ISIS in Jordan: King Abdullah's Battle for the Soul of Islam

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Jordanian King Abdullah II in pilot gear, posted on The Royal Hashemite Court Facebook page after pilot's execution.Credit: Facebook

In March 2015, the Islamic State released a video showing Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh locked inside a cage and set on fire by a militant armed with a flamethrower.

It was a gruesome scene intended to goad Amman into a response, and it worked. Jordan was already one of the four Arab countries taking part in airstrikes against the Islamic State as part of the U.S.-led international coalition. But in the three days after the release of the footage, its air force carried out nearly 60 strikes against ISIS in Syria.

Jordan’s King Abdullah has made clear he sees the Islamic State as an unprecedented threat, and the jihadists undoubtedly see their natural operating territory stretching deep into Jordan.

Abdullah and his wife Queen Rania have also been at pains to stress that moderate Muslims must do more to combat extremism.

The king told CNN in March 2015 that the Islamic State was “trying to invent falsely a linkage to a caliphate, link to our history in Islam that has no truth or bearing to our history.”

Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh standing in a cage just before being burned to death by his captors from ISIS.Credit: AP

“I'm a Muslim,” he said. “These people... are on the fringe of Islam.”

As the king put it, “The barbarity with the way they executed our brave hero [Kasasbeh], I think, shocked the Muslim world, especially Jordanians and people from this region.”

Rania backed up this message in August in a talk with French business leaders at a summit near Paris. “We are facing a time of great peril. Daesh, or the so-called Islamic State, continues to spread its diabolical ideology," she said.

“Moderate Muslims the world over are not doing enough to win the ideological struggle at the heart of this battle,” she continued.

“We’re not actively helping Daesh, but we're not actively stopping them either. We can’t stand against them until we as Muslims agree on what we stand for.”

In June 2015, Jordan tightened its counterterror laws to clamp down on significant support for the Islamic State at home. Officials estimate that well over 2,000 Jordanians have joined the fighting, the third-biggest foreign contingent in ISIS after Tunisians and Saudis, respectively. The ramifications if they export jihad back home are clear.

There were also reports in the summer of 2015 of Islamic State attempts to infiltrate Jordan from the east. In June 2015 the Israeli security cabinet approved a proposal to build a 29-kilometer security fence along its border with Jordan, with the aim of keeping out not only economic migrants but militants. 

Jordan has a long history with the terror groups that evolved into the Islamic State. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the founder of its predecessor Al-Qaida in Iraq, was a Jordanian.  He is believed to have masterminded several attacks on Jordanian targets, including the bombing of its Baghdad embassy in 2003 and a triple suicide bombing in Amman in 2005.

The Islamic State poses another very real threat to the kingdom, having contributed significantly to its refugee crisis. The state is under economic and social strain,  having accepted more than 700,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq since the start of the civil war and ISIS' ascent. All this presents a clear challenge to the kingdom’s stability.

The Jordanian army, however, remains highly skilled and well equipped. Although not a member of NATO, Jordan is considered a strong ally of the West and is deeply involved in the international, U.S.-led strategy to counter the Islamic State. Amman can also draw on strategic support from Jerusalem, which has reportedly sold it drones and surveillance technology to deal with the ISIS threat.