Image Jordan in crisis John Sjoholm Lima Charlie News

Jordan, a Middle East crossroads in crisis

Op-Ed. A staunch US ally, Jordan has for a long time been a reliable recruiting ground for jihadist entities. In the midst of an economic crisis, a refugee crisis, unemployment, and even a drought, Jordan has now seen a dramatic increase in extremism within its own borders.

2016 was the 70th anniversary of the creation of Jordan. Recent years have not been kind to the US Allied Kingdom. The Jordanian economy is severely crippled. Unemployment is officially over the 15 percent mark, with a mighty 75 percent among graduates. The poverty level officially climbed above 20 percent. One third of the country’s population are refugees from Jordan’s war-torn neighbors. Jordan seeks to portray itself as a proud, welcoming, and resilient society amidst turbulent waters in an increasingly unstable region. But such a viewpoint is not enough to sustain a nation that is amongst the region’s fastest growing in population, while experiencing an increasingly stagnating economy.

Heavily dependent on tourism, Jordan has seen a 66 percent drop since 2011. The government’s introduction of austerity policies in 2011 was followed by a surge of anger and unrest. Late 2016 saw a minor tourism upswing after an extensive public relations campaign. That was prior to a renewed regional and local terror campaign conducted by the Islamic State.

A poor economic state, high unemployment rates and a tourism industry in disarray, have all functioned to fuel an underlying anger and dissatisfaction ordinary Jordanians have towards their lot in society. Jordan’s rulers and politicians have also faced deep resentment as the population has lost confidence in their ability to keep them safe. All factors that might, in turn, risk tipping the Jordanian homeland into a cycle of instability that is regrettably common in this part of the world.

It is in this backdrop that Jordan has seen a dramatic increase in extremism within its own borders. While the majority of violent clashes have been caused by foreign extremists, that is quickly changing. Where militant extremists used to originate primarily from Salafist Jihadi movements, such as al Qaeda, it is becoming evident that a noticeable and growing minority in the country are now favoring the surging number of religious militant groups that deem al Qaeda and its affiliates too liberal.

We’ve had a perfect slow-moving storm, where everything that could go wrong around us has done so. It’s unprecedented for what is a low to middle-income country like Jordan,” says Imad Falkhoury, the Planning and International Co-Operation Minister. His perspective on the severity of the matter might be, at best, debatable. Falkhoury is often seen traveling in his ministerial automobile, a silver metallic €100,000 Tesla Model S, headed toward Amman’s popular nightlife destination, Rainbow Street.

The attacks in Jordan, just like those before it in Indonesia, Egypt, Spain and the United States, demonstrate that terrorism does not discriminate by race, ethnicity or region. Instead, terrorists indiscriminately target those seeking to live a peaceful, loving and free life.

– Allyson Schwartz

The number of returning radicalized Jordanians from the region’s many hot spots has increased dramatically. Many have fought against governments, and the more secular militia groups, to defend the creation and preservation of a Sharia based state. With their return, local Jihadist movements have begun to lose dedicated followers and disassociate from the old leadership of mainstream jihadists and their leaders, such as Al-Maqdasi and Abu Qatadah. As a result of this, established groups are quickly losing recruitment possibilities and grassroots support.

Jordan has for a long time been a reliable recruiting ground for more traditional Jihadist entities. The new and more extreme generation of Islamist organizations are quickly gaining favor. This has caused serious problems for the Jordanian security apparatus as it has not yet managed to adapt, adopt, and apply suitable strategies to meet these new challenges. While the Jordanian intelligence community has managed to penetrate the domestic groups in their entirety, the newer organizations are much more disassociated from a central leadership. They are operating towards a loosely held idea of a common goal, and thus making it significantly more difficult to infiltrate to a useful level.

These difficulties are evident following the government’s response to the December 2016 Security Threat. Government Security Agencies performed a series of raids across the nation, particularly in Amman, Irbid, Zarqa and Al-Baqa’a. Amongst the detained individuals are known Salafi leaders and operators, all from the established and known local Salafi movement. Most of them are involved directly in pro-Islamist reformist movements in Jordan, but have only unverifiable supporting ties to outright terrorist organizations.

Image tweet Jordan Karak attack

While al Qaeda can today be seen as having a strict and immovable interpretation of what needs to be done, the new generation of decentralized jihadist organizations are showing an ability and willingness to adapt their ideologies and overcome local restrictions in a fiercely pragmatic fashion. Expansion is seen as the key to success for this new generation of jihadists and religious leaders. To best further their foothold, recruitment potential, and financial revenues, these organizations clearly invest smartly in the particular actions they need to take in the region. As such, they look towards soft targets that have the maximum potential for publication, and embarrass the established governments and organizations that stand in their way.

