x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Jordan reveals growing role in Afghan war

A government minister acknowledges the country has a presence in Afghanistan.

Honman Khaleel Abu Mallal Balawi, right, who blew himself up in Afghanistan, reads a statement as he sits next to Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a video broadcast yesterday.
Honman Khaleel Abu Mallal Balawi, right, who blew himself up in Afghanistan, reads a statement as he sits next to Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a video broadcast yesterday.

AMMAN // After maintaining years of silence over its role in the war in Afghanistan, Jordan has for the first time acknowledged that it has a presence there - and one which it plans to boost - after one of its security agents was killed in a suicide bombing that also killed seven CIA agents. The announcement, made on Friday by the minister of foreign affairs, Naser Judeh, while visiting officials in Washington, raised analysts' concerns here that it would again put the country on an al Qa'eda priority list more than four years since triple hotel bombings in Amman killed 60 and injured dozens.

"Our presence in Afghanistan today is two-fold: number one, to combat terrorism and the root causes of terrorism, but also to help out in the humanitarian effort that is needed there," he told the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. "And I would like to say that our presence in Afghanistan will be enhanced and increased in the coming phase. This is something that is ongoing." The suicide bomber, a 32-year-old Jordanian physician, Homam Khaleel Abu Mallal Balawi, who blew himself up at a CIA base in Khost, near the Pakistani border on December 30, appeared posthumously in a video broadcast on Al Jazeera television.

The bomber said he planned for revenge. "We tell our emir Baitullah Mehsud we will never forget his blood. It is up to us to avenge him in and outside America," he said in reference to a Pakistani Taliban leader killed in a US attack in August. "This is a message to the enemies of the [Muslim] nation - the CIA and Jordanian intelligence services." Jordan had never officially confirmed its presence in Afghanistan. There was not even any mention of the circumstances in which Sharif Ali bin Zaid, one of King Abudllah's relatives and reported to have been the bomber's handler, died. At least, not until the Jordanian triple agent made headlines.

But Mr Judeh explained that Jordan was one of the first countries in Afghanistan. "We are not only part of a network of countries that are trying to assist Afghanistan and Afghans, but also trying to combat terror and terrorism. But we're also there to defend Jordan's national interests and defend - to defend Jordanians and safeguard them against this growing threat." Jordanian analysts specialising in Islamic movements expressed concerns that the foreign minister's statements could put the country in an open confrontation with al Qa'eda.

"Jordan has opened the door for a war with al Qa'eda. It will start considering Jordan as a target after years of silence since [Abu Musab al] Zarqawi was killed," Marwan Shehadeh, an independent expert on political Islam, said. He was referring to the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was involved in the Amman hotel bombings in 2005 before US forces killed him in Iraq in 2006. "Jordan is engaged in a vicious war against al Qa'eda because it has, like other countries, became an ally in the war on terror. "

Mr Shehadeh said that if Jordan limited its operations to within and around its borders it would not likely incur the wrath of militants, but "if it interferes in the fight abroad like in Afghanistan, then this is where the dangers lies. It would place Jordan on the priority list and make it a target for terrorist acts." Fouad Hussein, another independent analyst specialising on Islamic movements, said the announcement that Jordan would enhance its presence in Afghanistan is expected to heat up the war with al Qa'eda. "It will widen the war with al Qa'eda where Jordan was not a [priority] target," he said.

Hours after the posting was made on Al Jazeera, a senior Jordanian official said the kingdom remained committed to fighting terrorism "anywhere and everywhere". Jordan is proud of its presence in Afghanistan, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, without providing any detailed information about the timing or the number of the Jordanians serving there because it is considered a security matter.

"We have carried out successful campaigns, like that which lead to the killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi," he said. "We want to [continue] to fight terrorism before its hits us at home like it did in 2005. Terrorist threats are not new and they would make us stand more resolute and determined to protect our citizens." Jordanian authorities last year interrogated Mallal but then released him because there was no evidence against him. "He provided us with important information - that's why we kept engaging him," the official said.

smaayeh@thenational.ae