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Assessing Trends in the Terrorist Threats Against Jordan
and Its Counterterrorism Measures

By Dr. Joshua Sinai

As of late 2018, Jordan faced significant terrorist threats, primarily from Islamic State-linked militants, whether domestic- or foreign-based, who regarded the moderate and pro-Western Hashemite Kingdom as illegitimate. This threat was exacerbated by the spillover from the protracted civil war in Syria, whose massive internal population displacement led to an influx of estimated 1.4 million Sunni Syrian refugees into Jordan, which has an estimated population of 9.9 million. Many of the Syrian refugees were housed in the temporary Zaatari camp, with others scattered around the country, with little prospect for their future, and with a minority of them jihadi militants who were exploiting their safe haven to prepare for future terrorist activities in the country.

Additional sources of terrorist militancy sprung from the country’s estimated 2.2 million Palestinians (with an estimated 370,000 living in 10 refugee camps), with a minority adherents of Salafi Jihadism or the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (JMB), which was also affiliated with the Palestinian Hamas. This Jordanian branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood also represented a significant anti-regime movement. Both the Salafi Jihadists and the JMB regarded the Hashemite monarchy, which had led the country since independence in May 1946, as politically and religiously illegitimate. As an example of Palestinian opposition to the Hashemite Kingdom, the country’s first ruler, King Abdullah, was assassination by a Palestinian militant in East Jerusalem on July 20, 1951. In a more recent example of extremist anti-Hashemite sentiments, the Salafist-Jihadists joined the JMB-led anti-government demonstrations in March 2012, where they called for the imposition of Shari’a law upon Jordanian society.

Against this background, this article discusses the terrorist threats against Jordan since 2000, focusing primarily on the current period, and the effectiveness of the government’s counterterrorism program’s response measures, which are supported by its close cooperation with neighboring countries such as Israel, as well as the United States. The conclusion will assess future trends in the terrorist threats facing the country.

Terrorism Threats
The primary terrorist threats against Jordan consisted of Salafist Jihadists in the form of al Qaida, and its affiliate, al Qaida in Iraq (AQI), which had split from al Qaida Central under its previous leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and eventually became the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014. Other militant opposition groups included the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (JMB). It should be noted that Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, constituted a potential terrorist threat to Jordan, because many of its operatives and leaders were Jordanian Salafists, so their attempt to return to Jordan following their expected defeat in Syria was likely to turn them against the Hashemite regime. Finally, Palestinian terrorist groups were active in Jordan in the 1970s and 1980s, but their attacks against the Hashemite monarchy ceased following the Palestinian Authority’s signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel in the mid-1990s.

Salafist Jihadists
The primary threat facing Jordan was Salafi Jihadism, which was previously linked to al Qaida Central and then became part of the Syrian/Iraqi-based Islamic State (IS). The threat was both group-oriented and lone wolf, especially with the IS losing much of the territory it had previously controlled in Iraq and Syria and its terrorist operations becoming more decentralized. Jordan’s Salafist Jihadists viewed themselves as the successors of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-Palestinian-born leader of al Qaida in Iraq (AQI), who was killed by American forces in Iraq on June 7, 2006. Interestingly, because this group of Salafi Jihadists, estimated to number 6,000 to 7,000 in 2018, were largely suppressed by Jordan’s counterterrorism services, much of the operations by their Jordanian operatives took place in Iraq and Syria where an estimated (and unconfirmed) 2,500 Jordanians constituted some of the forces fighting with the al Qaida-linked terrorist groups in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra Front, as well as the IS forces in those countries. Moreover, several Jordanians had become leaders of these groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which was rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in 2016. It was reported that a majority of Jordanians had since then switched their support to the Islamic State (IS).

Al Qaida
Starting in the early 2000s, al Qaida via al Qaida in Iraq (AQI), its affiliate at the time, had also focused their terrorist operations against the Jordanian monarchy, which they viewed as part of their “near enemy.” This changed in June 2014 when AQI transformed itself into the Islamic State (IS).

Terrorist Incidents
January 1, 2000: A series of terrorist attacks linked to al Qaida were foiled against four tourist sites in Jordan within the context of the millennium celebrations.

April 26, 2004: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi planned a spectacular “suicide chemical attack” by explosive-laden trucks and cars against the U.S. Embassy, the Jordanian prime minister's office and the headquarters of the Mukhabarat (Jordanian intelligence) headquarters in Amman.

November 9, 2005: An al Qaida in Iraq team carried out a simultaneous suicide bombing at the lobbies of three Amman hotels (Grand Hyatt, Radisson SAS, and Days Inn), killing 60 people and wounding over 100, many of whom were part of a wedding party at the Radisson Hotel.

December 30, 2009: Humam al-Balawi, a Jordanian jihadist turned on his Jordanian GID officer handler and detonated his suicide belt inside a CIA outpost at Camp Chapman near Khost, Afghanistan, killing several CIA officers. Prior to the attack, the Jordanian GID believed that Balawi was acting as a double agent against al Qaida, which provided him access to the CIA camp.
October 21, 2012: The Jordanian security services foiled a plot by eleven members of an al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) group to carry out near-simultaneous attacks on multiple civilian and government targets in Amman, including the U.S. Embassy in the capital.
Islamic State (IS)

October 2012: Eight jihadist terrorists engaged in clashes with Jordanian soldiers manning the border with Syria, killing a Jordanian soldier. Seven of the terrorists were arrested, with the eighth critically injured.
January 3, 2015: The IS executed Moath al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot it had captured on December 24, 2014 when his F-16 aircraft crashed over Syria.

Attack on Amman Police Training Center
November 9, 2015: Police Captain Anwar Abu Zaid, aged 28, who had become radicalized into jihadist extremism, killed two American security contractors, a South African security contractor, and two Jordanians at the Jordan International Police Training Center near Amman. Four Jordanians, two Americans, and one Lebanese citizen were also wounded. Jordanian security forces shot and killed Zaid, who worked as a trainer at the center.

November 4, 2016: Corporal Marik al-Tuwayha, who was guarding the entrance to King Faisal Air Base, a Jordanian air force installation near Al-Jafr, carried out a shooting attack against U.S. Army Special Forces trainers stationed there, killing three of them. The Jordanian government indicted the guard with murder and sentenced him to life in prison with hard labor in July 2017.
December 18, 2016: Jordanian jihadists carried out a shooting attack at the Crusader-era al-Karak Castle, in southern Jordan, which is popular with foreign tourists. In the incident, a Canadian tourist and two Jordanians were killed, with 34 others wounded.

February 27, 2018: An IS terrorist cell was arrested for planning to attack Israeli businessmen, the U.S. embassy, and other Western and Jordanian targets in Amman

August 2, 2018: The Jordanian Army killed several Islamic State group jihadists who tried to approach its northern border with Syria.
Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (JMB)

Although Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood (JMB) had not engaged in terrorism, its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), opposed the government and boycotted the country’s parliamentary elections. As an example of its militancy, when al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006 the JMB declared him a shaheed (martyr), which greatly concerned the Jordanian authorities. During the current period, with Jordan allied with Egypt and Israel, the IAF had engaged in street demonstrations in support of its Egyptian counterpart, which was overthrown in early July 2013, declaring that "The fate of Egypt and all Arabs and Muslims will be determined in line with your action. Do not let the coupists, the Zionists and US administration win."

About the Author

Dr. Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst in terrorism and counterterrorism studies at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH), in Alexandria, VA.


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