Is Jordan Next To Fall To ISIS?

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on June 29, 2014

Jordan’s King Abdullah: The West’s closest Arab ally—but for how long?

It has been a rough fortnight for Jordan. After the fall of Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced an “unofficial” branch in Jordan and the Iraqi government surrendered its only legal border-crossing on the 110-mile frontier to tribal insurgents—opposed to ISIS, so far as can be told, but not without the danger they will be overwhelmed as has previously happened in areas like Fallujah, where the dam initially fell to local insurgents (albeit Ba’athists) and ISIS then pushed them out. Jordan has beefed up its border-defences but this has not stopped the speculation on whether Jordan, the “jewel in the ISIS crown,” will be the next domino to fall to the takfiris.

The country is regarded as an oasis of stability and moderation, even openness. I was recently in Lebanon, where traffic with Jordan is heavy, and was assured that the only danger of death in Jordan was from boredom. Jordan’s intelligence service is the closest Allied service in the Middle East: it not only rounds up men like Suleiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and the braggart who issued those menacing video-statements in the aftermath of the 9/11 massacre, on its own territory, but provides information (and men) as far afield as Afghanistan. They have used some rough methods—GID headquarters has been called the “fingernail factory“—but needs-must and all that, and next to those other great “allies,” Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Jordan’s internal conduct is positively tender. Amman has signed a peace treaty with Israel which, unlike the icy treaty with Egypt that is respected in letter but never in spirit, is a genuine accord of co-operation. (The King’s men apparently call the Israelis “the cousins“.) So how can this reliable ally in what we once called the War on Terror, and one of the more open States in the region, be in the sights of the Salafi-jihadists?

The answer is that the legend of Jordan’s moderation has been much over-sold. King Abdullah is indeed the most Westernised of Arab rulers. He attended Deerfield Academy, an elite boarding school in Massachusetts, wherehe was on the wrestling team, everyone called him ‘Ab,’ and he bused dining-hall tables like every other student“. His wife is if anything even more Westernised: emancipated, unveiled, and vocal in public-life, the bane of the reactionaries in the country. But, as Fouad Ajami once put it, while Abdullah is “no bigot … he [has] opened the door to bigotry, lent it his authority.” The monarchy knows its weakness and while it needs to present a face of modernism to the West for the aid that keeps it afloat, it also has to signal to the more ruinous passions of the “street” that it is with them. Ajami noted that in Jordan,

more than in any other [State] in the Arab world, [Saddam Hussein] was both an avenger and would-be redeemer. … There was a strong Islamist current in Jordan—both domesticated types, the Muslim Brotherhood, and ‘harder’ jihadists. … The moderate pro-American regime, and the virulently anti-American population: the combination had become familiar by now in Arab political life.”

After Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait in 1990, then-King Hussein sided with the Iraqi dictator. Jordan was—and is—heavily reliant on Iraqi oil, Baghdad exerted considerable influence over Jordan’s security apparatus, and the population was solidly pro-Saddam. King Hussein was, said Mrs. Thatcher, “clearly very uneasy about the line he was taking.” But he had made his call and believed any other could have led to his downfall. After Saddam was finally finished-off in 2003, it was from Jordan that there came the greatest agitation in the media against the new order and the Shi’a—even as its leaders sold themselves as allies in the combat with jihadism. And while security co-operation was strong with Amman, they produced Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, the most savage jihadist yet to emerge in whose footsteps ISIS now walk, who could not be buried in his homeland because of the embarrassment it would have caused the monarchy when his grave-site became a popular shrine, and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini, both very important Jordanian-Palestinian pro-al-Qaeda ideological leaders.

