Jordan: Al-Qaeda clouds a precarious future

Posted in Broader Middle East , Terrorism | 24-Dec-08 | Author: Michael Scheuer| Source: Asia Times

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 50% Palestinian, Jordan became an ever-more useful place for Palestinian radicals to hang their hats while preparing plans to destroy Israel.

Under King Hussein bin Talal (1952 to 1999), 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 United States-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 terror"; then with its invasion of Iraq - for which it was rewarded by a doubling of US aid in 2004 and continuing increases since; and finally with the West's aid-boycott of the Hamas-led government in Gaza.

The Amman regime began running hospitals in Fallujah in Iraq and Mazar-i-Sharif - the latter in North Atlantic Treaty Organization-occupied Afghanistan - and soon after paid the price for supporting US 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 Hussein'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 US-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 mujahideen. That the Islamists' anti-US 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. 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. 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 US-led coalition to condone a quiet campaign of ethnic cleansing by Iraqi Shi'ites 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. In addition, the refugee population contains a proportion of Iraqi Shi'ites, and their presence in the country is sharpening sectarian differences in overwhelmingly Sunni Jordanian society. The large refugee presence, moreover, probably ensures that Jordan would be the scene of fighting between its Iraqi Sunni and Shi'ite guests if Iraq slips into civil war.
  • Most recently, the apparently temporary success of the US 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.

    In response to these realities, the Amman government clamped down on Islamist activities within the country, especially after 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 Zarqawi; imprisoned a poet writing verse praising 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.

    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."

    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. 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".

    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 mujahideen 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.

    NEXT: Palestine and Israel

    Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years before resigning in 2004. He served as the chief of the Bin Laden Unit at the Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999. He is the once anonymous author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror; his most recent book is Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq. Dr Scheuer is a Senior Fellow with The Jamestown Foundation.

    (This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)

    (Copyright 2008 The Jamestown Foundation.)
  • Share