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King Abdullah's ISIS paradox

July 10, 2015 at 3:53 pm

The international community has witnessed a change in King Abdullah of Jordan since ISIS burnt pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh to death in January. “We are waging this war to protect our faith, our values and human principles,” said the Jordanian monarch, “and our war for their sake will be relentless and will hit them in their own ground.” His eyes burned with vengeance as he said these words, and they were met with applause, gratitude and support. One tiny, but crucial, detail was missing, though: a competent strategy.

The immediate response to the killing was to strike at the base by taking part in the international airstrikes on ISIS-controlled territory to weaken its ability to spread across the border. The strategy persists, and is developing; Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled Al-Obeidi said in a meeting with Jordan’s General Mohammed Al-Zaben Meshaal that the kingdom is doing all it can to help the Iraqi army to fight ISIS.

The problem for Jordan, however, is deeper than trying to ensure that ISIS influence doesn’t cross into its territory. The problem lies in vulnerable areas of Jordan such as Ma’an that have become terrorist hotspots.

Ma’an is a province in south-western Jordan which is not only known for its tribal sentiments that take precedence over loyalty to the monarch, but also poverty and extremism. An ISIS presence became apparent in Ma’an in June last year when protesters marched under the ISIS flag and chanted “Down with King Abdullah”. A group that identifies itself as Salafist already established in the area, called Shuhada Ma’an (“Martyrs of Ma’an”), also pledged allegiance to ISIS through a statement circulated on YouTube which went viral in Jordan.

When looking at the reasons behind the rise of ISIS in Jordan, the onus is usually on the presence of a militant Salafist ideology that derives from the religious and cultural conservatism of Bedouin tribes. What is being seen over and over again in Middle East politics is that most of the leaders in the region do not seem to understand the correlation between socio-economic stability and counterterrorist policy.

In a bid to tackle the deficit crisis that hit Jordan, in November 2012 Amman cut 3.5 billion Dinars (£3.1bn) from fuel subsidies. As a result, the price of cooking gas increased by 50 per cent and diesel and kerosene increased by 37 per cent. This sparked protests all over Jordan, but Ma’an was especially violent as the people there were hit harder than those in the more developed urban parts of the country; that is when resentment and extremist sentiments started to rise.

With an increase in violence, the Jordanian government reacted defensively by trying to impose law and order in Ma’an through policing mechanisms only. Without tackling the poverty crisis and the “tribe and religion vs the state and King” narrative coming out of Ma’an, direct attacks on police officers grew. In April 2014, five policemen were shot during protests, in which 158 people were arrested; officials related the shootings and protests to the growth of ISIS. Exactly a year later, anonymous gunmen fired at the security services.

It is to some extent understandable that Amman sees the home grown ISIS threat as one that is fired by ideology rather than poverty. Ma’an has always had a reputation for being sympathetic to religiously militant ideologies, but the government in Amman needs to understand that this problem exploded out of the lack of social provision that kept Ma’an from developing as fast as richer cities in the country.

Another challenge facing Jordan is its strategy of helping an army that is intrinsically divided. This is not to say that Jordan is wrong to help the Iraqi army to fight ISIS, but without a reformation in the army to turn it into a unified body that is not subject to party-partisan politics, ISIS will continue to grow, for no other reason than that ISIS grew out of the divisions and instability in Iraqi and Syrian society.

The latest terrorist attack foiled by the Jordanian intelligence services was not by ISIS; it was by the group’s sworn enemy, which has increased the complexities behind Jordanian counter-terrorism. Iraqi citizen Khaled Kazem Al-Ruba had 45kg of explosives with him and was acting on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s foreign operations unit, the Quds Force, when he was caught. The military body of the Jordanian State Security Court has denied releasing any further information of the attack that was obviously politically motivated. As an opponent of Assad, Jordan has evidently made it a target for pro-Iran terrorism. Jordanian intelligence intercepted Al-Ruba successfully and it is imperative that the kingdom strengthens its intelligence capabilities to stay ahead of the terrorist threats.

Although there has been no solid evidence of the Jordanian government training Syrian rebels, pro-Assad propagandists take advantage of Jordan’s internal security challenges. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence estimates that there are now over 1,500 Jordanian fighters in Sunni extremist groups across the region. In February, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem claimed that a request went from Damascus to Amman to co-ordinate Syrian and Jordanian military operations after the death of Kasasbeh; the Jordanians did not respond, giving yet more propaganda material for Shia extremists against Jordan.

There have also been reports that Jordan wants to take over some Syrian territory as Assad’s control over the country weakens. So far, it is believed that Jordan only wants to create a buffer zone on its northern border in the Syrian provinces of Deraa and Suwayda, to avoid further terrorist infiltration. Though there is a consensus that Jordan is taking advantage of the Syrian conflict and stealing land, the government in Amman denies any desire to expand its territory.

It is becoming more evident that the threats facing Jordan are increasing gradually. Being in a hostile neighbourhood means that there are always limits to its efforts to create stability. Although a militarised approach is needed, realistically speaking the Jordanian government can’t force competency on the Iraqi army, nor can it ensure that air strikes against ISIS are working. However, what the Jordanian government can and must do is marry social stability to its national security strategy to deal with its domestic threats.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.