On August 10, one police officer was killed and six civilians were wounded in al-Fuheis, Jordan when an IED detonated near a police vehicle (Alaraby, August 11). The attack prompted a swift response from the security forces, which identified the suspected perpetrator’s hideout in al-Salt. Five security personnel were killed during a siege of the property the following day. The building was ladened with explosive tripwires, and the terror cell engaged Jordanian state forces in a gun battle. Authorities arrested three suspected jihadists after the siege, and the bodies of five others were identified in the rubble of the building (Asharq al-Awsat, August 13).
Despite its proximity to Syria and the Islamic State’s proto-state, Jordan has been spared the frequent jihadist attacks which have punctuated the Middle East since the Islamic State (IS) began seizing population centers in 2014. The most notable incident was the armed raid of Karak Castle in December 2016, in which 14 people, including four attackers, were killed (Jordan Times, December 18, 2016). While fatal attacks have been rare, reports of the security forces arresting suspected jihadist sympathizers have been more common. In January 2018, the security forces announced they had dismantled a terrorist cell which was buying bomb parts and staking out potential targets in Amman (Jordan Times, January 8). The aggressive operations of the jihadist cell have raised concerns of a resurgence in terror attacks in the Hashemite Kingdom.
In the immediate aftermath of the security operation, assumptions that the assailants were foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria were swiftly proven wrong following an announcement by Interior Minister Sameer al-Mobaideen. The cell was comprised of Jordanian nationals who were externally influenced by IS’s substantial caches of online propaganda, but had neither known links to the IS hierarchy nor past foreign travel (Arab News, August 14). While the priority for the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) has been deterring the 3,000-4,000 Jordanians who left to join IS in Iraq and Syria from returning, less attention has been afforded to creeping radicalization within the Jordanian border.
The attack displayed the insurgency tactics that are a key facet of cells influenced by IS ideology. Targeting assets associated with the security forces are an attempt to destabilize the kingdom without alienating potential domestic support—many still remember the burning of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaabeh in January 2015, which was met by public revulsion. The cell had also accrued significant capabilities, with numerous explosive devices primed and ready for use while significant caches of firearms were seized (Arab News, August 14). Despite the security forces being able to quickly identify the group’s hideout following the attack, the cell was previously operating without infiltration by the GID, and its presence highlights the potential for domestically radicalized factions.
The GID has suggested the cell was independent and newly formed, increasing the likelihood that radicalization was influenced by domestic factors. While radicalization is a complex process with no clear roadmap, factors known to contribute to jihadism are evident in Jordan. These include political disenfranchisement, economic degradation and marginalization. Accusations of state repression are commonplace. Since a controversial anti-terrorism law was passed in 2014, the state has arrested thousands of suspected IS sympathizers using the broad conception of terrorism outlined in the legislation (Jordan Times, September 18). It is difficult to know how many have been detained, charged or imprisoned, as the state does not release official records. In an attempt to pursue a hardline approach against potential jihadists and create a viable deterrent, the state has fostered an atmosphere of resentment.
State influence over both social and religious rights has furthered accusations of repression. The government has created a “unified sermon” policy, which provides imams with a “party line” for all Friday prayers, limiting the potential for radical speech or jihadist interpretations of Islam (Albawaba, July 17, 2017). Islamist political parties complain of suppression due to laws which limit electoral opportunities. Jordan’s Western ties, especially with the United States, have furthered accusations that the state is a Western proxy, foregoing the rights and wishes of its own citizens to display commitment to its Western relationships. Although Jordan is far from a breeding ground for radicalization, a complex socio-political relationship with marginalized communities is driving perceptions of state repression.
Following the al-Fuheis attack, King Abdullah responded using fiery rhetoric, vowing to end the existence of terrorism in Jordan (Ma’an, August 13). Such claims indicate the state is likely to continue its hardline stance against jihadist sympathizers. The GID has significant resources and aid from Western allies, and the trend of frequent arrests in the name of counter-terrorism is likely to continue. Concurrently, the accusations of state repression are unlikely to subside. Jordan exists in a fine balance—spared the violent sectarianism of its neighbors, but consistently subduing ever-growing social, political and economic issues. Owing to the state’s rejection of Salafi-jihadist interpretations of Islam, the increased presence of seasoned jihadists and Jordan’s perception as a Western ally, jihadism in Jordan could become a burgeoning problem.