The release of Maqdisi from prison on June 16, after revelations that he had written to Ayman az-Zawahiri from jail, and the acquittal of Abu Qatada this week, show that it is no accident that Jordan should produce these people. It is not just important cities like Salt that are given over to Islamist sentiment; the cultural space in the entire country has been ceded to them. Between the late 1950s, when all political parties were banned, and the late 1980s when they were re-legalised, the only organised political party in Jordan was the Muslim Brotherhood because it was classed as a “social organisation” not a political one. It does now have a political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), but it also maintains the social wing so that it can avoid any future crackdown. Jordan’s rulers have not been as active as, say, Egypt’s in ensuring that the only opposition group is the Ikhwans, but they have nonetheless followed the same script. Nor is this militancy purely political. Towns like Zarqa, northwest of Amman, heavily-Palestinian and infused with Chechen refugees, have been subject to religious gangs not only recruiting but partly ruling.

Maqdisi and Abu Qatada have been active in leading the ideological charge for al-Qaeda in its contest for supremacy in the jihadist world with ISIS, but Jordan has also provided the footsoldiers. Ma’an, another Islamist stronghold, this one in the south, which saw a mini-Islamic-uprising in 1998 in response to Operation Desert Fox, now provides a seat to Mohammad al-Shalabi (a.k.a. Abu Sayyaf). A leader of the Salafist movement in the country and somebody previously arrested for orchestrating lethal riots when the Jordanians tried to arrest the men who murdered U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in 2002, Shalabi is able to exert an “uncontested level of influence over young men” in the area, which he is using to encourage them to go to Syria to join Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official branch in the country. More than 2,000 Jordanians have gone to Syria (and now Iraq) to wage holy war. In 2005, only 11% of Jordanians said suicide-bombing against civilian targets was always wrong. That number has increased since—to 53% at the last count—not least because Amman felt the brunt of the forces it was winking at. But with a sectarian war raging around them and streams of refugees on their territory, one should not count on this being a lasting fact.

The political openness of Jordan is also greatly overstated. The monarchy is of course more merciful that the republican terror regimes of the Fertile Crescent, but what kind of endorsement is that? As has been pointed out by Julia Choucair Vizoso, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Yale and a former analyst for Carnegie, any reform efforts in the Kingdom have been efforts to “stabilize the regime … rather than to significantly open the political system” and it has “responded to open challenges by cracking down on all political activity“. Facing economic calamity in the late 1980s, which led to a default on payment to the IMF in 1989 and riots that same year (suspected by some to have been organised by the intelligence services), the monarchy needed greater legitimacy, so it held a General Election after legalising political parties. Genuine reforms began. But the first chance King Hussein got, he aborted this process. That chance came in the form of the peace treaty with Israel: here was a chance to again sell himself as the indispensable Western ally in the region, to attract more investment, and to receive further reassurances that if his foreign policy was amenable to Western interests nobody would make a fuss about his internal arrangements. From the “realist” George H.W. Bush-James Baker regime—the same people who acquiesced to Hafez al-Assad all-but annexing Lebanon as the price of joining the coalition to get Saddam out of Kuwait—this is exactly what he got. The truth of it is that Jordan rules with the same mixture of bribery toward its “base” (the East Bankers and the business leaders), and repression toward its enemies, which characterise the other Arab autocracies. Jordan has undertaken a “half-hearted and hesitant top-down reform effort” but it has “not yet embarked on a process of democratization“. One of the central reasons for this is that Jordan has a Palestinian majority, which is much less tribal but much more Islamist, and both the East Bank tribal leaders and the secular city-dwellers on which the regime depends have no intention of allowing such forces to take power. This question is one of those kept out of public fora by the regime, and in suppression it has festered with no solution—or even attempted solution—in sight.

So where does this leave us now? On the northern border, with Syria and Iraq, the greatest concentration of Salafi-jihadists in history is bearing down on Jordan. To the west, an al-Qaeda-led insurgency rages in the Sinai, helped immensely by the catastrophic decision of the Egyptian military to liquidate the civilian government and massacre those who protested about it. In Gaza, Qaeda groups have long had a foot-hold, and now they are spreading to the West Bank. The networks operating here have links inside Jordan, and as the contest between al-Qaeda and ISIS intensifies, the incentive for a spectacular foreign terrorist attack increases: if they cannot hit the West—as ISIS has already done, in a minimal way—hitting Western targets, or Western allies, in Jordan would be a good substitute.

