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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Politics

Can King Abdullah Keep Jordan out of the Fire?

King Abdullah II of Jordan waits for a meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill February 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKIBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

While a March 2016 raid in Irbid, Jordan by the country’s security services resulted in the successful apprehension of 13 accused terrorist plotters[i], events both inside the Hashemite Kingdom and throughout the region may threaten the stability that has earmarked Jordan and its King as a vital ally in the U.S.-led fight against Islamist extremism and as an island of stability in the Arab world.  Regarding stability, Jordan’s cooperation with Israel in maintaining a quiet border region with the Jewish state elevates its standing In addition to the arrests, armed attacks by ISIS-linked “alleged-terrorists”[ii] targeting Jordanian security forces near the Syrian border were repelled, resulting in the death of one Jordanian soldier.  Such events illustrate the precarious position that Jordan and its American-backed leader, King Abdullah, continue to find itself as ISIS hardens its presences on its Northern and Eastern borders with Syria and Iraq, respectively.  Furthermore, Jordan’s involvement in the American-led anti-ISIS coalition make it a target for the extremist group bent on sowing chaos and fear throughout the region; spreading the Syrian narrative to Jordan would certainly please extremist groups in not only removing another long-standing Arab leader, but also in de-stabilizing Israel’s long-quiet security on its eastern border.  With at least 640,000 Syrian refugees housed in UN camps[iii] within Jordan as of present, the continued conflict to its North and East remains a threat to the country’s congruence and stability.

Since the formation of the anti-ISIS coalition in late 2014, Jordan has taken a more aggressive stance against extremism both vocally and militarily.  In November of 2015, on the heels of the Paris attacks, King Abdullah stated, “Confronting extremism is both a regional and international responsibility, but is mainly our battle, us Muslims, against those who seek to hijack our societies and generations with intolerant takfiri ideology.”[iv] Takfiri is a term applied to an unbeliever, used by militant groups to sanction violence against certain individuals and groups of peoples.[v] Militarily, after Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh crashed his plane and was subsequently executed by ISIS in January of 2015, Jordan sortied 30 aircraft in operations hitting ISIS targets throughout Syria.[vi] Jordan’s Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh, stated in a retaliatory gesture, “We are upping the ante.  We’re going after them wherever they are, with everything that we have.  But it’s not the beginning, and it’s certainly not the end.”[vii] With rhetoric and tangible action, Jordan has certainly separated itself from its Arab neighbors in its aggressiveness and willingness to combat terrorism threats outside of its borders.

King Abdullah, with a pledge of $1 billion per year in American aid over the next three years[viii], including military aid, undoubtedly understands his position as a bulwark against extremism in the same way his father, King Hussein, served during his tenure as ruler of Jordan.  King Hussein, in the 1970 Black September civil war between government forces and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters, triumphed and proved his ability to combat insurgencies and terrorism.  While the PLO does not fall within the same prism as ISIS, the point here is to shed light on Jordan’s long history of counter-insurgency, leading to a more favorable relationship with the U.S.  Much like his father, King Abdullah’s relationship with the U.S, specifically, highlights this geostrategic role for which Jordan’s King holds the torch among the coalition members in the fight against Islamist extremist elements.  However, Jordan’s hardened position has not spared it over from terrorism over the past decade or more.

Although Jordan maintains a history of military competency in crushing insurgencies and anti-terrorism, King Abdullah has increasingly found his country in the crosshairs of extremist groups.  While the 2005 hotel bombings in Amman, attributed to ISIS’s predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq, stand as the bloodiest terrorist incident in Jordanian history (60 killed, 115 injured)[ix], smaller-scaled attacks such as the shooting USAID’s executive officer of its Amman mission, Larry Foley, in 2002,[x] and the killing of six individuals by a Jordanian police officer on a U.S-funded military training facility in November of 2015,[xi] remind the King that his country’s security remains in question.  Furthermore, and in light of an estimated 1,800 Jordanian citizens fighting with ISIS and al-Nusra Front[xii], two of the most notorious terrorists of the 20th century were Jordanian-borne: Samir Salih Abdalla al-Suwaylim who adopted the nom de guerre Omar Ibn al-Khattab, known for leading foreign fighters in Chechnya from 1995 until his death in 2002, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq until his death in 2006.  Therefore, while Jordan continues military operations both inside and outside the country, including a long history of hosting joint U.S military training missions, King Abdullah’s hard-fought stability will come under further strain as he continues speaking and acting against Islamic extremist groups.

In addition, his immunity from the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 was certainly not accidental nor without pause.  Detrimental to King Abdullah is perhaps Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom in the World Report, which gave Jordan a 5.5 freedom rating, 5 civil liberties rating, and a 6 political rights rating (1 being the best, 7 the worst).[xiii]  Jordan’s democratic indicators, notably its parliament, remain symbolic as well as superficial, calling into question Jordan’s geostrategic position as a moderate political entity.

Expanding upon these low scores, the World Report lists additional indictments against Jordan’s social landscape.  Institutional discrimination against Jordanians of Palestinian origin in the public sector and security forces, as well as common discrimination against the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) are prevalent.[xiv] Furthermore, and maybe more indicative of King Abdullah’s heavy hand, demonstrations are often met by excessive force by Jordan’s gendarmerie, exemplified by a June 2015 incident of police brutality which left 10 people dead in Maan, Jordan’s poorest city.[xv] In an ominous warning by Maan’s residents, black Islamic banners, similar to those used by Al-Nusra Front and ISIS, were raised in response to anger at the police. Continuation of these types of events will likely result in that anger being directed at King Abdullah as the face of Jordan’s security apparatus.

As he fights Islamic extremism domestically, the King cannot afford to take his citizenry for granted, contrarily he must walk a fine line between fighting terrorism and not alienating his population in the way Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did.  His future, the future of Jordan, and the future of regional stability will be at stake as Jordan stands firm against security threats and continue

[i] Karadsheh, J. “Jordan foils ‘criminal plot linked to ISIS’ in deadly raid.” /2016/03/02/middleeast/jordan-isis-foiled-plot/index.html

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Associated Press Staff. November 15, 2015. Jordan’s king urges Muslims to lead fight against terror. Times of Israel.

[v] Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

[vi] Botelho, G and Karadsheh, J. February 6, 2015. “Jordan unleashes wrath on ISIS: ‘This is just the beginning’

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Sharp, J. January 27, 2016. Jordan: Background and U.S. Relations. Congressional Research Service. 2.

[ix] Ghazal, M. November 9, 2015. 10 years after Amman bombings, war on terror ‘remains our war’. The Jordan Times.

[x] Labott, E. “Foley remembered for compassion”. CNN. /WORLD/meast /10/29/diplomat.remembered/index.html

[xi] Freeman, C., and Bulos, B. Two Americans and a South African shot dead at Jordan security training facility. The Telegraph.

[xii] Freedom House. 2015 Freedom in the World Report. Jordan.

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] Ibid