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In the beginning of March, for the very first time, Jordan was faced with the aggression of a terrorist cell belonging to the ISIS on its own territory. The cell did not come from Syria, they were assembled in Jordan and comprised of Jordanian nationals, with at least one of the terrorists fresh from the Syrian mess. The terrorists, roughly twenty in number, well armed and ready for martyrdom, unleashed a battle that lasted many hours. In the end, seven of them were killed and another thirteen were captured. The battleground was the city of Irbid, a town located less than 15 km away from the Syrian border which, in the past five years, has seen its population double thanks to the arrival of Syrian refugees.

Further attacks were carried out in June: one against a structure belonging to the Security services inside a Palestinian camp in the north of the country and another against a checkpoint near the Syrian border. The latter attack originated inside a refugee camp in Syria. The recurrence of such events is not surprising. Jordan is in the front line in the war against the ISIS and participates actively in the bombing of Syria. There is an operative center in Amman that coordinates the international forces against the Islamic State and US special forces are also present in the country.

What does surprise is the fact that, despite the security measures adopted, the reputation of the Jordanian Security Services and a sealed border, there could still be such a grand scale attack, which postulates the existence of an indigenous terrorist organization that has ramifications of broad dimensions. The last such attack took place in November 2005, when a group of suicide bombers attacked three hotels causing roughly 60 dead. Back then the group responsible for the bombings was headed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian national and the precursor of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in Iraq; the franchising was branded Al Qaeda.

It is not yet clear whether Irbid’s ISIS terrorist cell operated on a specific directive of the Caliphate or if they acted independently under the ideological influence of the Caliph. Notwithstanding, it is a fact that the attack was carried out during a time of weakness of the ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Every time they feel weak, the Caliph’s forces exorcise their defeats on the ground with further attacks and threats directed abroad. By so doing they reaffirm the principle that the ISIS ideology has an international value and a messianic goal.

The appeal of the Caliph

That the Caliph’s deeds appeal to the Jordanian youth is confirmed by the fact that two sons of Jordanian parliamentarians joined the ranks of the ISIS and died as suicide bombers. Irbid is considered to be a stronghold of the Islamic State, while other areas of the country, such as Zarqa – the second largest city in Jordan- and Mafraq – where an important air force base is located – are more closely tied to al Qaeda. Altogether, Islamic extremism is most attractive for the part of the population of Palestinian origin, which amounts to roughly half of the Jordanian people.

In addition to this, there is the threat represented by roughly 630.000 Syrian refugees residing in Jordan, and – according to the Amman authorities - another 1.3 million that are not registered. This massive presence accounts for 20% of the Jordanian population, among whom there could be flocks of ISIS sympathizers. Also, there is an esteemed 1.500-2.000 Jordanians that support the ISIS, making Jordan the third greatest producer of foreign fighters after Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. The Irbid incident could unveil the attempt by the ISIS to destabilize the Hashemite reign while confirming the existence of dormant terrorist cells belonging to al Baghdadi’s organization.

The ISIS has a lot of sympathizers within the many Palestinian refugee camps, even among the youth, who feel the social discontent of a country with an unemployment rate that amounts to 28%. Apart from the foreign fighters, there are an esteemed 2-3.000 Jordanians that are potentially affiliated to the ISIS and another 1.000-1.300 who belong to Jabhat al Nusra, a branch of al Qaeda in Syria, this is especially true of the Salafite populations.

abu mohammed al tahawi
Abu Mohammed al Tahawi

The ideological clash

Security Services in Joran are trying to fight the spread of Islamic extremism, especially on a cultural and theological ground. Nonetheless, the recent release of two theologians like Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, who preach extremism and who have distanced themselves from the initiatives of the ISIS on religious grounds, has not yet produced satisfactory results. Their followers have shrunk in number and other subjects have replaced the two in the fancy of the Jordanian people.

Among these subjects, confined inside a prison cell in Syria, is another important figure, Abu Mohammed al Tahawi, who was repeatedly incarcerated and released last year. Tahawi has a discrete following among the people of Palestinian origin and among Jordanian Salafites. Unlike al Maqdisi, al Tahawi has officially backed the theological dissertations calling for the fighters to wage battle under the flag of the ISIS in Syria. In the past, Tahawi had officially praised the idea of a Jihad against Israel. During his speeches, Tahawi often praised suicide bombers while he underlined the impiousness of a number of Arab regimes and the duty of each and every Muslim to fight alongside their Syrian brothers in the war against the West.

Abu Mohammed al Tahawi, whose real name is Abdul Qadir Shahada, belongs to one of the Salafite movements that operate on a political line different from that of the Muslim Brothers. This part of the Jordanian population totals roughly 7 – 10.000 sympathizers of both the ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, after a deep identity crisis caused by the clashes between two Syrian factions and by the execution by the ISIS of a number of Jordanian combatants. Just like the other Muslim extremist currents, Tahawi’s men have turbulent relationships with government authorities.

