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Karak: An attack on Jordan

December 20, 2016

An attack on a popular tourist attraction in Jordan highlights just how vulnerable the country is, despite increased anti-terror measures.

Jordanien Polizisten und kanadische Touristin bei Angriff in Kerak getötet
Image: Reuters/M. Hamed

The suicide belt and other explosive materials that Jordanian security forces recovered in Karak, west of the Dead Sea, suggest that terrorists who first attacked a police station and then visitors at the city's medieval castle, a popular tourist attraction, had apparently planned a much larger assault. That is how Jordanian Interior Minister, Salameh Hammad, described the situation at a press conference on Monday; though he declined to confirm the attackers' nationalities. Jordanian security agents, however, said that the four dead attackers were Jordanian members of a terror cell, most likely "Islamic State" (IS), according to news agency AFP.   

Troubling signal

The signal the attack sends is just as unsettling as the potential impact of the now liquidated cell. It reminds Jordanians, and the wider world, that the kingdom - a comparatively peaceful country - must recognize that jihadi terror can strike at any time. Jordan is also a target because of the fact that, so far, it is the only Arab country to have joined the international coalition in the fight against "IS."

In June, a jihadi suicide bomber killed seven Jordanian officers in an attack at the Syrian border. In the same month, a jihadi shot at five members of Jordan's intelligence service. The attacker was subsequently arrested. Islamist circles announced that he had been tortured. In November, terrorists killed four US soldiers and a Jordanian officer in an attack on a US military convoy.

Jordanien Kreuzritterburg in Kerak
A popular tourist destination: the medieval Kerak castle.Image: imago/imagebroker

The context of the attack

The site of Sunday's attack suggests that it should be seen in a larger overall context: Karak is the hometown of Jordanian Royal Air Force pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane crashed near the city of Raqqa, in December 2014. Al-Kasasbeh was then captured by "IS" and burned alive some ten days later. "IS" released a propaganda video of the killing online.

Jordan responded with massive retaliatory attacks against the "IS." Immediately after the video of al-Kasasbeh's killing was put online, Jordanian authorities executed terrorist Sajida al-Rishawi, who had previously been sentenced to death. Al-Rishawi and her husband were involved in the planning of a series of attacks on hotels in the Jordanian capital Amman at the end of 2005. Sixty people were killed in the attacks, al-Rishawi survived because her suicide belt failed to detonate.

Political power and powerlessness

Jordan's King Abdullah II has managed to keep his country comparatively quiet and stable. This is despite that fact that it lies in a very turbulent region, bordering Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia . At the same time, extremely low voter turnout (37 percent) for this September's parliamentary elections suggests that many Jordanians put little faith in the current political establishment. Those who did go to the polls tended to vote for moderates: Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood only received 12 percent of the vote. The number of women voted into parliament rose by 15 percent.

 The country's economic situation is dire. Unemployment is at almost 15 percent, and among 15-to-24-year-olds it is 38 percent. Almost one quarter of all Jordanians live below the poverty line. The king has responded to the challenge by introducing new security measures rather than welfare programs. Despite international aid, the country's budget has been heavily burdened by the roughly 1.4 million Syrians refugees that it has taken in.

Jordanien - Protest Pro Pilot Muas al-Kasasba
Jordanian students hold pictures of the pilot, Muath al-Kassasbeh.Image: picture-alliance/epa

Jihadi tempters

This situation may be the reason that portions of Jordanian society are becoming interested in jihadist ideology, like that of the "IS." "The Islamic State took advantage of my dissatisfaction," a young Jordanian told the Associated Press. The woman studied psychology, yet three years after completing her studies was unable to find employment. "'IS' promised me a job and a house." So, she joined the organization.

But in light of the brutality and fanaticism that she experienced, she decided to leave the group shortly thereafter. Yet, others have remained. It is estimated that some 3,000 Jordanians have fought for the "IS" since the "caliphate" was officially proclaimed. The organization's founding can also be traced back to a Jordanian: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The terrorist was a close confidant of Osama bin Laden, and was killed by American forces in 2006.

An Islamist preaching against terror

After the murder of Muath al-Kasasbeh, Jordanian authorities employed the services of the influential jihadi preacher Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi in an attempt to combat the ideology of "IS" and other Islamist groups. Born on the West Bank in 1959, the religious scholar is revered as a pioneer in the radical Sunni circles from which Al-Qaeda in Iraq sprang forth. That group eventually morphed into what is known today as "Islamic State." 

Al-Maqdisi has been critical for the use of violence against Muslims since 2004. Muslims, he wrote, must not attack other Muslims. Violence is only justified when used against illegitimate rulers. In May 2014, he said that the "IS" was a "deviant organization."

Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi mit Abu Qatada 24.09.2014
Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, who has denounced the 'IS.'Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Hannon

Attacking the tourist industry

Nevertheless, this year's attacks show that not all Jordanians pay heed to his message. The Arab digital news and opinion site "Rai al-Youm" wrote that this weekend's attacks were especially devastating: "The fact that the attackers singled out the castle of Karak points to their intention of striking the country's tourism industry."

Tourism is the Jordan's main source of income. But al-Youm says that the threat will not stop there. Now that the jihadis are being pushed back in Syria and Iraq, it seems evident that they will retreat to other nearby countries. Jordan, they fear, may be the first port of call.