The rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in northern Iraq has set off warning bells in Jerusalem, which fears a Jihadist takeover of Jordan, Israel’s eastern neighbor and a Western ally.
Former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror told Army Radio on Sunday that Israel should extend aid to Jordan in its potential fight against ISIL if such assistance is requested.
“We need to help with whatever they may need in order to overcome the problems developing on their eastern borders,” he said.
The ex-security official’s statements followed a report in the Daily Beast on Friday quoting sources close to the Obama administration as saying that Jordan may soon request “as much help as it can get” from Israel and the US in its fight against ISIL.
Ostensibly, King Abdullah’s concerns regarding an outside menace may have some merit. A video posted online in April depicted a number of Jordanian ISIL fighters, including a child, tearing up their passports and threatening to assassinate the “tyrant.”
But an Israeli expert on Jordanian politics told The Times of Israel on Sunday that the likelihood of Jordan’s army collapsing in the face of an ISIL onslaught, like the Iraqi army has so far, is extremely low. The jihadist risk to Jordanian stability, if anything, comes from within, he said.
“The Jordanian situation is completely different from the Iraqi one,” said Assaf David, a fellow at Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for Peace and the Forum for Regional Thinking at Molad. “Their army is in a much better situation. We must bear in mind that the Americans destroyed the Iraqi army in 2003 as part of the de-Baathification process,” he said, referring to the marginalization of supports of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party from state apparatus following his ouster. “This is one of the main reasons for [the Iraqi army's] collapse.”
The Jordanian army is better trained and equipped than the Iraqi army, David noted, and it also receives continuous regional and international support. The Daily Beast leak, he opined, was an orchestrated attempt by Israel, the US and Jordan to convey a message to ISIL whereby “you will not only be messing with Jordan, but also with Israel and the US.”
ISIL indeed has a long score to settle with the Hashemite Kingdom. Jordan collaborated with the US in intelligence gathering which led to the June 2006 targeted killing of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian national who headed al-Qaeda in Iraq and is widely considered ISIL’s “spiritual father.”
Jordan has been historically soft on home-grown Salafi jihadism, a fact which is now coming back to haunt it, David added. Earlier this month it released Salafi leader Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi from prison, and last week acquitted radical preacher Abu Qatada of plotting a terror attack against the American school in Amman in 1998.
“Jordan has been winking at jihadists for quite a few years,” David said. “It hasn’t waged all-out war against them, but instead fights them in a sophisticated manner which includes attempts to co-opt jihadists and keep channels open with them.”
One case in point is Mohammed Shalabi, also known as Abu Sayyaf, a radical Salafi from the southern Jordanian city of Ma’an, which has experienced jihadist fermentation since ISIL’s successes in Iraq. Abu Sayyaf has downplayed ISIL’s presence in Jordan, playing to the sensitivities of Jordan’s ruling elite, David said.
“Abu Sayyaf has also been in and out of Jordanian prisons. Why don’t they lock him away in a dungeon for many years? Because the Jordanians deal in a very sophisticated way with Salafi jihadists,” he said.
Jordan isn’t immune to ISIL from within, David added. Like many other Arab countries Jordan has spent its energies cracking down on the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood only to wake up to threat of jihadism at the very last moment.
“Eventually, you either choose to work with a pragmatic Islamist opposition that respects the political rules of the game or you have nihilists on your hands who believe in nothing.”
But today, a massive wave of Iraqi refugees flooding Jordan from the east poses a greater threat than a military ISIL invasion of the kingdom, he said.
The intellectual stream of thought represented by ISIL, known as Salafiya-Jihadiya or Salafi jihadism, has always been more attractive to Trans-Jordanians; as opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood that has appealed to the Kingdom’s sizable Palestinian population, he noted.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is essentially an urban movement, while Salafi jihadism is more connected to the periphery and the countryside, as well as to underprivileged urban areas,” David said. In Ma’an, protesters dubbed themselves “the Falloujah of Jordan,” a reference to the staunchly Sunni city in Iraq’s Anbar Province where ISIL has gained poplar support.
Although a jihadist wave akin to the ISIL in Iraq is still far off, David concluded, “judging by the anti-monarchical sentiment among the Kingdom’s tribal periphery, Jordan has cause for concern.”