Among Tahawi’s adepts there is one Omar Mahdi Zeidan, a religious man born in Irbid who has become an important member of the ISIS. One of his brothers, Mahmoud, died in Waziristan, Pakistan, in 2010 after joining al Qaeda. Another sadly well-known individual is Mohammed al Shalabi, who also goes by the name of Abu Sayyaf; he was born in Ma’an, an economically staggering city in the south of Jordan that is well known for its staunch opposition against the government. In June 2014, in Ma’an, there was a demonstration where a number of individuals paraded while waving ISIS flags. Al Shalabi is, however, known to be a sympathizer of Jabhat al Nusra.

The Muslim Brothers and their party, the Islamic Action Front, exerted a strong influence in the Jordanian political and social grounds where they operated – at least until today – within a legal context. Their religious extremism fueled the growth of Salafite movements which refuse any and all kinds of political homogenization and political party structure. The Brotherhood doesn’t hold elections but rather co-opts their adepts in the Council of the Shura, the top part of their hierarchy, according to a theological meritocracy. Recently the central offices of the confraternity in Amman and a branch office in Jerash were closed with the pretext that, in the light of the new 2014 law on political parties, their license has not been renewed. This initiative by the Jordanian government is coupled with the recognition last year of a dissident branch of the movement and with an attempt to divide the ‘legal’ Islamic front.

A country in the front line

Among the Arab countries in the region, Jordan is the most exposed to the fight against the ISIS since one of its pilots, Muath al Kasasbeh, was captured and burned alive in January of 2015. The Syrian rebels who fight the regime in Damascus are trained in Jordan and are given logistic support and weapons once they are back in Syria. The training camps are administered by US troops and functionaries of the CIA. However, the transfer of weapons to the Syrian rebels has created a covert and lucrative commerce in which some of the Security apparatus personnel is involved.

On the intelligence front, the activity of the Jordanian information services (General Intelligence Department) on Syrian ground is extremely developed. Currently the Salafite militants of al Nusra and of the ISIS are allegedly 80 km away from the Jordanian border, but most of them would be hiding in the refugee camps scattered on the Syrian side of the border with Jordan, as the recent terrorist attack seems to suggest. To face this incumbent threat, Amman has recently regained the control of the passage of Al Waleed, near the border with Syria, by fighting the Salafite militias with two special forces battalions, one comprised of southern Syrian tribes trained in Jordan and the other comprised of Jordanian troops.

Currently Jordan is envisaging the possibility for their special forces to carry out covert operations against the ISIS in Syrian territory. The circumstance was already the subject of a warning by the Damascus regime, which rejected the possibility, tagging the initiative as inopportune, unsolicited and potentially damaging for the sovereignty of the country. This initiative has tarnished the relationship between Amman and the Saudi authorities whom, although “officially” at war against the ISIS, see the Jordanian interference as an indirect support to the regime of Bashar al Assad. Unlike the Saudis, the Jordanians are well aware of who is more dangerous between Assad and al Baghdadi, this despite the five billion dollars that they received from Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the civil war in Syria.

king abdallah
King Abdallah of Jordan

From father to son

Just like Hussein’s father, king Abdallah too was trained militarily at the British Sandhurst academy. His father was an airplane pilot and he is an enthusiast of the special forces; this explains – at least in part – the attitude to use such forces, even in distant theaters. The Jordanian special forces are allegedly active in Libya alongside the British SAS (Special Air Service).

Regarding the Syrian theater, the Jordanians are convinced that the war against the ISIS is not a conventional or traditional fight, but rather a counter-insurrectionist one; that’s why they use their special forces against them.

Politically speaking, Jordan has always been pro-Western, a circumstance that won the Hashemite reign the support and protection of the United States, from whom they receive funds of roughly one billion dollars each year. Lately, the US disengagement in the region has hindered the role of Jordan which has turned around to reinforce their ties with the UK and which has kept contacts and non-publicized relations with Israel.

During recent visits to Washington DC, including talks with the members of the US Congress in January 2016, king Abdallah expressed veiled critiques, perplexities and frustration against his US partners. Abdallah knows that the solution to the Syrian civil war is presently in the hands of the Russians and that this circumstance could damage Jordanian interests, seen that they are on good terms with the Syrian opposition. Militarily speaking, Jordan is worried that they will be one of the routes through which the defeated ISIS militants will retreat once the Syrian loyalist troops and the Kurds of the YPG have succeeded in sealing the border with Turkey.

On the internal level, instead, Abdallah amended the constitution and took back some of the prerogatives that he had conceded during the Arab spring in order to avoid civil unrest. He is again a king with more power, especially in terms of military designations and in the field of security, in order to protect the Hashemite monarchy one more time.

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