Don’t be fooled by its name: The terror group “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” plans to attack well beyond the borders of those two countries. After snatching an Iraq-Jordan checkpoint, Amman is on high alert.
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 extremist militia allied with ISIL are now in control.
While the overrun border outpost is just another piece in the ISIL 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 ISIL march could spread to Jordan from Iraq. US Secretary of State John Kerry considers ISIL “a threat to the whole region.”
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.”
“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 ISIL 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 ISIL militants 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.
What ISIL 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 ISIL, 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.
Ramzy Mardini is an Amman-based security expert with the nonpartisan US think tank Atlantic Council. He believes the radical ISIL group might have already established a terror cell within Jordan. The country is home to a growing number of terrorists, he says, a fact shown on June 20 when 200 ISIL supporters took to the streets in the southern Jordan city of Maan and openly declared it the “Fallujah of Jordan”.
But, according to Jordan’s former foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, a “large majority of the population” in Jordan is against the extremist ISIL.
Muasher, the current vice president at the Carnegie Endowment research institute, added that “the danger ISIL presents to Jordan is not comparable to the danger the organization represents for Syria or Iraq.”
ISIL is a security threat, he says – not an “existential danger.”
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 Persian 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 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.