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With little fanfare, the trial of a Jordanian soldier accused of the premeditated killing of three U.S. Green Berets began in early June. The incident, which occurred in November at the entrance of Al Jafr air base in south Jordan, has received relatively scant press coverage in the United States and in the kingdom. Yet the lack of attention belies the significance of the killings and the outcome of the trial.
Jordan is Washington’s best Arab ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and is the second-leading recipient of U.S. economic and military assistance. But during a one-year span beginning in mid-November 2015, more Americans in uniform were killed in so-called green-on-blue killings in Jordan than in Afghanistan. Not only have the killings proved an embarrassment for Amman, in Jordan’s tribal society, the ongoing trial of one alleged perpetrator is a political minefield for the king.
On November 4, three vehicles carrying U.S. Special Forces members tasked with training moderate Syrian opposition fighters in Jordan attempted to enter Al Jafr military base. The cars were waved through the external gate, but then, according to the official Jordanian narrative, as the vehicles were waiting to clear the internal checkpoint, a shot was fired (or a car backfired) and a guard, Corporal Ma’arek Abu Tayeh, responded by opening fire on the first vehicle with his M-16 rifle.
One U.S. soldier was killed instantly; two other troops from the convoy identified themselves and fled. Nevertheless, over the next six and a half minutes, they were hunted down and executed at close range. Abu Tayeh was eventually critically wounded by a shot from a U.S. soldier whose car had earlier cleared the gates.
Amman reacted defensively to the shootings. Days after the incident, Jordanian authorities publicly blamed the U.S. soldiers for not following proper security procedures, including not stopping and properly identifying themselves. Some Jordanian officials even whispered that alcohol had been involved.
Just days after the incident, the U.S. Department of Defense, the FBI, and Jordan launched a joint investigation, and within weeks, Defense Department officials leaked their preliminary findings. In a November 21 interview with The Washington Post, anonymous U.S. officials involved with the investigation absolved American soldiers of any wrongdoing and “all but ruled out the possibility that a misunderstanding caused the event.” The U.S. Embassy in Amman, meanwhile, noted publicly that “no credible evidence” had emerged that the American soldiers had violated procedures.
Amman, for its part, continued to maintain Abu Tayeh’s innocence. On March 6—months after surveillance video had been widely distributed—Dina Kawar, Jordanian ambassador to Washington, penned a letter to Congressman Ted Poe, explaining her government’s version of the circumstances of the “unfortunate and tragic incident.” According to Kawar, Abu Tayeh had responded to a gunshot near the main entrance of the base “and accordingly fired toward the source of the sound in tandem with the passing of the vehicles of the U.S. side.” The findings of the investigations, she wrote, “confirm the absence of premeditated intentions.” Indeed, she wrote, “the fire exchange was quickly halted upon knowing that friendly US members were on the other side.”
A day after the Poe letter, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) issued its own report, which directly contradicted Kawar’s account. According to the redacted version of this report, there was no evidence that alcohol was involved, that U.S. soldiers were not complying with established procedures, or that Americans were the first ones to discharge their weapons. Moreover, based on the surveillance video and the behavior of nearly a dozen other Jordanian soldiers stationed at the gate, U.S. investigators concluded with certainty that no noise of any sort had occurred to trigger the attack.
The palace has not publicly refuted the results of the SOCOM investigation. At the same time, the news has apparently not been widely disseminated among the ranks. During a meeting with a Jordanian general officer in late April—more than a month after the SOCOM report had been filed—I was told in no uncertain terms that the killed U.S. soldiers had been drinking, ignored procedure, and arrived in Jordan more or less trained to disdain their Arab counterparts.
