Jordan’s crackdown on terrorism mired in doubt
AMMAN // The recent deadly assault by a gunman on Jordan’s security services has raised questions about the effectiveness of Amman’s efforts to prevent the spread of terrorist ideology at home.
Five intelligence agency staff were killed on the first day of Ramadan in an attack on their office on the outskirts of the Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp, near Amman.
It was the second such security breach in the kingdom since November, when a Jordanian police officer killed five people at a police training facility, including two Americans.
The government described both attacks as “lone acts”.
Jordan takes pride in the competence of its security and intelligence services, which it says have thwarted repeated attempts by extremists to attack local and western targets.
It credits security agencies, including its armed forces, with ensuring the country remains stable in a tumultuous region, particularly given the war in neighbouring Syria, which has dragged in the United States, Russia, Iran and the Arab Gulf, and which has become a rallying point for Sunni and Shiite militants from across the world.
As that war intensified and ISIL began capturing territory in Iraq in 2014, Jordan cracked down harder on extremist groups and their sympathisers. In an effort to stem the rise of extremism authorities have taken measures that include the drying up of extremists’ financial resources, arrests of known militants and sympathisers, and cracking down on illegal preachers.
Other measures have come under criticism from analysts, however, who say they limit freedoms. These include placing suspects under house arrest, imposing travel bans and imprisoning sympathisers.
Former security personnel, and experts on Islamist movements warn that heavy-handed tactics may yield short-term results but will eventually backfire, hardening extremist sentiments rather than addressing root causes.
“Strict security measures are needed at times in dealing with Islamists but they should be the exception,” said Mohammad Al Daja, a former Jordanian security official.
“Instead, the security strategy should be based on initiating a dialogue by qualified personnel who are not affiliated with the state, as well as a nationwide economic, political and social reform programme to improve the lives of Jordanians.
“When sympathisers are imprisoned, they feel injustice and seek revenge. They also become more radicalised when they are jailed with other Islamists,” he said.
There are signs that ISIL propaganda is reaching deep into Jordanian society. A survey published on Tuesdayby the International Republican Institute, a pro-democracy non-profit organisation based in Washington, DC, showed that 25 per cent of Jordanians believe ISIL has support in the country.
The US state department’s 2015 country report on terrorism released this month pointed to shortfalls in the Jordanian government’s strategy to counter violent extremism and said the nation’s leaders were reluctant to acknowledge domestic radicalisation.
The report said the prime minister’s inter-agency anti-extremist strategy, announced in the autumn of 2014, remained under-resourced and understaffed, and that, while efforts were being made to counter radicalisation in mosques and schools, they remained disjointed.
It also noted that Jordan’s security and intelligence services were not coordinating with each other, including in cases of reporting terrorist incidents.
Authorities in Amman issued a gag order last week preventing Jordanians from publishing any news concerning the shooting near the Baqaa refugee camp.
A BBC report said the shooter, identified as Mahmoud Al Masharfeh, was a loner inspired by ISIL but who had began to show signs of radicalisation from an early age.
“When he was in tenth grade, he heard from some guys about jihad ... and he [witnessed] the events in Gaza and what happened in Iraq which influenced his thoughts,” said one of Al Masharfeh’s acquaintances at the refugee camp where he lived. “He was ready and just needed someone to guide him.”
Mohammad Abu Rumman, an expert on Islamic groups, wrote in the Jordanian newspaper Al Ghad that a member of Jaysh Al Islam, a group in Gaza that has switched allegiance from Al Qaeda to ISIL, convinced Al Masharfeh in 2012 to create a cell and go to Gaza for training. He was arrested before he could do so and released in mid 2014, after ISIL emerged, and went into hiding for two years.
Local media said Al Masharfeh was detained again two weeks before the attack on the intelligence officers, suggesting it was an act of revenge.
Jordan plays a key role in the international coalition fighting ISIL in Syria and Iraq, which appears to be pushing ISIL back on the battlefield. Amman hosts the Military Operations Centre, or MOC, a command post staffed by western and Arab officers which provides munitions, intelligence and planning expertise to moderate rebels fighting against Bashar Al Assad and against ISIL-affiliated groups in Syria.
A day after the shooting, King Abdullah said he would act with force against anyone who threatened the kingdom’s security.
“Jordan will act with all firmness and force against anyone seeking to undermine its security,” he said on a visit to the headquarters of the intelligence services.
Jordanian officials and religious commentators have repeatedly stressed that extremists have distorted Islamic teachings. That message, however, has not prevented radical groups from finding new recruits.
Experts say there are about 2,000 Jordanians fighting alongside extremists in Syria and Iraq, with only Tunisia and Saudi Arabia providing more recruits from Arab countries.
One of the efforts Jordan is making to weaken the influence of extremists has been a prison programme espousing a liberal, tolerant vision. But there is little indication that it is proving successful.
“We do not trust the consulting programme at the prison,” said an ISIL sympathiser who travelled to Peshawar, in Pakistan, during the Afghanistan war of the 1980s, where he received military training, before returning to Jordan.
His son is serving a three-year prison sentence for supporting ISIL’s ideology.
“They say we cannot declare the Jews as infidels or those who curse the prophets as infidels. These are fixtures in religion. So my son kicked the government imam out when he tried to have a dialogue with him,” the former militant said.
The man and his son come from the city of Rusafia near Zarqa, a hotbed of extremism and the hometown of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the leader of ISIL’s predecessor group Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Interviews suggest that the treatment of detained radicals inside prison could be increasing their susceptibility to extremist ideology.
Abu Ammar, a carpenter whose younger brother, Naser Hasan, is serving a three-year sentence on charges related to supporting ISIL, said the prisoner’s health had deteriorated because the authorities delayed providing him with essential health care. Hasan, 37, is at a public hospital receiving treatment for liver failure, according to a pathology report issued by the health ministry in April.
“I wish I didn’t see him in this condition. He was lying unconscious and his hands were cuffed,” said Abu Ammar, who suspects Hasan caught an infection in prison that resulted in his liver failure. “He needs a liver transplant. We are trying to transfer him to a different centre, but the [authorities] refused. ”
While analysts say poverty is stoking radicalism, another ISIL sympathiser said suppression by security forces played a greater role.
“The intelligence [services’] approach is based on repressions and arrest. They confiscated my liberty, froze my assets and blacklisted my passport,” he said, adding that methods had become harsher following the brutal killing of Jordanian air force fighter pilot Muath Al Kasasbeh.
The pilot was captured by ISIL after his F-16 jet crashed over Raqqa in eastern Syria in December 2014 and burnt to death last February.
“After Muath was burnt, the mukhabarat [general intelligence directorate] became harsher than ever,” the ISIL sympathiser said, wearing an Afghani-style vest and sporting a long beard. “These strict measures will lead to an explosion.”
“Jordan is a time bomb, the security is controlling the borders, but inside things will explode.”
Updated: June 16, 2016 04:00 AM