June 25, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Homecoming: ISIS Returns to Jordan

• The ISIS seizure of Iraqi towns near the border with Jordan puts the group founded by the most notorious Jordanian terrorist—the deceased Zarqawi—within 90 miles of his home country

• This leaves Jordan to attempt the impossible: seal its 375-kilometer border with Syria and its 181-kilometer border with Iraq with terrorists controlling territory on the either side of both

• The fear is not that ISIS will invade Jordan—unlike Iraq, Jordan has a professional army and a serious presence along its border—but that ISIS will destabilize the kingdom through sustained attempts at infiltration and acts of terror

• Jordan has a long history with violent extremists, including some of the more infamous in recent history, and ISIS will seek to inflame local radicals

• Jordan will likely work once again with the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province to deny ISIS a sanctuary from which to threaten Amman, but 2014 is very different than 2005-2008.

With the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) taking control of towns in Anbar Province, Iraq, the group founded by deceased Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is creating, at least temporarily, a sanctuary within 90 miles of his home country. This places the already overburdened Jordanian government and social fabric at tremendous risk. The risk is not that ISIS will sweep across the border and begin to occupy parts of Jordan—recent ISIS achievements are as much a reflection of their inept opponents as a sign of ISIS capabilities. Jordan has a professional and disciplined army that ISIS will not mistakenly believe is the caliber of their Iraqi counterparts. Rather, the greatest risk is that ISIS holds its western Anbar conquests long enough to begin to destabilize the Hashemite Kingdom through increased threat of terrorist attacks and increased radicalization among Jordan’s sizable salafist extremist population.

This is no small concern. Jordan has had a long-running problem with violent extremists in poor areas of the country like Zarqa (of Zarqawi fame), al-Rusaifa, and Ma’an. With ironic timing, the mentor of al-Zarqawi, salafist-jihadist Isam Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi, aka Abu Muhammad al-Muqdisi, was released just last week after serving five years for terrorism charges. In 2004-2005, al-Muqdisi publicly castigated what he called his former pupil’s over-the-top killing of Shi’a in Iraq. Al-Muqdisi didn’t object to killing Shi’a, he just thought it should be more discrete and targeted. This year, al-Muqdisi issued a strong denunciation of ISIS, but because it was issued while he was in Jordanian prison, it hasn’t had a high impact; his supporters are waiting to see what he says now that he’s relatively free, though certainly under the close watch of the Jordanian government.

Among those supporters greeting al-Muqdisi last week in Jordan was Qatada Othman, the son of Omar Mahmoud Othman aka Abu Qatada, a highly influential and long-time supporter of al-Qaeda. In 2013, Palestinian-Jordanian Abu Qatada was finally deported from England back to Jordan after eight years of legal appeals. He now awaits trial on terrorism charges related to the 2000 Millennium plot in Amman, in which al-Zarqawi was also implicated and charged. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Abu Qatada was al-Qaeda's point man in Europe and was connected to the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and the Shoe Bomber attempt.

It is in this extremist-rich environment that ISIS will seek a firmer foothold within Jordan. The group doesn’t need to physically invade, because as the likes of Zarqawi, Muqdisi, and Abu Qatada show, it’s always been there.

Jordan is less able today to repel the toxic violent extremism that exists in the supporters of ISIS and Jordanian jihadists. Its economy has been squeezed by the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing a war that is now a jihadist rallying cry and strengthening ISIS. And, importantly, there is no coalition or US military working to seal the border areas as was done after the 2003 Iraq invasion. This leaves Jordan alone to attempt the impossible: seal its 375-kilometer border with Syria and its 181-kilometer border with Iraq with terrorists controlling territory on either side of both.

Compounding the problem, Jordan is less able to recreate the effective Sahwah, or Sunni Awakening, that greatly diminished ISIS (then known as AQI) in Anbar province and nearer to Baghdad. In 2005, the Jordanians worked closely with Iraqi Sunni tribesmen to partner them with units of the US military. This will not be an option in 2014. And while the hatred for ISIS remains strong among the majority of Sunni in Anbar, the hatred of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki might be even stronger, removing a huge incentive to fight. After years of betrayal and persecution by al-Maliki, the Sahwah rank and file might be understandably reluctant to, in effect, fight to keep him in office.

All of this puts Jordan in a precarious position—forced to once again come to the aid of the population of another country while barely having the resources to meet the needs of its own people, as well as counter extremism in another country while trying to contain its own problems, and having to seal the borders of two countries who have terrorists in control of their respective border crossings. Jordan will need help.


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