Don’t take Jordan’s stability for granted
On Tuesday, the Wilson Center hosted a panel discussion on Jordan and the Challenges of Confronting ISIS Next Door. Panelists included Anja Wehler-Schoeck, Resident Director, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Jordan & Iraq and David Schenker, Aufzien Fellow and Director, Program on Arab Politics, WINEP. Henri J. Barkey, the director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated. Both Wehler-Schoeck and Schenker agreed that the primary threat to Jordan’s stability is internal radicalization, not an external ISIS assault.
Wehler-Shoeck stated that there was a slight opening in Jordan at the beginning of the Arab Spring, accompanied by some small-scale protests. The Hirak Movement, while smallish in size, attracted Jordanians of diverse backgrounds. The Jordanian government instituted a few reforms and pursued a strategy of co-optation. The movement has now died down.Both Wehler-Shoeck and Schenker stated that Jordanians are refraining from protesting because they are wary of regional instability.
According to Wehler-Shoeck, a dominant security logic took hold in 2013. Journalists are no longer allowed to publish articles about the Jordanian military or the Iraqi-Swedish national who was recently arrested for plotting bomb attacks on Iran’s behalf. There is also self-censorship among journalists and a strict anti-terror law. Within Jordanian society, conspiracy theories about the formation of ISIS abound. Jordanians continue to the view the US critically, partially as a byproduct of the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Wehler-Shoeck asserted that many Jordanians felt conflicted in September 2014 when Jordan joined the anti-ISIS coalition. Most didn’t like ISIS but don’t support their country’s bombing fellow Sunnis. Many people in Ma’an told her that if they had to choose between a government that was fighting fellow Sunnis and ISIS, they would choose ISIS. Schenker pointed out that the leading hashtag on Twitter during this time was #This_Is_Not_Our_War. Jihadist leaders like Abu Sayyaf claimed that Jordan’s participation in the coalition would be the beginning of the end of the regime. According to a poll by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, a significant percentage of Jordanians did not consider ISIS, the Nusra Front or Al-Qaeda terrorist organizations. Many Jordanians viewed them as effective fighting forces against Assad.
Wehler-Schoeck and Schenker explained that the murder of Muath Al-Kasasbeh changed this dynamic. The government cleverly rode the wave of public outcry against ISIS. Schenker compared this shift to the way that Jordanian public opinion turned against AQI following the 2005 Amman hotel bombings. He speculated about how long this shift in opinion will last.
Wehler-Schoeck and Schenker discussed whether Jordan will remain stable. Schenker noted that Jordan looks great compared to much of the region. The IMF and World Bank forecasts for Jordan’s economy are bullish. Wehler-Schoeck, however, pointed out that the economy has been weakened by trade disruptions. Jordan also suffers from dependence on foreign energy.
Both Wehler-Schoeck and Schenker cited Jordan’s strong allies and increased border security. But Wehler-Schoeck stated that Israel is building a wall on its border with Jordan and is forming a new battalion to protect the border. This is telling. Schenker cited frequent reports of skirmishes on the Jordan-Syria border. Jordan spent $1.3 billion on homeland security measures in 2013. Jordan’s military is cohesive, loyal and well-trained. The US has increased its security aid to Jordan.
Wehler-Schoeck stated that both Jordan and the US have denied that Jordan is planning a buffer zone inside Syria. Jordan does not want to send ground forces to Syria. Schenker asserted that ISIS’s capture of Palmyra and Tadmor changed the debate about whether Jordan needs to be more proactive. A buffer zone would be risky. Jordanian soldiers involved in the creation of a buffer zone would be targeted by ISIS, the Nusra Front, and the Assad regime. Significant casualties could produce a backlash domestically. The Assad regime, which has so far refrained from attacking Jordan, could cause a large movement of IDPs towards the border, through actions such as bombing the power plants in Daraa. It could also sponsor terrorist attacks within Jordan. Jordan’s pro-West orientation makes it a target for both Sunni and Shiite radicals.
Both Wehler-Schoeck and Schenker highlighted the potential for radicalization within Jordan. Wehler-Schoeck cited the significant number of Jordanians who joined Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2003 and the fact that Al-Zarqawi was Jordanian. The jihadist preachers Al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada are still active in Jordan. There are roughly 2000 Jordanian fighters currently in Iraq and Syria. Within Jordan, there are sleeper cells as well as outright ISIS supporters, but Jordan has a very strong security apparatus. The majority of Jordanians disapprove of ISIS but there are large numbers of unemployed men who are targets for jihadi recruiters. Even better educated Jordanians can be radicalized, as radicalization is also a search for Sunni religious identity. Many young Jordanians who went to Syria and came back frightened and disillusioned were imprisoned. This may be counterproductive, as prisons can serve as centers of radicalization.
Wehler-Schoeck noted that Jordan has tolerated the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the past but has taken stricter steps against it recently, such as the arrest of Zaki Bani Rushaid, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) deputy director. The government’s marginalization of the MB is risky because the MB has served as a platform for more moderate Islamism in the past.
Schenker emphasized that ideology isn’t confined to borders. In Ma’an, there have been several small pro-ISIS demonstrations. Ma’an is 3 hours outside Amman. Authorities are more concerned about radicalism in cities that border Amman, like Zarqa, Rusaifa and Salt. There is a large concern about ISIS sleeper cells among the Syrian refugees. Jordan hosts at least 700,000 Syrian refugees, but the true total may be closer to 1,000,000. Palestinians and East Bank Jordanians contribute about equally to the jihadi-Salafi movement. Two sons of MPs have joined the jihad in Syria. Schenker stated that anecdotally, Jordan appears far more Salafi than it did a couple decades ago. He believes there is a fine line between Salafis and jihadi-Salafis, though Wehler-Schoeck thinks there is a clear difference and that the government must engage with quietist Salafis.
Wehler-Schoeck and Schenker both believe that there is a serious risk of lone-wolf attacks in Jordan. Wehler-Schoeck cited the existence of fatwas calling for such attacks. Schenker warned that traditional targets, such as Western interests, government buildings and tourist attractions could be attacked. The threat from both lone wolves and sleeper cells is very serious. Jordan has excellent security and intelligence services, but they can’t stop all threats.