That said, while it is conceivable that internal instability will come to Jordan in some form—riots, say, in support of ISIS if it declares its “Islamic State” from Raqqa to Tikrit—it is not likely to be on the scale of the PLO effort to overturn the monarchy, and can probably be dealt with by the government. It does not seem conceivable that with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and especially Israel on watch an external threat like ISIS could topple the monarchy. Israel views Jordan’s stability, adjacent to the West Bank, as an existential question, and she bailed out the Hashemites in 1970—when their alliance was practically non-existent and Israel’s capabilities much lower—so it seems, now that that alliance is deeper and Israel infinitely more capable, already patrolling Jordan’s borders with Syria, unlikely that Jerusalem would let the monarchy fall.

The question that remains is for the West. As part of its counter-ISIS campaign, Jordan has introduced a series of anti-terrorism and anti-incitement laws. Human Rights Watch is almost certainly correct that these are so expansive as to “threaten freedom of expression” and license a more generalised crackdown on opposition, which comprises not just Islamists but marginalised rural tribes in the south and urban liberals. Saudi Arabia has already led the way by including Atheists in its terrorist designation of ISIS, and Tunisia in the 1990s supplies another example where legitimate fear of violent Islamists—having watched and felt some of the fallout of the sanguinary meltdown in Algeria—was leveraged into a campaign that crushed the liberals, too. Jordan is a major beneficiary of American aid, and Bret Stephens almost certainly speaks for a majority in the foreign policy world when he says that President Obama should “back the Hashemite kingdom to the hilt” and “[t]hrow money at Jordan, no questions asked.” I hardly ever dissent from Stephens on foreign policy but I have to this time. The strategic benefits of an alliance with the Jordanian monarchy at the expense of democracy in the country are not worth having because they are illusory. We have been here before with the Shah, and so many other dictatorships that the West “supported…right up until the point when they were toppled by radical forces.” As the inexplicably-hated Paul Wolfowitz pointed out to the Reagan administration as it hesitated over what to do when Ferdinand Marcos was on his last legs, if America backs the regime for the sake of its strategic position, it will lose both; if it risks the regime by pressing for democratic change, it might keep its strategic position, and will help to avert the worst outcome of all—a violent revolution in which, almost invariably, the most radical elements win.

In his profile of the Jordanian King, Jeffrey Goldberg records Abdullah saying that he hopes that when his son takes over from him Jordan will be “a Western democracy with a constitutional monarchy.” But that profile also contained a darker message: Abdullah’s main plea was for time. The circumstances are not opportune, the danger from the Ikhwans is too much, there is instability all around Jordan—all true, to varying degrees, and in this region always likely to be true. The best thing the West could do would be to test the seriousness of Abdullah on this. Jordan is wholly dependent on outsiders; it is a ward of Pax Americana (and the Saudis). Real pressure could be brought by attaching conditions to Western aid. If Abdullah turns from this aid in favour of Saudi aid without such conditions—as we have seen in Egypt—then he had the heart-and-soul of a tyrant all along, and he should be cut adrift. He is not going to abandon the peace treaty with Israel or start another war: Jordan never wanted to engage the first time around and is in no condition now. As was shown with Anwar Sadat, when conditions dictate, tyrants can make peace with Israel: the harder—but more valuable—peace is that made with populations, and that cannot come while these autocracies survive.

Jordan will surely weather the storm from ISIS for the foreseeable future but without internal reform to democratise and legitimise the State there will be turmoil later, and it will be people of the character of ISIS who inherit the country.


Update: Within hours of publishing this ISIS actually did declare—and declared itself—an “Islamic State”. The designation of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Emir al-Mumineen (Commander of the Faithful) opens the way to declarations of offensive jihad. The Saudi realm will certainly be a target but Jordan is already known to be in their sights and it has to be reckoned an easier target.

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