By Shehab Al Makahleh
With damage still visible from the late-December attack on Jordan's historic Karak castle, where militants killed 14 with machine guns and grenades, policy analysts and security personnel fear that the world is witnessing a shift in Islamic State tactics that could leave Jordan vulnerable. The incident is the fourth terrorist attack to rock Jordan in the last year, but only the first targeting a civilian site. Jordan has long stood as a haven of stability and progress in a turbulent region, staying one step ahead of the Arab Spring with timely, modernizing reforms and serving as a cooperative global partner against terrorism. Attacks like the one on Karak castle, however, threaten to disrupt this status quo.
The past year’s string of attacks began in the Al Baqa’a Camp on June 6, 2016, where five intelligence personnel were killed in an assault at their complex just 12 miles north of Amman. The incident, which was followed by attacks in the towns of Irbid and Al Ruqban, was Jordan's largest terrorist attack in more than a decade. But as the Islamic State’s strongholds fall in Syria and Iraq, why have they suddenly fixed their sights on Jordan? And why is Karak significant?
According to security sources, the attack began when a police patrol received reports of a fire in the village of Qatraneh, 20 miles east of Karak, from a civilian who smelled gunpowder outside the assailants’ house. Officers who responded came under machine gunfire from inside the building. Two were wounded before the militants fled in a car toward Karak, and attempted to detain tourists before a shootout with security forces. While the background of the perpetrators remains under investigation, authorities found that two of the militants held bachelor’s degrees in law and in business administration and came from Muslim families. The primary findings reveal that a cell of up to 10 terrorists was active and each had prepared to carry out a suicide attack after detonating an unspecified number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which were stored at a rented safe-house in Qatraneh.
Although the media regards the incident as a routine Islamic State attack, it may in fact be part of a broader trend in the terrorist organization’s core strategy.
With its unabashedly pro-West, pro-peace orientation, Jordan has long been a target of Islamist militants. But with its nihilistic worldview and draconian policies, the Islamic State poses a unique existential threat to the nation’s security and global stance. Five years into the war in Syria, it increasingly appears that this terrorist faction has tried to make up for its military losses in Iraq, Syria, and Libya with diversionary activity in Jordan, specifically seeking to undermine Jordan’s tourism-driven economy.
Despite its relative stability, Jordan has vulnerabilities. The country suffers from significant debt, which amounted last year to $35 billion, costing the country an additional $2 billion to service per annum. The total debt is almost 94 percent of its GDP, and is projected to grow by $1.2 billion in the coming year. Importantly, the direct contribution of tourism to GDP was $2.5 billion (6.5 percent of total GDP) in 2015, and is forecast to rise by 5.5 percent per year from 2015 to 2025, to $4 billion (6.9 percent of total GDP) in 2025. However, the number of tourists for 2016 was significantly underperforming at approximately 5.6 million by the end of November, largely attributed to attacks on security personnel earlier in the year, and the Karak attack could precipitate a catastrophic decline in the tourism industry, falling even shorter of earlier projections.
Karak castle ranks as one of Jordan’s top tourist destinations alongside wonders like Petra, the Dead Sea, and Amman’s Citadel. And since the news broke, comment boards on popular tourism sites like TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet have been flooded with fear-fueled inquiries on the safety of tourists in Jordan. But Karak’s significance extends beyond even its role as a popular destination; it is also a religiously diverse area heavily populated by Christians, and the attacks were planned symbolically to disrupt preparations for Christmas. Further, it is an area where several Jordanian tribes, which comprise the backbone of the Royal Hashemite Family, peacefully coexist. The Islamic State sought to encourage an environment of chaos by fomenting distrust and conflict between tribes and religions.
The attack, which has targeted both Jordan’s economy and its peaceful diversity, has cast a shadow of newfound concern among political figures and analysts in Jordan. As a journalist, I have sat in on many conversations in Jordanian political salons since the attack, and apprehension about the country’s economy and internal stability is at an all-time high. This change in strategy by the Islamic State should not be taken lightly, especially as it meets with increasing defeat in its former strongholds. The Jordanian government has already increased security measures in cities and along highways and has implemented a lecture program for students. It is also in the process of issuing a law to deny terrorist access to social media without infringing on free speech. With Jordan as a key ally in the region, its Western partners would be wise to take note of the shifting tides and support the Kingdom as it seeks to counter this increasing threat.
Dr. Shehab Makahleh is the co-founder of Geostrategic Media Center and a senior political analyst in Middle Eastern affairs.
[Photo courtesy of Dennis Jarvis]