With the Islamic State group eyeing Jordan in its march to establishing a caliphate across the Middle East, the Hashemite Kingdom is bolstering its defenses along its long borders with Iraq and Syria, where the jihadist group holds sway. But experts warn that Jordan’s greatest threat from IS is not along the border, but rather from within the country itself.
Despite international airstrikes, IS has continued to gain ground in Iraq and Syria. Neighboring both countries to the southwest, the moderate Sunni, key Western ally Jordan is feared as a potential next target.
David Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Jordan has the military capability to prevent a border invasion from Islamist militants.
“Jordan has a loyal, coherent, homogenous, well-trained by regional standards, military,” Schenker told The Times of Israel. “Jordan has very good border security.”
An outspoken member of the international coalition against IS, Jordan has also harnessed Western support to reinforce its border.
Officials recently announced that Israel has given Jordan 16 US-supplied Cobra combat helicopters, and there have been reports of Israel flying drones along Jordan’s Syrian border to collect intelligence and thwart potential attacks.
“Jordan has managed to contain and counter ISIS attempts to penetrate Jordan,” Hasan Al Momani, assistant dean and professor at the University of Jordan, told The Times of Israel. “[Along the border], ISIS has not directly threatened Jordan’s security.”
Over 3,000 pointed bombing raids, along with guarantees that Western allies would come to Jordan’s full defense if needed, have also helped prevent IS from establishing a strong position near the Jordanian border, save for the Trebil border crossing — at Jordan’s northeast tip — which was seized by militants in June but quickly recaptured by Iraqi security forces.
With the border situation currently contained, some national security experts say Jordan’s greatest threat is an invasion not from IS’s militants, but from its ideas.
“The real problem in the Kingdom is not the border, but that ideology traverses borders,” said Schenker.
Indeed, this ideology has compelled an estimated 2,000 Jordanians to travel to Syria to fight Bashar al-Assad. In April, several Jordanians who had joined IS released a video of them burning their passports and pledging to slaughter King Abdullah.
A month earlier, Walla News reported that IDF sources knew of an IS following of Bedouin tribes in southern Jordan, signaling the internal threats of sleeper cells and lone wolves.
“There are some undercurrents of salafist, jihadist ideologies in [Jordan],” Colin Clarke, an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation, told The Times of Israel. “There are certainly some bastions of support for ISIS’ ideology in the country.”
Although Jordan is regarded as among the most moderate Arab countries, IS’s mission, particularly in Syria, is not so abstract for some Jordanians. Observing the deaths of over 300,000 fellow Muslims at the hands of the Assad regime has generated popular support in Jordan for his overthrow.
‘The real problem in the Kingdom is not the border, but that ideology traverses borders’
According to a poll by the University of Jordan, only 62 percent of Jordan’s 6.5 million citizens considered IS a terrorist organization in 2014. Jordan’s trending Twitter hashtag at the time was #ThisIsNotOurWar, reflecting initial resistance to joining the international coalition.
IS’s reputation began to tumble shortly after, largely during last December when militants burned alive Jordanian pilot Moaz Al Kasasbeh and flaunted it in a 22-minute video.
Momani called the pilot’s murder a “game changer.” Kasasbeh’s name and image have since graced countless posters and flooded social media, while used by King Abdullah and other politicians as a national rallying cry against IS.
The 2005 Amman hotel bombings had a similar effect. Killing 60 people and injuring over 100, the high-profile attacks flipped Jordanian public opinion of al-Qaeda in the span of a few days.
However, Schenker said the low threshold of support that terrorism needs to operate continues to make IS a threat within Jordan.
“[The Jordanian pilot] appears to have had this rallying effect and turned the Kingdom against ISIS,” he said. “But even if the percentage [of Jordanians supporting ISIS] drops to a very small percent, that’s still a problem.”
One source of concern is the 700,000 refugees collected in Jordan since the Syrian civil war’s outbreak in 2011. Poor living conditions, coupled with refugees’ connections back to Syria, have made refugee camps a threat of growing extremism within Jordan.
In fact, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of IS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was born and largely radicalized in northern Jordan. He was killed by a US airstrike in 2006.
Clarke, the RAND Corporation analyst, called the refugee camps “petri dishes” for extremism. He equally stressed the threat of foreign fighters returning to Jordan, which might be more difficult to control than most expect.
“It’s a lot harder for someone from Syria to sneak back into the United States under the radar of law enforcement,” Clarke said. “It’s a lot easier [in Jordan] when you’re already in the region.”
Given Jordan’s border security yet looming internal threats, some have likened Jordan’s security situation to those of Western countries. During a five-week span in May and June, nine men in the US were either arrested or killed by law enforcement for allegedly plotting IS-inspired attacks.
France has seen a series of attacks since IS’s rise, from the January Charlie Hebdo shooting to one Frenchman’s beheading of his employer in late June, both of which have been linked to the Islamic State.
“In a way, it’s a similar problem set,” Schenker said, but pointed to one distinction. “In France, they may be able to narrow down the pool of potential domestic threats. In Jordan, the pool is a little bit deeper.”