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Is Jordan next?

Nils Naumann / cdJune 24, 2014

Don't be fooled by its name: The terror group "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" plans to attack well beyond the borders of those two countries. After snatching an Iraq-Jordan checkpoint, Amman is on high alert.

A tank flying the ISIS black-and-white flag in a desert setting
Image: picture-alliance/abaca

The Jordan-Iraq border crossing is a solitary post, located in the endless yellow-brown desert between Jordan's capital, Amman, and Baghdad, Iraq.

The Iraqi customs officials there are supposed to monitor entry and exit to the country. But the Iraqi-Jordan border crossing has nothing more to report to Iraq's central government: Members of a Sunni militia allied with the terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are now in control.

While the overrun border outpost is just another piece in the ISIS Iraq puzzle, it is raising alarm in Amman. Jordan's interior minister announced that his country is now "surrounded by extremists." Troops stationed on Iraq's border have been placed on high alert. According to domestic military sources, the kingdom has mobilized dozens of units along the border.

Washington is concerned as well. President Obama warned that the jihadist march could spread to Jordan from Iraq. US Secretary of State John Kerry considers ISIS "a threat to the whole region."

Increased security measures

André Bank, a Middle East expert at the Hamburg-based German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), says the group's goal is to establish in Islamic state in Iraq as well as "Greater Syria."

US President Barack Obama with King Abdullah II of Jordan
King Abdullah II met with US President Obama in California in FebruaryImage: Reuters

"That means not only Syria, parts of Iraq, Lebanon and large parts of [historical] Palestine, but also large areas of Jordan," he told DW.

That territorial claim can be seen in an ISIS propaganda video released last week on the Internet. In it, five fighters, apparently from the UK and Australia, speak to the camera.

"We don't recognize borders," one of the men says, adding that he and his comrades had fought in Syria, would soon enter Iraq and would then enter Jordan and Lebanon - "wherever our leader sends us."

It's likely straight propaganda. André Bank considers it somewhat unrealistic for ISIS fighters to penetrate Jordan. Where in Iraq they've encountered a demoralized army giving up large swathes of territory without so much as a fight, Jordan's military would engage.

"Jordan's security apparatus is one of the strongest in the region. Border facilities will be strongly protected," he said.

Rising threat

What ISIS might do is destabilize Jordan through terror attacks. It wouldn't be the first time the country found itself targeted by terrorists. In 2005, more than 50 people died in separate terror attacks on luxury hotels. The precursor to ISIS, Al Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility. At that time the group was led by a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed one year later in a targeted US air strike just 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad.

Syrian refugees in Jordan
Roughly 600,000 Syrian refugees live in Jordan, according to the UNImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Ramzy Mardini is an Amman-based security expert with the nonpartisan US think tank Atlantic Council. He believes the radical ISIS group might have already established a terror cell within Jordan. The country is home to a growing number of jihadists, he says, a fact shown Friday (20.06.2014) when 200 ISIS supporters took to the streets in the southern Jordan city of Maan and openly declared it the "Fallujah of Jordan" - a reference to the Iraqi stronghold of radical Sunni Islam.

But, according to Jordan's former foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, a "large majority of the population" in Jordan is against the extremist ISIS.

Muasher, the current vice president at the Carnegie Endowment research institute, added that "the danger ISIS presents to Jordan is not comparable to the danger the organization represents for Syria or Iraq."

ISIS is a security threat, he says - not an "existential danger."

Reforming a stable Jordan

Jordan's head of state, King Abdullah II, is still in the drivers seat, says André Bank - partly due to support from Western states, from Israel but also from Gulf monarchies.

Still, the country faces big problems. Refugees from Syria number in the hundreds of thousands. Its economy is sputtering, causing increased unemployment.

As Berlin welcomes Jordan's king on Tuesday, where he will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bank sees a need for at two-pronged approach: Jordan's refugee burden must be better supported; any long-term help delivered by Germany, he says, should come with preconditions for reform.

That's because extremism will continue to take root in Jordan, the Middle East expert says, unless the increasingly authoritarian country further opens itself politically and adopts an economic policy that's more socially balanced.