Even after the SOCOM report, many questions remain unanswered. The U.S. Department of Defense, for example, cleared other Jordanian guards of complicity in the attack. It’s unclear, however, why none of the other nearly dozen Jordanian soldiers stationed at the gate did not intervene to stop the killing of the U.S. soldiers, who, according to surveillance video footage and interviews, had raised their hands in the air. Nor did the SOCOM report delve into Abu Tayeh’s motives. To date, both the FBI and Jordanian authorities reportedly have not obtained forensic evidence—computer or smartphone files—linking Abu Tayeh to a terrorist organization such as ISIS.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Abu Tayeh’s true motives will ever be known. Although frustrating for the victims and the investigators, the ambiguity is expedient for Jordan’s King Abdullah. Absent a definitive link to a terrorist organization, Abu Tayeh is being tried as a “criminal” as opposed to a “terrorist.” If convicted, he will face not the death penalty, but life in prison with hard labor, a sentence of (just) 25 years.
This sentence, while significant, would avoid the potential political backlash the palace might face if it executed a member of the Huweitat, one of Jordan’s largest tribes and a crucial and early supporter in the 1920s of Hashemite rule in the kingdom. Already, there is a Facebook page called “We are all Ma’arek Abu Tayeh,” and several Arabic poems have been posted online by fellow tribesmen extolling his honor. Just days after the attack, a tweet from the tribe’s Twitter account demanded that Abu Tayeh be promoted for his heroism and than an apology be issued from the U.S. Embassy in Amman.
Managing these incidents has proved inordinately complex for Abdullah. The last friendly fire incident occurred in November 2015 at the Jordanian International Police Training Center (JIPTC) in Muwaqqar, less than a year before Al Jafr. During that attack, a radicalized Jordanian policeman shot and killed two American trainers, two South Africans, and two of his fellow countrymen before being killed himself. At the funeral procession of the police officer, 3,000 angry demonstrators and family members chanted “death to America.”
That was particularly shocking for a country long thought to be an ally. Between November 2015 and November 2016, of the approximately 2,000 U.S. military forces stationed in Jordan, five were killed, all by local counterparts. In Afghanistan in that same period, some 16 of the nearly 10,000 deployed died, and none in green-on-blue attacks. The difference may seem small, but expectations for Jordan are radically different than for Afghanistan, where green-on-blue incidents have been relatively common. Jordan, on the other hand, is a U.S. ally and a partner of Israel. The security services—the army, police, and the mukhabarat or intelligence services—are staffed primarily by Jordanians of tribal origin, whose loyalty to the king and the monarchy has long been axiomatic.
Given the popular sentiment in the kingdom toward the U.S., though, the targeting of uniformed Americans is not particularly surprising. Indeed, the U.S. military presence in the kingdom is deeply unpopular. Despite providing Jordan with nearly $1.7 billion in military and economic assistance in 2016—nearly 10 percent of the kingdom’s total annual budget—according to polling, 83 percent of Jordanians hold an unfavorable view of the United States, the highest among the 39 countries surveyed by Pew in 2015.
The green-on-blue incidents, as well as the increased overall terrorism threat in the kingdom, prompted a 2017 policy review and subsequent changes in U.S. policy in Jordan. The SOCOM report recommended that personnel now carry at least one rifle in each vehicle in a convoy and, when possible, use armored vehicles. Since the JIPTC attack—consistent with post–Fort Hood guidelines on bases in the continental United States—U.S. forces in Jordan are now reportedly allowed to carry loaded weapons on base. Although such changes are necessary and appropriate, they may not be sufficient to preempt further attacks. Indeed, it is impossible to know how deeply the process of radicalization now impacting Jordanian society is affecting the king’s army. So, regrettably, even as Washington adapts to changing circumstance, the risk for U.S. military personnel in Jordan is likely to persist.
Still, despite the hazards, the kingdom’s leaders continue to demonstrate an unwavering pro-Western orientation and forcefully advocate for religious moderation and tolerance. In an increasingly unstable region, close military and intelligence cooperation with Amman remains a strategic boon for Washington. But as the tragic incident at Al Jafr shows, the benefits of the U.S. partnership with Jordan come with costs.