Castle attack exposes Jordan’s vulnerability to ISIS threat
KARAK - Bullet marks on the thick walls of a Crusader fortress and shattered windows of nearby restaurants — damage from a recent shooting rampage — bear witness to Jordan’s vulnerability to attacks by Islamic State (ISIS) extremists.
Some say the assault on Karak Castle last month by Jordanian followers of ISIS could signal a more aggressive campaign to destabilise the pro-Western kingdom.
The government dismisses ISIS as a fringe phenomenon and says Jordan’s security forces can contain any threat but the December 18th shooting set disconcerting precedents. It marked the first time ISIS claimed an attack on a civilian site in Jordan, a spot popular with tourists. A Canadian woman and two local residents were among ten people killed.
The four shooters were sons of Jordanian tribes, traditionally a pillar of support for the monarchy. Local media said they were college-educated men in their late 20s and early 30s, underscoring the appeal of ISIS ideology among some Jordanians.
The security establishment faced rare criticism over its failure to prevent the attack, with more than one-third of parliament members calling for a vote of no-confidence in the Interior minister.
Marwan Shehadeh, an expert on militants, said the Karak shooting signalled “a remarkable change” in ISIS tactics. “The year 2017 will be the year of great security challenges in Jordan,” he said.
Government spokesman Mohammed Momani said Jordan, a member of the US-led military coalition against ISIS, is a target but has countered threats because of social cohesion and what he said were well-trained security forces.
“We know we have been successful in stopping them on many other occasions,” he said. “If you look at what is happening in countries around us… you see our ability to preserve our stability and security.”
Jordan’s confrontation with ISIS goes back to 2014, when the kingdom began air strikes as part of an international campaign to dislodge ISIS from large areas of neighbouring Syria and Iraq.
Jordan’s military strikes, however, have not kept the militants from its borders and have made the kingdom a target.
Last year, seven ISIS supporters and a Jordanian officer were killed in a shoot-out during an arrest raid. In June, ISIS sent a car bomb from Syria that killed seven Jordanian troops. Lone gunmen carried out three separate attacks at Jordanian security installations, with five Americans among the dead. Jordanian officials have remained silent about the attackers’ motives.
As ISIS comes under growing pressure in Syria and Iraq, a gradual retreat there might generate an even stronger incentive for the group to carry out attacks elsewhere to affirm its relevance.
Jordan is a logical target because of the visible presence of Western installations and foreigners, said David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The United States is expected to provide $1.6 billion in economic and military support to its beleaguered ally in 2017.
“The narrative here in Washington is that the threat is pretty large but that Jordan can handle it,” Schenker said.
Jordan began a clampdown on suspected ISIS sympathisers in 2014, with several hundred people now serving prison terms and five recently sentenced to death.
After the Karak shooting, security forces detained dozens more people. Twenty-two hard-line preachers who refused to pray for the Karak victims would be punished, said Religious Affairs Minister Wael Arabiyat.
Critics say Jordan fails to address the wider causes of the militants’ appeal among Jordanians, hundreds of whom have fought in the ranks of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Musleh Tarawneh, a Karak legislator who led the recent push in parliament to dismiss the Interior minister, noted that unemployment in his district has risen to 25% and that university graduates cannot find jobs. “Islamic State found a way to enter the Jordanian tribes through poverty and unemployment,” he said.
The rise in unemployment is a result of long-term trends, including an economic slump caused in part by regional instability, that could take years to reverse. The Karak shooting dealt another setback to an already struggling tourism industry, once a vital part of Jordan’s economy.
Atef al-Saoud, the head of the Public Security Directorate, said this month that the cell had planned to carry out New Year’s Eve attacks with explosives belts.
Individual tourists from the United States, Italy and Switzerland seemed undeterred, walking outside the castle a day before it reopened.
They said they felt safe because the probability of a second attack in the same spot was low. They also said that attacks by militants can happen anywhere, pointing to recent incidents in Berlin and Istanbul.
Emily Clymer, 31, a US academic from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said she felt safer in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where she works, than in the United States. Jordanian security forces “take precautions; they react quickly”, she said.