A Mujahideen Bleed-Through from Iraq? Part Three – The Case of Jordan

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 39

Jordanian police patrol the scene of a 2005 bombing in Amman (EPA)
Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Jordan has been a nation living in an uneasy relationship with the Sunni Islamist movement. With a population more than fifty-percent Palestinian, Jordan became an ever-more useful place for Palestinian radicals to hang their hats while preparing plans to destroy Israel. Under King Hussein, the radicals were allowed to be in Jordan, but the country’s pervasive and effective security services moderated the domestic problems they caused, save for flashes of admittedly intense violence. Over time – and after another war – King Hussein also became a central player in the Arab-Israeli peace process, earning the animosity of some of Jordan’s Palestinian guests, as well as those of Jordan’s domestic Islamist leaders, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist organizations – most of whom enjoyed external funding from the Gulf. To say that Jordan was always one step ahead of Islamist trouble probably is fair, but King Hussein proved to be a deft political operator and managed both to keep the security lid on and maintain popularity among the people.

Then Hussein died, his son Abdullah took the throne, and the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq, all of which yielded a significantly more dangerous internal security environment for Jordan. The new king, Abdullah, was not made of the same stern stuff and craftiness as his father and he seemed to exude a Westernized persona that did not sit well with the country’s Islamists. While this weakness might have been overcome in time, Abdullah soon encountered a situation in which he first aligned Jordan with Washington’s post-9/11 war on terrorism; then with its invasion of Iraq – for which it was rewarded by a doubling of U.S. aid in 2004 and continuing increases since; and finally with the West’s aid-boycott of the Hamas-led government in Gaza (Reuters, January 14). The Amman regime began running hospitals in Fallujah and Mazar-i-Sharif – the latter in NATO-occupied Afghanistan – and soon after paid the price for supporting U.S. policy in Iraq with attacks on its interests and personnel within Iraq. Most importantly, Jordan now faced a world in which the durable shield of Saddam’s Iraq – which had prevented the entry of large numbers of Sunni jihadis from the Gulf and South Asia – was shattered.

Of the Levant’s Arab states, Jordan suffered quickly and most severely from the U.S.-led coalition’s destruction of the anti-jihadi bulwark Saddam’s Iraq reliably provided on Jordan’s eastern border. The end of Saddam’s reign vastly increased Jordan’s domestic security problems:

• Jordan’s domestic Islamists and their organizations not only resented King Abdullah’s decision to support both of Washington’s wars, but they quickly moved to incite young Jordanian Muslims to go to Iraq and fight the foreign occupiers. These groups also assisted non-Jordanian Muslims from across the Islamic community to securely transit the country and enter Iraq to join the mujahedeen. That the Islamists’ anti-U.S. and anti-regime attitudes found increased popular support after the invasion of Iraq is evident in the success of the Islamic Action Front (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm) in winning 17 seats in Jordan’s parliament in the 2003 election, the largest single group in that 110-seat body. This total dropped to six in the 2007 election when the Front ran candidates in only 30 seats because of the regime’s failure to follow through with promised electoral reforms.

• The invasion and occupation of Iraq also gave unexpected scope to the lethal talents of a Jordanian named Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, who quickly rose from being the leader of his own small group to being named the commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi’s organization continued expanding inside Jordan while he was in Iraq – including with some success in the country’s military — and his heroic style and successful military operations inspired a large number of young Jordanian men (Times, November 13, 2005). Since al-Zarqawi’s death, al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups cite what they describe as his “knightly example” as an element of their propaganda products.

• The willingness of the U.S.-led coalition to condone a quiet campaign of ethnic cleansing by Iraqi Shias drove enormous numbers of Iraq’s Sunnis abroad. For Jordan this meant hosting 500,000 to 800,000 Iraqi refugees – some estimates range up to a million. Most of these refugees entered the country illegally and so are only slowly becoming known to the security services (bitterlemons-international.org, December 15, 2005). In addition, the refugee population contains a proportion of Iraqi Shias, and their presence in the country is sharpening sectarian differences in overwhelmingly Sunni Jordanian society (AP, November 17, 2006). The large refugee presence, moreover, probably ensures that Jordan would be the scene of fighting between its Iraqi Sunni and Shia guests if Iraq slips into civil war.

• Most recently, the apparently temporary success of the U.S. military “surge” in Iraq resulted in a large number of al-Qaeda and Sunni fighters deciding to leave western Iraq for safe havens abroad, a majority of them heading for Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. As a result, Jordanian security services are now confronting the potential for trouble posed not only by would-be mujahideen who have been unable to get through Jordan to Iraq, but also by veteran fighters angry that they had to leave Iraq (Reuters, November 22, 2005).

In response to these realities, the Amman government clamped down on Islamist activities within the country, especially after al-Zarqawi’s forces launched missiles against Israel from Jordanian territory and bombed the Radisson Hotel in the capital. Jordanian authorities harassed Islamist parliamentary deputies who expressed condolences for al-Zarqawi; imprisoned a poet writing verse praising Osama bin Laden; acted to put the authority for issuing fatwas under a state-appointed council; and made state approval necessary before mosque clerics could begin preaching (al-Jazeera, June 12, 2006; Financial Times, June 22, 2006; AP, September 4, 2006). After Islamist violence increased in Jordan, Abd-al-Bari Atwan, the editor of London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi, wrote; “the most dangerous thing that could result from these bombings is the Jordanian Government’s exploitation of them to impose more restrictive security measures on the pretext of confronting terrorism” (Al-Quds al-Arabi, November 15, 2001).

Atwan’s worst-case scenario appears to have come to pass, although it is not clear Amman had any other choice. The government has passed more stringent anti-terrorism laws, and the security services have used them in ways that increased the alienation of much of the Islamist community, especially in the Islamist-heavy towns of Zarqa, Ma’an, Salt, and the Palestinian refugee camp near the city of Irbid (Al-Hayat, October 5, 2007). The government’s heavy-hand in checking the Islamists has undermined King Abdallah’s efforts to increase his popularity and reinforced the Islamists’ negative assessment of Abdallah and his regime as “the West’s favorite ally” (The Hindu, February 9, 2007).

Jordan is not, of course, in immediate danger of being swept by an Islamist tide; the domestic Islamist movement is not powerful enough to take power by force, the country’s security services are formidable, and the government will not permit a fair general election. Still, Jordan’s long-term stability is precarious because of the Iraq war’s negative impact on a society constantly threatened by destabilization because of its Palestinian population and support for the Western-advocated Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As in the case of Lebanon and Syria, the end of the Saddam-maintained barrier preventing the entry of most Sunni militants into the Levant through Iraq has left Jordan to face not only its own growing Islamist community – the growth of which is in part due to Amman’s support for the Iraq war – but also an inflow of foreign Islamists, some of whom are veteran mujahedeen and many of whom appear to be Saudi-style Salafists.

From al-Qaeda’s perspective the situation in Jordan is progressing in a favorable manner. Bin Laden has long targeted the Hashemite monarchy because of its refusal to allow the mujahideen to launch raids from Jordan into Israel. Al-Qaeda itself has had a shadowy presence in Jordan, first led by bin Laden’s late brother-in-law Muhammad Jamal Khalifah, almost since its inception in 1988. Bin Laden and his lieutenants surely see Jordan as a target for destabilization, as well as a place from which al-Qaeda can establish a presence capable of attacking Israel.