Muhammad Hamed / Reuters Jordanian honor guards perform during a ceremony to honor war veterans and retired servicemen during Veterans Day, as part of celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Great Arab Revolt, at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan, February 15, 2016.

ISIS Meets Its Match?

How Jordan Has Prevented Large-Scale Attacks

At first glance, Jordan would appear to be a prime target for the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS). For one, ISIS has struck almost all of Jordan’s neighbors. In May 2015, there was the bloody attack in a Saudi Arabian mosque; in November, a Russian plane in Egypt came under attack. ISIS hit an Iraqi shopping mall in January 2016, and it has targeted Syrian regime troops for two years now. Since 2014, ISIS has killed 18,000 Iraqi civilians. In 2015 alone, it killed approximately 2,000 Syrians.

Further, the Hashemite Kingdom’s economy faces serious challenges, with youth unemployment at 28.8 percent, according to the International Labor Organization’s most recent statistics. The economic situation has surely pushed some of the Jordanians—approximately 2,000—who have left the country to join ISIS, according to government officials. (A Lebanese study recently cited by U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Lumpkin has noted that financial considerations are a significant factor, but certainly not the only one, pushing civilians to enlist in ISIS.)

In other words, the country seems primed for trouble. But ISIS has not carried out a single large-scale attack inside the kingdom. Deaths inside the country from ISIS-linked incidents stand at five at most, even though the attack that led to those deaths is disputed. So what has Jordan done right?

Protesters hold up pictures of Jordanian King Abdullah and pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh with national flags, as they chant slogans during a rally in Amman to show their loyalty to the King and against ISIS, February 5, 2015.

Protesters hold up pictures of Jordanian King Abdullah and pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh with national flags, as they chant slogans during a rally in Amman to show their loyalty to the King and against ISIS, February 5, 2015.

ISIS’ 2015 immolation of captured Jordanian pilot Muath Kasasbeh inside Syria was a unifying moment for the country. Whereas a month before the attack only 72 percent of Jordanians believed that ISIS should be considered a terrorist group, after Kasasbeh’s death the proportion jumped to a staggering 95 percent of the population. Jordan’s influential Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, called the killing “heinous” and “criminal.”

Yet popular anger after Kasasbeh’s brutal death cannot entirely explain Amman’s success in avoiding ISIS attacks; after all, the terrorist group has displayed shocking brutality everywhere it goes. The second fact protecting Jordan, then, is the country’s well-trained security services. “Jordan has strong military and security services despite its economic problems,” Hassan Abu Haniyeh, co-author of The Islamic State Organization and a former Salafi jihadist who was incarcerated 12 times himself, told me in an interview. Ranked seventh worldwide by the CIA for military expenditures as a percentage of GDP, Jordan maintains a military comprising approximately 100,000 active duty personnel and 65,000 reservists, according to reports.

Further, in cooperation with top Western intelligence agencies, Jordan has decades of experience in fighting terrorism. The CIA even has technical personnel “virtually embedded” at Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID) headquarters, and the two agencies conduct high-level joint operations. One of Amman’s greatest intelligence coups was providing the CIA with crucial intelligence that led to the death of the al Qaeda militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Praising the directorate, former CIA senior officer Michael Scheuer told the Los Angeles Times, “The GID has a wider reach [in the Middle East] than the Mossad.” In an article in The Atlantic, author Jeffrey Goldberg described it as “the most respected Arab Intelligence Service.”

A soldier uses a pair of binoculars at a watchtower at the Jordanian-Syrian border, near Mafraq, August 16, 2015.

A soldier uses a pair of binoculars at a watchtower at the Jordanian-Syrian border, near Mafraq, August 16, 2015.

Even Jordan’s military prowess, however, can’t fully explain how the country has so far avoided ISIS attacks. Egypt has a large and well-funded military, too, yet Egyptian militants affiliated with ISIS have successfully carved out territory in the Sinai. Here, Jordan’s relatively more open political space is key. During the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Amman adopted a peaceful approach that avoided significant casualties, whereas the Syrian and Libyan regimes used overwhelming force to quash political rivals (later alienating vast parts of the country and leaving ISIS with resentments to exploit). For example, in response to anticorruption protests, King Abdullah of Jordan quickly dismissed Prime Minister Samir Rifai along with the cabinet. The government moved up parliamentary elections by two years in January 2013, and security forces largely avoided a lethal crackdown on protesters, unlike in Damascus and Benghazi.

Moreover, after protests arose in Maan last year thanks to allegations of police violence, Interior Minister Hussein al-Majali quickly resigned, and the Jordanian government fired Public Security Department Director Tawfik Taqabla. Amman’s decisive action prevented widespread chaos. In short, although the dispute could have quickly turned very bloody, with extremist militants ready to exploit resentment, the Jordanian government responded to some of its citizens’ demands and maintained a security contingent in the area.

As a result of the government’s response to the Arab Spring, “Jordan is among the few Arab countries—despite not being a democracy—that still has open space for people to express their concerns and demands,” Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Amman-based think tank Quds Center for Political Studies, told me. 

In contrast with the bloody struggles between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government, King Abdullah and Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood have established more tolerant relations. The role of Jordan’s Islamists is also critical. Prominent Jordanian Salafists, including Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, have declined to issue fatwas calling for violence against the Jordanian regime and have even publicly condemned ISIS. Maqdisi served as the spiritual guide to the Jordanian former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He believes that ISIS is a “deviant” ideology. Similarly, Qatada is a fervent supporter of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and he has bashed ISIS’ beheading of journalists as “un-Islamic.”   

Further, in contrast with the bloody struggles between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government, King Abdullah and Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood have established more tolerant relations. For one, although it seeks reform, the Muslim Brotherhood has not called for the end of Jordan’s monarchy. And Amman has not followed Saudi Arabia’s path of labeling Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organization” and has allowed Jordanians interested in nonviolent political Islam a place to operate safely.

Absent a violent clampdown on Jordan’s Islamists, there is less of an incentive for individuals to stay and fight the government rather than leave and join the battle elsewhere. With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad slaughtering over 100,000 civilians, it just makes more sense for the 2,000 Jordanians who have joined ISIS to go to Syria to target the Assad regime rather than operate in the relatively peaceful Hashemite Kingdom.

And this is where ISIS’ own priorities come in. As Rantawi explained, “Jordan so far is not on the [list of] top priorities of ISIS targets in the region. They have more important targets for the time being.” ISIS has loyalist fighters across the Middle East, but the group has not announced a Jordanian branch. Adnan Abu Odeh, former royal court chief and UN ambassador, cited Jordan’s negligible Shiite population as a factor. ISIS has frequently hit Shiite targets in Lebanon and Yemen. The group also appears more intent on its ideological clash with Riyadh over who represents the true Islam, so it might be more interested in targets in Saudi Arabia.

To be sure, the Hashemite Kingdom has not completely avoided violence. In a disputed incident, a Jordanian police officer last November shot and killed five contractors working with the Public Security Department. In the 12th edition of its magazine, Dabiq, ISIS praised the attack. However, Jordanian Interior Minister Salameh Hammad has argued that it was actually a “lone wolf attack,” citing physiological and financial problems that the officer had faced. The true motives, of course, remain unclear. And no country can guarantee that it will hold off terrorism forever. But by maintaining a high level of professionalism among its security forces, responding to protests in a relatively peaceful manner, and establishing constructive relations with Islamists, Jordan has limited the ISIS threat. And in a region that seems to be falling apart, that is an accomplishment worth acknowledging.

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