The al Karak Castle attack on December 18th, 2016 was a milestone. There are no indicators that the attack was the one that was planned, but rather all indicators point towards a large scale set of attacks that had been planned and prepared across the Jordanian nation during the Christian holidays, and the non-Islamic New Year celebration. The swift actions of the Jordanian Security Forces, once they were notified of the potential threat, foiled these plans but still caused an immense ripple effect across the world. Even being a botched operation, the December 18th attack was a propaganda success for the Islamic State in Jordan and the region.

“The Arab World is writing a new future; the pen is in our own hands.”

– Abdullah II of Jordan

On January 30th, King Abdullah of Jordan will be turning 55 years of age. On February 7th he will be celebrating his 18th year as the ruling monarch of Jordan. By the end of March he will be hosting the 2017 Arab League Summit, where 22 member states of the Arab League will converge. Originally, the Summit was to be held in Yemen, but it was moved due to the ongoing conflict in that country, a conflict in which a majority of the member states are directly involved.

The Summit will play a critical role in the Jordanian King’s plan to show a unified front, and a strong example to the world. Critically dependent on tourist revenue and contributions from richer neighbors, a loss of face and the perception of stability would be devastating to the Jordanian Kingdom and its leader. With the Islamic State waging a savagely vicious battle in Iraq and Syria, and quickly losing its strategic strongholds, it is likely we will see the rapid and brutal emergence of a continuing terror campaign in Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and Europe. In just the first 72 hours of 2017, Baghdad saw a total of 15 car bombings that killed scores of people, and wounded many more. The attacks occurred not strictly towards legitimate military targets, but also against civilian areas under overt Shi’a control – in particular open markets.

If similar tactics were applied against the Jordanian civilian population, it would damage the Jordanian kingdom severely at this critical time. This is when the new generation of Jihadist movements would find the best return on their investments to strike, not just in Jordan, but across the region. Not only would such attacks dampen diplomatic efforts in the region, but they would seriously damage and curtail the coming tourist season.

Image Jordanian Army anti-Terrorism squad
Jordanian Army anti-Terrorism squad

Jordan posses the enviable position as a natural geographic travel and logistics hub in the region, and has used this to the best of its abilities to gain an important diplomatic and military position with its neighbors and Western allies. What makes Jordan so ideally suitable as a hub for these activities is also what makes it a prime target for infiltration and establishment of terror organizations. Whereas al Qaeda was sated with operating quietly within the nation’s borders, not seeking overt confrontation with the government unless absolutely necessary, the alternative organizations consider it vital to show their prowess and volatile nature as they establish themselves. If the Islamic State, its affiliates, and other similar organizations establish themselves further in the country, they will find the geographic location to be useful for support and operations across the majority of the region and will commit themselves to a terror campaign throughout the area to prove their existence.

This is not the first time terror cells established themselves and carried out attacks inside Jordan. In the early 1970s, the Jordanian Armed Forces, under the leadership of King Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, fought a bloody and violent insurgency-fueled civil war against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), led by Yasser Arafat. In the 1990s, the Jordanian government became engaged in an open struggle against a wide array of post-Cold War terror cells, such as al Qaeda. As a premier ally to the US, Jordan became a vital member of the Global War on Terror after the attack on the US in 2001.

In recent years, Jordan has produced several Islamist extremists, a majority of which have been al Qaeda affiliated. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi oversaw the creation of al Qaeda insurgency in Iraq. Doctor Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi is the man that carried out the infamous suicide bombing on Camp Chapman in Afghanistan, killing 7 American Central Intelligence Agency officers and contractors, an officer of Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, and an Afghan working for the CIA. al-Balawi’s attack was the most lethal attack against the CIA in more than 25 years. Sami al-Oraydi, also from Jordan, is the current primary religious authority for the al-Nusra Front, and is the group’s second-in-command in Syria.

In December 2016 alone, the Government executed 5 Islamic State operatives by hanging them, after they had been found guilty of planning attacks from their safe house in Irbid. During the raid against their safe house, a Jordanian Security officer was killed, and several of the 27 Islamic State operatives were killed. 15 of the operatives were sentenced to hard labor for up to 15 years.

I’m proud of what I’ve done in Jordan, but the region itself is sitting on a time bomb.

