The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq: A
Possible Threat to Jordan?
Jeremy M. Sharp, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs (email@example.com, 7-8687)
August 28, 2014 (IN10143)
As Congress debates whether to authorize and fund the continued use of
U.S. force in Iraq against the Islamic State (IS, previously referred to as
ISIS or ISIL), lawmakers may consider if the Islamic State poses a threat
not just to Iraq but to neighboring countries such as Jordan, an important
U.S. partner. Recent territorial gains by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,
combined with its ambition to reestablish a global "caliphate," have led to
speculation that the terrorist group could possibly target Jordan. Jordan may
be an attractive IS target: many Islamist extremists consider King Abdullah
II an apostate ruler, and the kingdom has strong ties to the West and
maintains relations with Israel under a 1994 peace treaty. (For more on IS
in Iraq, also see CRS Report R43612, Iraq Crisis and U.S. Policy, by Kenneth
Katzman et al.)
Nearly a decade ago, during the height of the U.S. military presence in Iraq,
the Islamic State's predecessor (Al Qaeda in Iraq or AQI) repeatedly plotted
against Jordan. On November 9, 2005, Iraq-based terrorists carried out
suicide bombings at three Western-owned hotels in Amman, killing 58
people.Jordanian intelligence reportedly provided information that U.S.
forces in Iraq used to track and kill the head of AQI, Abu Musab al Zarqawi
(a Jordanian), in June 2006.
Jordanian and U.S. authorities are concerned not only with IS infiltration into
the kingdom, but also IS radicalization of Jordanians who have fought in
Syria. Although Jordan has experienced far less social unrest and
homegrown Islamist radicalism than some other Arab countries, the
kingdom is home to several areas where manifestations of anti-government
sentiment are high, economic prospects are poor, and sympathy for political
Islam appears to be prevalent. Many Jordanians also have tribal or kinship
ties with Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria, whose sense of persecution
has driven support for the Islamic State and other extremist groups. In
Zarqa, an industrial city near Amman that has long been a source of Islamist
militancy, dozens of young Sunni residents have traveled to Syria,
reportedly comprising one third of all Jordanian foreign fighters participating
in the Syrian civil war. In the southern town of Ma'an, an area prone to
periodic anti-government unrest, a small group of residents unfurled proIslamic State banners during a May 2014 protest, and IS propaganda
distributed via social media has called on Ma'an residents to "wage jihad"
against Jordan's "apostate criminal regime."
Figure 1. Jordanian IS Fighter threatens the
Source: All Eyes on Syria YouTube video,
accessed via Gatestone Institute, "ISIS
Threatens to Invade Jordan, 'Slaughter' King
Abdullah," June 12, 2014.
Notes: After burning his Jordanian passport,
the speaker reportedly says: "I have a message
to the tyrant of Jordan: we are coming to you
with death and explosive belts."
Some observers have cautioned
against overreacting to the threat of
Islamic State action against Jordan.
According to former Jordanian foreign
minister Marwan Muasher, unlike in
Iraq, "there is no enabling
environment in Jordan" for the Islamic
State to succeed. Others assert that
any expression of sympathy for the
Islamic State is done in protest against
the Jordanian government rather than
as an assertion of loyalty to the
Jordanian Actions to Address
The Jordanian government has taken a
number of steps to prevent or contain
domestic support for the Islamic State.
From a religious angle, the
government recently released from prison several preachers who have long
been associated with promoting Al Qaeda-like ideology after they publicly
condemned the Islamic State. The most prominent of these clerics is AbuMuhammad [Mohammed] al Maqdisi, who has declared the Islamic State to
be a deviant organization and calling on his followers to join the rival Al
Nusra Front in Syria, a U.S. designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)
allied with Al Qaeda's core leadership.
Politically, Jordan has long cultivated ties to Sunni tribes in western Iraq who
have either joined the Islamic State or refrained from stopping its advance.
Jordan has repeatedly criticized the political marginalization of Iraq's Sunni
Arab population, and Jordanian intelligence has reportedly permitted Iraqi
anti-government groups to operate inside the kingdom. Some of Jordan's
actions have strained its ties with its neighbor, notably after the kingdom
hosted the "Amman conference to save Iraq," in which 200 Sunni Iraqi tribal
and other leaders convened in Jordan and called on the international
community to end its support for the former Maliki government.
Additionally, Jordan has increased its border security and efforts to track
foreign fighters. In late June, Royal Jordanian Airlines began requiring that
all Jordanian male passengers between the ages of 18 to 38 prove that they
have registered with the military before they are permitted to board an
airplane. King Abdullah II also traveled to Russia's Chechen Republic in June,
possibly to coordinate efforts to prevent Chechen fighters embedded with IS
militants from infiltrating the kingdom's Chechen minority community.
Moreover, local authorities have reportedly arrested IS sympathizers and
other individuals who have returned from suspected fighting Syria. According
to Steve Simon, a former senior official at the National Security Council, if
security forces are relatively measured in their actions, "they'll minimize the
possibility of an ISIS insurgency by keeping fence-sitters where they are and
not inadvertently convincing them that no matter how peacefully they
protest, the police will come after them." King Abdullah II is also currently
reviewing amendments passed by parliament to a 2006 anti-terrorism law
that would criminalize the use of the Internet to "facilitate terrorist acts or
back groups that promote, support or fund terrorism." Some watchdog
groups have warned that the draft law could be used as a tool to quash
domestic dissent under the guise of countering terrorism.
To date, no major confrontations between the Islamic State and Jordan have
been reported, as observers believe that the Islamic State may try to
consolidate and expand its presence in Iraq and Syria before confronting the
Jordanian armed forces, which enjoy strong Western military backing. In the
meantime,commerce between Iraq and Jordan has slowed, and officials
remain concerned over the risk of sporadic terrorist attacks against "soft
targets" inside Jordan. But, according to one analyst, "if ISIS is not rolled
back in Iraq, terrorism perpetrated by the radical Islamist group will
eventually reach the kingdom."
U.S. Policy Implications
On August 25, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey
said that any long term strategy to defeating the Islamic State would require
the assistance of regional partners such as Jordan. President Obama
reportedly is seeking to build a multilateral coalition (to include Australia,
Britain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates)
to join the United States in countering the Islamic State. Several media
reports suggest that Jordanian Special Operations forces assisted U.S. troops
in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue American journalist James Foley, who
had been held captive by the Islamic State prior to his recent execution.
Congress has supported efforts to bolster Jordan's security as part of an
already a robust bilateral military partnership. The House and Senate
versions of the FY2015 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bills
(H.R. 5013 and S. 2499, respectively) would appropriate $1 billion in total
economic and military aid for Jordan. S. 2499 states that a portion of these
funds may be used for Jordan's security requirements along the border with
Iraq and Syria. Congress also is considering the FY2015 Defense
Appropriations Act (H.R. 4870). The version of H.R. 4870 reported out of the
Senate Appropriations Committee includes Operations and Maintenance
(O&M) appropriations that may be used to "reimburse the government of
Jordan, in such amounts as the Secretary of Defense may determine, to
maintain the ability of the Jordanian armed forces to maintain security along
the border between Jordan and Syria."