Ticking Time Bomb: Jordan's Islamists and the Rise of ISIS in the Hashemite Kingdom

A beacon of stability in the Middle East, the Hashemite Kingdom is perpetually challenged by the need to moderate between the monarchy's pro-Western orientation and the Islamist tendencies of the country's population.
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Situated between viral conflicts in Syria and Iraq, Jordan's relative anonymity may be drawing to a close. A beacon of stability in the Middle East, the Hashemite Kingdom is perpetually challenged by the need to moderate between the monarchy's pro-Western orientation and the Islamist tendencies of the country's population. For decades the Muslim Brotherhood has remained the most prominent political rival of the Hashemite regime and its impact was significantly amplified in 2011-2013 by the organization's region-wide ascent following the uprisings of the Arab Spring. However, the deposition of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and suppression of the Brotherhood's pan-Islamic aspirations significantly diminished the organization's domestic influence. Now, al Qaeda-linked factions fighting in the Syrian civil war supply the most attractive brand of Islamist ideology for direct import into Jordan. As a result, the Kingdom faces immediate challenges from the country's nascent Salafist Jihadist Movement, and a long-term threat for the evolution of domestic Islamist militancy.

Reemerging in 2009, the Salafist Jihadist Movement in Jordan maintains a constituency of nearly 5,000 adherents, residing predominantly in the town of Zarqa, hometown of al Qaeda's former second-in-command and chief of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi. Claiming responsibility for three coordinated suicide bombing attacks targeting Amman hotels in 2005, Zarqawi was later killed in a joint U.S-Jordanian counter-militancy operation in Iraq. While recently non-violent, the war in neighboring Syria has provided Jordan's Salafi population with a training ground for militarization, with reports indicating that up to 2,000 Jordanian citizens are presently fighting in the ranks of hard-line Islamist factions, including the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and Islamist State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). As a result, the Kingdom has implemented a series of U.S.-backed security protocols to limit the cross-border movement of militants between the two countries, highlighted by an April 16 Jordanian Air Force strike likely targeting an ISIS convoy attempting to infiltrate from Syria.

However, recent events in the southern town of Ma'an suggest that the region's most notorious and emergent jihadist faction, ISIS, has found a base of support in the restive southern city, situated 40 km (25 miles) from the heavily visited destination of Petra. On April 23, clashes between local residents and central government security forces broke out in Ma'an. While the town maintains a history of tense relations with the Hashemite monarchy, the most recent round of civil unrest was sparked by the inadvertent killing of a local resident during a security force operation to arrest a wanted militant. During subsequent negotiations with local tribal leaders, the government indicated that a small and isolated contingent were responsible for the violence which persisted over consecutive days until April 27, and security forces would remain deployed until the completion of its undeclared mission.

The most concerning element of the ethereal counter-militancy operation was the coinciding release on April 25 of a video announcing the formation of an ISIS-aligned militant group in Ma'an and reported ISIS threats to assassinate King Abdullah, while additionally carrying out a series of suicide attacks against intelligence installations in the Hashemite Kingdom. Moreover, on April 28 a picture surfaced on social media outlets depicting an ISIS flag hoisted above Ma'an's central square. Since this date, ISIS militants operating in Syria have released a series of messages, including a high quality video on May 3, announcing their solidarity with the people of Ma'an. Referring to the town in the same light as Fallujah, a city in the Anbar Province of Iraq under complete ISIS control, ISIS affiliates have additionally called on Ma'an to serve as the operational base for the Kingdom's Islamic revolution.

Emerging from Iraq, ISIS has risen to the fore of the Syrian civil war, drawing criticism for its brutality from al Qaeda's senior leadership and its unauthorized declaration of an Islamic Caliphate stretching along the Euphrates River Basin from Iraq's Anbar province to Syria's northern border with Turkey. Propagating a fresh message of Jihad relative to its traditional forbearer, ISIS has reinforced its ranks with militants from around the region. Returning to their home countries, foreign nationals operating in Syria pose a significant threat to stability, as ISIS aims to expand their campaign to establish a region-wide Islamic state.

While Jordan's established intelligence apparatus and heightened border security measures may serve to mitigate the most pronounced threats emanating from ISIS militancy, recent events in Ma'an suggest that the movement has taken root in the Hashemite Kingdom. While the immediate risk of attack remains low, events in 2005 demonstrate that al Qaeda groups operating in neighboring countries maintain the ability to carry out successful operations in Jordan. Declaring a theater of operations in Lebanon in January, thus far in 2014, ISIS suicide attacks have been recorded in Damascus, Baghdad, and Beirut. The question remains, how long can Jordan's capital stay isolated from such violence, and what will be the implication of ISIS's inaugural attack on Jordanian territory?

This post has been modified since its original publication.

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