Security in Jordan: A balancing act amidst regional tensions

Security in Jordan: A balancing act amidst regional tensions
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A 6 June attack on Baqa’a, a refugee camp established in 1968 and located 20 miles north of Amman, has placed a spotlight on national issues and demonstrated that the relatively peaceful Kingdom of Jordan remains susceptible to regional malaise.

Five employees of Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID) were killed at their office near the camp in what was deemed a terrorist attack. A suspect was arrested, and the government placed a media blackout on the investigation of an attack that constituted a relative rarity in Jordan. Fast forward to now, and a second attack has occurred on Jordan’s border with Syria: on 21 June, 2016, a bomb blast killed six and wounded 14 Jordanian soldiers. The military outpost that was targeted is in the border region near al-Rukban, close to a Syrian refugee encampment; the Islamic State has since claimed responsibility for the attack.

A desirable target for extremist groups due to its military involvement against IS and links with the United States (not to mention decades-old ties with Israel), Jordan has largely remained un-embroiled from the conflict festering to across its borders. Jordanian action against IS was accelerated after the brutal murder of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasabseh in early 2015.  Another major recent incident was the attack on a police training center near Amman that killed five, including two Jordanians, two Americans, and a South African. As Jordan constitutes one of the key counter-IS members in the region, the US has shown lasting commitment to its strategic security, with up to $1Billion USD in aid provided each year between 2015 and 2017.

Political arena

Adding to the tensions are internal national political moves, such as King Abdullah’s recent decision to dissolve the parliament and instate a new Prime Minister, Hani Mulqi, by executive decree.

Parliamentary elections have been slated to be held on 20 September, 2016. However, suspicions are circulating that outcome could perpetuate the current state of affairs in Jordan: empowering regions that support the monarchy, and disregarding initiatives that provide equal representation for those in less well-off and Palestinian-majority areas that are more likely to support the opposition. The political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front (IAF) is currently the most well-organized opposition group, and plans to take part in 2016 elections after foregoing running in both 2010 and 2013.

Unemployment and national debt (reaching up to 92% of GDP) points to the need for austerity policies in Jordan. The influx of Syrian refugees has exacerbated a myriad of woes, with unemployment in refugee-heavy areas reaching 22%, and causing shortages of water, housing, and related services.

These realities could enhance discontent within the Kingdom vis-à-vis the real possibility of increasing regional conflict spillover. Therefore, cutting services that some citizens rely upon would serve to only heighten the risk of dissatisfaction and increase instability in the mid-term.

Possible outcomes

As one of these attacks was likely directly orchestrated by IS, there could be further repercussions for Jordan’s status quo. There will also be consequences for refugees.

As the Baqa’a attacker is believed to come from the Palestinian refugee town (the Baqa’a camp), it is possible that the already marginalized Baqa’a populations could face further discrimination. Exacerbating a dire situation, the attack in al-Rukban could detract from aid organizations’ ability to distribute much-needed goods to the Syrian refugees in the area if security is increased. The border has been closed due to security concerns.

While low income living is not causally connected to violent extremism, there are structural motivators, individual incentives, and enabling factors that all contribute to the susceptibility of an individual’s likelihood to support or eventually act upon violent extremist ideologies. For that reason, these events have a possible side effect of serving as the catalysts of a vicious cycle of encouraging internal violent extremism that until now, Jordan has largely avoided due to strict border controls and restrictive internal policing.

Regarding the most recent attack that killed five in al-Rukban, it indicates a more sophisticated operation in that Jordanian officials stated that ‘several attacking vehicles were destroyed’. If multiple attackers were involved, or if IS is indeed responsible, it could denote a higher level of operational and tactical capability, and would heighten concerns for security in coming weeks and months.

The way forward

Preventative measures aimed at quelling the possible drivers would do well to minimize the draw of violent extremism in Jordan, especially given the geographical proximity to Syria and the draw of IS’s recruitment machine. For now, the attack in Baqa’a is significant in that it shows a possible act of lone actor violence; the type that is difficult for authorities to determine and prevent. The recent al-Rukban attack, on the other hand, could turn out to be more complex in nature.

Jordan relies heavily upon tourism, and faltering security could serve to push tourist populations elsewhere. After the Arab Spring of 2011, tourism to Jordan fell due to lack of confidence in the region, and for the future economic outlook in this regard, it will need firmly demonstrate tangible security. In the short to mid-term, the outlooks remains positive, an example being a new MoU signed between Jordan’s tourism board and UAE based Emirates Airlines. This kind of endeavor could serve to increase tourism and thereby better the economic situation.

However, examined through the prism of regional drama and growing discontent with political accommodations, the viability of Jordan’s reputation as a stable tourist and business destination could falter somewhatin the mid to long-term should these types of violent attacks escalate further.

About Author

Kira Munk

Kira Munk is a political risk analyst located in the DC Metro area, and has lived in Lebanon and Egypt and the UAE. Kira focuses on topics related to terrorism and counterterrorism, human rights, and the impacts of social and political developments in the MENA. She holds a Master's degree in Terrorism, Security & Society from the Department of War Studies at King's College London.