a tourist site.

A series of shooting took place in the southern city of al-Karak, where a group of militants ambushed emergency responders and then attacked the local police station, finally seeking shelter in the historic Crusader-era Karak Castle.

The 71st Special Battalion of the Jordanian army killed the five militants, while the majority of tourists were in a different part of the castle.

The final death toll of the attack included 11 Jordanians and a Canadian tourist, while four police officers were later killed in a manhunt.

Few days later, on December 22, al-Karak Tourism Directorate announced that the situation returned normal in the city.

Nevertheless, the episode seems to have found the Jordanian security apparatus largely unprepared. Moreover, it is the first time that Daesh claims responsibility for an attack in the country, thus adding a domestic threat to the one that Jordan faces because of its role in the international coalition against Daesh.

In addition, the terrorists were all Jordanian. This is a further evidence of the interconnection between the external power of attraction of Daesh and the risk of radicalization that characterizes vulnerable Jordanian social groups.

Previously, in September, the Christian cartoonist Nahed Hattar was killed in front of the court where he was standing trial, charged with contempt of religion after sharing a caricature on social media, considered offensive against Islam. In fact, the caricature criticised the exploitation of religion carried out by the Daesh, but the episode reveals that the radical appeal in the country is stronger than it may seem at first glance.

However, less than a year ago, in March 2016, another episode occurred, and it has been largely overlooked by international analysts.

After an 11-hour battle in the northern city of Irbid – which has the second largest metropolitan population in Jordan – anti-terrorism forces foiled a Deash cell’s plot to attack both civilian and military sites in the country.

Irbid is just 15km from the Syrian border and its population has doubled in the last five years, swelling with Syrian refugees. Even though, those clashes weren’t the result of a cross-border Daesh raid or spill-over: the episode was the symptom of a home-grown issue. Moreover, two of Jordan’s most prominent Daesh supporters are from Irbid: radical cleric Omar Mahdi Zeidan, who was last seen in Mosul, and Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi. Tahawi is reported to have a strong following amongst Palestinians, in particular.

Kingdom’s capacity to endure the instability next door is noteworthy but, despite Jordan being designated as safe and holding 58th out of 130 countries in the Global Terrorism Index in 2015, it is undeniable that the insecurity affecting the neighbouring countries will be hardly left beyond its borders.

With the rise of the Daesh and after Jordan joined the international coalition to fight it, the level of Jordanian exposure to jihadi activity inevitably increased, determining a consequent shift towards a more explicit commitment, both in a tangible and in a symbolic perspective.

In this respect, the killing of the pilot Muath al-Kassesbeh represented the real turning point from the former to the latter attitude, and after this event, Jordan started playing a more significant role within the coalition.

At the beginning of February 2015, Daesh released a video showing the pilot of the Royal Jordanian Air Force Muath al-Kasaesbeh being burnt alive. The Jordan’s reaction implied two distinct components: a stronger military involvement and the engagement in a new symbolic war against the Caliphate.

The two sides of the Jordanian reinvigorated strategy had the same goal of conveying a positive message, which would have been inclusive and aimed at reinforcing the national unity against the common enemy.

By February 8, Jordan had already launched 56 airstrikes on Daesh posts in northern Syria. In a catchy psychological game, the government had been spending the previous weeks negotiating the release of the pilot in return of that of an Iraqi failed kamikaze, Sajida al-Rishawi, sentenced to death for the Amman attacks in 2005, and Ziad al-Karbouli, one of the highest officials of al-Zarqawi network. In response to the murder of al-Kasaesbeh though, Jordanian authorities finally decided to execute Sajida al-Rishawi and Ziad al-Karbouli by hanging in Swaqa Prison few days later.

Moreover, not only did the King intensified the airstrikes, but he also moved ground troops to the border with the Iraqi region of al-Anbar, deploying them in the Ruwaished area, close to the Iraqi city of Trebil.

Until this turning point, Jordan was considered the weak ring of the international coalition chain, mainly because of the internal opposition to the country’s direct engagement against Daesh.

As far as the symbolic and communicative war against Daesh concerned, much has been written about the unprecedented communication skills of the Daesh.

What Daesh really interesting, in the case of Jordan, Daesh that the country has been actively engaging in this war, particularly since the beginning of 2015, thus creating a national form of counter-narrative.

Jordan accepted the challenge posed by Daesh and responded on the double track of nationalism and islam. After the release of the video, the Royal family joined the popular rally in solidarity with the family of the pilot. Inevitably, pro-army slogans and national flags characterized the event.

In the aftermath of the rally, dozens of pictures portraying the King in the army uniform and Jordanians aircraft heading to the national revenge started circulating, along with images of Queen Rania with the wife of al-Kasaesbeh or with children belonging to his family.

From that moment on, King Abdallah II and Queen Rania have been repeatedly stating that the war against the Daesh is a war of Arabs and Muslims, thus overcoming the religious boundaries to adopt a much more effective rhetoric.

The mujahedeen of the Daesh have different origins, languages and cultural backgrounds, Islam is the only identity component that is able to unify them. Consequently, challenging their narrative on a religious field means undermining their only source of credibility among potential recruits.

Even though Jordan is one of the few countries in the Middle East region blessed with relative stability, since 2011 Jordanians have been actively contributing to the growth of fighters in neighbouring Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iraq.

Conservative estimates put the number of Jordanian fighters in Syria at around 1,500, making the Kingdom the third highest contributor of foreign fighters (after Saudi Arabia and Tunisia), and the highest in term of fighters per capita. Other estimations however, point out that around 2,500 Jordanians have travelled to Syria, at least 500 have been killed and 500 returned, which apparently leaves around 1,500 people still abroad.

The risk of the so-called returnees, who often make their way back to the motherland with increased technical and strategic skills, should not be underestimated, since they may trigger a sort of boomerang effect against the country that they had previously left.

The momentous flows of refugees represent another issue related to the risk of radicalization. Notoriously, refugee camps – mostly located in northern Jordan – are places of vulnerability par excellence: traumas, disillusionment and personal and/or group resentment might weaken the individual’s resilience against radicalizing agents, contributing to what Arabic effectively describes as tashattut, “dispersion”, “dissolution”.

Jordanian Salafi-jihadi sympathizers appear to be growing, or at least becoming more vocal. The movement seems to be gaining new supporters not only in Ma’an and Zarqa areas, where citizens have always been complaining of their marginalization by the State, but also in the other regions.

In conclusion, a number of conjunctures might represent an increasing threat for the country, namely the permeability of the borders, which may cause a spill-over of terrorist activities; the renewed military and symbolic-communicative involvement against the Daesh; home-grown radicalization, like the example of Irbid and Karak clearly show; the risk of the exploitation of the refugee camps as a breeding ground for new recruits.

Overall, the Jordanian situation is far more positive than that of the neighbouring countries. Nevertheless, the Hashemite Kingdom will have to struggle to remain stable, and it’s undeniable that the threats seem to be much greater than in the recent past.

Sara Brzuszkiewicz

PhD Candidate at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, MIlan

Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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