x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

US and Jordan intelligence services pay the price of secrecy

US reliance on Jordanian intelligence, a decades-old partnership, literally blew up in the CIA's face, and may still cause Jordan problems.

A Jordanian browses a news website showing Homam Khaleel Mohammad Abu Mallal, a suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officers. Abu Mallal was reportedly recruited by Jordanian intelligence to infiltrate al Qa'eda and provide information for the US.
A Jordanian browses a news website showing Homam Khaleel Mohammad Abu Mallal, a suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officers. Abu Mallal was reportedly recruited by Jordanian intelligence to infiltrate al Qa'eda and provide information for the US.

It is perhaps the worst-kept secret in the espionage business: US reliance on Jordanian intelligence, a decades-old partnership forged in part by both countries' aversion to Islamic radicalism. Their collaboration is widely believed to have helped quell al Qa'eda's insurgency in Iraq and eliminate terrorist masterminds such as Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Yet, except perhaps for the post-9/11 presence of swarms of American-accented men apparently enjoying the nightlife of Jordan's sleepy capital, Amman, few firm details about their covert dealings have been revealed - both governments, presumably because of potential political fallout, have been reluctant to disclose much.

So when a Jordanian "triple agent" made headlines after blowing himself up at a CIA outpost in Afghanistan last week, suspicions about the shrouded partnership were, if not confirmed, jarringly brought to the fore. For Jordan's King Abdullah and government, coping with a foundering economy and under pressure for delaying domestic political reforms, that revelation may have been particularly uncomfortable.

"This will definitely have direct consequences on the popularity and public face of the Jordanian government," said Fares Braizat, a Jordan expert and head of research at Qatar University's Social and Economic Survey Research Institute. "The overwhelming majority of Jordanian public opinion, and indeed Arab public opinion, disagrees with US policy in the region, and the revelation of this incident highlights the strong co-ordination between the government of Jordan and the US, particularly with CIA operatives in Afghanistan."

Homam Khaleel Mohammad Abu Mallal was reportedly recruited by Jordanian intelligence to infiltrate al Qa'eda in Afghanistan and acquire information vital to America's war effort there. Instead, the 33-year-old Jordanian physician turned on them, detonating a bomb at the behest of al Qa'eda that killed seven CIA officers and his Jordanian handler. The attack has grabbed headlines in America and the Arab world, and has been touted online by al Qa'eda as an operational coup.

In Jordan, however, little has been reported on the incident except for government sources reportedly giving conflicting accounts of the attacker's relationship with the country's spy agency, the General Intelligence Department (GID). Although believed to be operating there, Jordan has never officially confirmed its troop presence in Afghanistan. The stately funeral given to Abu Mallal's GID handler, Ali bin Zaid, conspicuously attended by King Abdullah and other royals, was held just days before foreign media confirmed his death in the CIA suicide blast.

Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center, a research organisation in Washington, said that the revelation that GID was literally operating beside American forces in Afghanistan "has probably created some friction or discomfort in Jordan that the king and the national security establishment in Jordan will have to manage now. "There will certainly be a period of time, both within Jordan and within the US, and in between the two partners, of discomfort and re-evaluation."

Even so, despite reservations about US policy with regard to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Jordan has remained a faithful, if at times reluctant, ally. And this, at least as far as security co-operation is concerned, is unlikely to change. "I think the Jordanians share our concern about the destabilising effects of radical Islamic extremism, and they want to work with us in disrupting, preventing, managing that challenge," Ms Laipson said.

But the disclosure has also led to criticism of the government for taking part in far-flung conflicts, said Mohammed al Masri, head of public opinion polling at the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies. "There is debate concerned with whether it's worth it for Jordan to send case officers abroad to try to penetrate al Qa'eda and collect information for the Americans," he said. "Many in the elite are asking, 'Are they really furthering Jordanian security, or just providing services for America'?"

Another worry that is now circulating is potential al Qa'eda retaliation for Jordan's conspicuous support of American operations, possibly involving Predator drone attacks against targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Bearing in mind that Jordan suffered a lot from the terrorist attacks of 2005, there was a sense over the last two years that al Qa'eda wasn't going to attack again," he said, referring to the co-ordinated bomb attacks on three hotels in Amman in November 2005, that killed 60 people, many of whom were attending a wedding party.

"Now it's about the price that Jordan could pay for co-operating with the Americans on this issue." But perhaps paramount among the public is concern that political reform at home has been sacrificed for the pay-off of unbending support for America - mainly in the form of money, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Recent trends, according to many, seem to confirm that suspicion. Mustafa Hamarneh a political analyst who now runs a community centre in a village just outside Amman, said: "As far as Jordan's support for America's so-called war on terror, that is why it gets almost a free ride when it comes to movement on reform; the Americans look the other way.

"What we hear from people in Washington and from Americans visiting the region is, 'Don't expect pressure from Washington'." David Schenker, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former adviser to Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defence, said the US has always been hesitant to press Jordan on democratic reforms. "Although governance in Jordan is a concern, given all the other competing priorities, today it's pretty low on the list," he said.

But there is reason to be concerned about the state of governance in Jordan. Late last year the king dissolved parliament and placed palace loyalists in key government positions. It was in part motivated, many believe, by a desire to ram through an austerity budget to cope with the country's US$14 billion (Dh51bn) debt. Meanwhile, long-hoped-for changes to an electoral law accused of skewing results in favour of the crown's traditional political base appear to have been shelved for the time being.

At the same time, international human rights organisations have expressed concern about rampant abuses, including arbitrary detentions, torture in prison and, more recently, deaths from alleged police beatings. Some fear this pressure, combined with Jordan's enfeebled moderate Islamist opposition, could further choke off venues for peaceful discourse and, in turn, possibly lend itself to more radical actions.

The Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Islamic Action Front, was dealt a serious blow as a credible opposition force during the 2007 elections; it fared poorly at municipal and national polls, its members complain, because of government interference. Marwan Shehadeh, an expert on political Islam who lives in Jordan, said that may end up strengthening the hand of the group's hawkish elements. "I think what you'll see as a result of this is elements of the Brotherhood, not the leadership, but the more hawkish members, calling for more militant, radical actions," he said.

Regardless, he said, as the government helps stifle both moderate and militant Islamists, radicals and al Qa'eda sympathisers will, like Abu Mallal, increasingly find the internet their ideal forum for spreading their message. "It's becoming more influential, and al Qa'eda's political discourse is in general earning a lot of supporters through the internet," Mr Shehadeh said. "Militant activities are essentially frozen, and there are huge security efforts to track and control all salafis in Jordan," he said, referring to the austere and, in some cases, violent interpretation of Islam.

"They have arrest campaigns where they round these people up, the people who are suspected of supporting salafi activities," Mr Shehadeh said. @Email:hnaylor@thenational.ae