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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Islamic State Is Seeping into Jordan

Filed under: ISIS, Jordan, Radical Islam, Syria, The Middle East

On December 18, 2016, an armed Islamic terror cell carried out an attack in the area of Karak in southern Jordan. Twelve security officers, two Jordanian citizens, and a Canadian tourist were killed. All four members of the cell were killed by the Jordanian security forces.

The Islamic State took responsibility for the attack in the popular tourist area, and the Jordanian security forces launched a wave of arrests in southern Jordan.

Funeral of Jordanian security officer after the Karak attack
Funeral of Jordanian security officer after the Karak attack

Jordanian security officials initially assessed that the attackers were a pack of “lone wolves.” They found in the cell members’ possession 15 kilograms of explosives and five explosive belts prepared for use. However, it now appears that the liquidation of the cell could lead to the exposure of a large terror infrastructure set up by the Islamic State in Jordan.

General Atif al-Saudi, director of Jordan’s Public Security Directorate, announced on January 2, 2017, that the destruction of the terror cell in Karak led to the uncovering of plans to carry out additional terror attacks in the Hashemite Kingdom with the approach of New Year’s Day.

These plans may have been connected to the Islamic State’s aim to attack Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, which was evidenced in the recent string of Islamic State attacks on the Coptic church in Cairo, and holiday celebrations in Turkey and  Germany.

On January 2, 2017, the newspaper Rai al-Youm reported that the Jordanian security forces had arrested 350 suspects after the attack in the Karak area and were trying to dismantle a terror infrastructure of sleeper cells or “lone-wolf” cells under the assumption that there is a clandestine Islamic State infrastructure in Jordan.

 “Out of the North an Evil Shall Break Forth”

In a rare and unprecedented move, the Jordanian chief of staff, General Mahmoud Freihat, gave an interview to the BBC in Arabic on December 30, 2016, in which he discussed the terror incident in Karak in southern Jordan and the dangers posed to the country by the Islamic State.

The Jordanian chief of staff pointed out that Islamic State sleeper cells could infiltrate Jordan to carry out terror attacks or attack the Jordanian Border Guard.  The two refugee camps on the Syrian-Jordanian border, Al-Hadalat and Al-Rukban, which harbor 100,000 people, offer a convenient haven and staging ground for attacks against Jordan, he explained.

General Freihat said that Jordan sometimes holds contacts with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime via “liaison officers,” and that there have been talks on moving the two camps several kilometers into Syrian territory.

An Aerial View of the Za'atri Refugee Camp
Syrian refugee camp in Jordan

He added that the number of Jordanians active in the Islamic State and the Fatah al-Sham organization in Syria is relatively small, coming to only about 300.

The Jordanian chief of staff sees another danger to Jordan emanating from the Islamic State in the form of the Khaled bin al-Walid Brigades, which has an Islamic State orientation and is operating only one kilometer from the Jordanian-Syrian border. According to General Freihat, the organization is equipped with tanks and heavy weapons.

For the time being, this group, despite its proximity to the border, is not attacking Jordan, and neither is the Jordanian army attacking it.

To calm Jordan’s residents, General Freihat estimated that 2017 would be the year of the Islamic State’s destruction because it has already taken heavy casualties and lost 60 percent of the territory it had controlled in Iraq and another 35 percent of its territory in Syria.

He pointed out that Jordan continues to take part in the aerial coalition that the United States has assembled for the war on the Islamic State.

Intense Fears in Jordan

The Jordanian public remains occupied with the repercussions of the terror attack in the Karak area, including the government’s security and communication failures in dealing with the attack.

Meanwhile, the demand to dismiss Interior Minister Salama Hamad has been rejected. In light of the economic and security situation, however, public criticism of the regime is growing.

On January 2, 2017, Rai al-Youm reported on fears of infringement of freedom of expression and on pressures that were directed at the Jordanian journalist Musab al-Shawabkeh, who published an article on the website Amman Net that included data on King Abdullah spending 30 percent of the year abroad.

King Abdullah has denied in the past that there are Islamic State sleeper cells in the kingdom and has expressed pride in the high professional level of Jordan’s security forces. The exposure of the terror cell in Karak, however, indicates that the Islamic State has indeed managed to infiltrate the kingdom and that the security forces will now have a harder time thwarting terror.

The Jordanian chief of staff’s high-profile appearance stirred controversy in the kingdom on whether Jordan is prepared for a possible clash with the Islamic State in the northern part of the country.

The chief of staff’s unusual appearance in the Arab media was meant to convey a calming message to the citizens that the Jordanian army is prepared to deal with all dangers to the kingdom.

The second message in his words was directed at Assad – namely, that Jordan has no intention to enter Syrian territory to fight the Islamic State even though the Syrian regular army is not deployed on the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Jordanian Ties with Syria?

Jordan has long been supplying light weapons to the Bedouin tribes in southern Syria so that they can form a buffer zone and fight the Islamic State forces and other jihadist organizations.

Jordan is now signaling to Syria that it is prepared to cooperate with it in the war on the Islamic State despite its disapproval of Syria’s close ties with Iran.

At the same time, Jordanian commentators cast doubt on the chief of staff’s assessment that 2017 will be the year of the Islamic State’s eradication. They claim that it is impossible to destroy the idea of the Islamic State and that even if the organization is crushed, another group will arise in its stead with a new name and the same ideology.

It is worth recalling that one of the major leaders of the jihadist organizations was a Jordanian citizen named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was from the town of Zarqa in eastern Jordan. 

Zarqawi was no less a prominent terrorist than Osama Bin Laden. He led the Al Qaeda branch in Iraq and was killed there in a June 2006 strike by the U.S. Air Force.