– King Hussein of Jordan

Experiencing first hand, as well as having no small amount of foresight of what is to come, King Hussein saw it as vital that a small, nimble, and specialized military be prepared to fight in asymmetrical warfare within its own borders. With this in mind, the Jordanian military is amongst the absolute best in the region. King Hussein also opted to make sure that his son, Prince Abdullah, had strong military training and mindset.

In 1980, 18-year old Prince Abdullah was admitted to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and commissioned into the British Army as a Second Lieutenant. After successfully completing his training, he served a year in Britain and West Germany as a Troop Commander in the 13th/18th Royal Hussars. After his British military service, he studied Middle Eastern Affairs at Pembroke College. Upon returning home he was immediately put into the Royal Jordanian Army, serving as an officer in the 40th Armored Brigade, and undergoing a parachuting and freefall course overseen by the US Special Forces and the Central Intelligence Special Activities Directorate. In 1985, the Prince attended the Armored Officer’s Advanced Course at Fort Knox. By 1986, he became Commander of a tank company in the 91st Armored Brigade, holding the rank of Captain. He also served with the Royal Jordanian Air Force in its Anti-Tank Wing, where he was trained to fly attack helicopters.

Image King Abdullah II
King Abdullah II

The Prince successfully completed a decade of military training programs in Jordan and the Western allied countries forces, specializing in a variety of counter-insurgency tactics and strategic studies. This included special training with the British Army Special Air Services (SAS) and US Army Special Forces. Upon returning home, he assumed command of Jordan’s Special Forces and other elite units as a Brigadier General. He reorganized them into the Joint Special Operations Command, with an amalgam of the British and American Special Forces in mind.

Where his father, King Hussein, was known as a diplomat of world merit who would have given Machiavelli a run for his money, King Abdullah is regionally known as the Warrior King. Under King Abdullah’s leadership the Jordanian military has become known as the most modern military in the Arab world.

With the King’s impeccable English (which is actually better than his Arabic), Western schooling, and the image he presents, he is championed as the very definition of a moderate and pragmatic Arab leader by his Western benefactors. Yet, the King is seen by the international community to be holding the kingdom, and somewhat the region, together with spit and balling wire, much like President Yeltsin after the demise of the Soviet Union.

If the first quarter of 2017 and Jordan’s security woes were not enough of a headache for the King and his Kingdom, Jordan is now suffering a severe natural resource drought. Amidst the weakening financial state across the region, a burgeoning refugee crisis, a broadening set of civil and uncivil conflicts, and with Western allies exhausted, these matters by themselves are enough to bring forth a vexing and severe state to the Kingdom. Combined they could very well wreck utter havoc.

US assistance provides the Jordanian government needed flexibility to pursue policies that are of critical importance to U.S. national security and to foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.

– Richard Armitage

In early 2016, the Jordanian parliament approved a budget which included belt-tightening and new taxes, leading analysts to conclude that the country was quickly heading towards insolvency. The 2016 budget accounts for total expenses of 8.496 billion dinars ($11.983 billion), total revenues of 7.589 billion dinars ($10.704 billion), and a deficit of 907 million dinars ($1.279 billion), or about three percent of GDP. In 2016, the Kingdom also received nearly $3 billion in grants and aid money, of which the Jordan Response Plan (JRP) to the Syrian crisis 2016-2018 received $1.02 billion – nearly 40% of the total amount needed to keep the government afloat. It is believed that in order to keep the kingdom afloat for 2017, the total budget, grants, and aid money need to be increased by upwards of 20%.

Jordan has also become the second worst country in the world for per-capita water scarcity. In towns near the border, local authorities have been forced to reduce access to water supplies for locals by three-quarters to meet the needs of a continuing stream of refugees from across the region. Some fear the King could soon see protests and displays of anti-monarchical sentiment again at a similar level as what was seen in 2011.

With all that is going on and what is at stake for the region, and for Jordan, the Kingdom’s problems are just beginning.

John Sjoholm, Middle East Bureau Chief, Lima Charlie News

John Sjoholm is Lima Charlie’s Middle East Bureau Chief, and the founder of the consulting organization Erudite Group. He is a seasoned Middle East connoisseur, with a past in the Swedish Army’s Special Forces branch and the Security Contracting industry. He studied religion and languages in Sana’a, Yemen, and Cairo, Egypt. He lived and operated extensively in the Middle East between 2005-2012 as part of regional stabilizing projects, and currently resides in Jordan. Follow John on Twitter: @JohnSjoholmLC

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