The explosion of a booby-trapped car Tuesday at the military post near the entrance of the Al-Rukban refugee camp in northeastern Jordan was expected. King Abdullah of Jordan had warned in recent months at every local or international forum of the possibility of terror in the kingdom.
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While this seems to be the first time attackers have used a car bomb in Jordan, a more important distinction is that the explosion was the second attack in the past two weeks against military targets. Earlier this month five soldiers were killed in an attack on an intelligence base near the Palestinian refugee camp of Al-Baqaa, north of Amman. Tuesday’s attack killed four border guards, an intelligence officer and a policeman.
Jordanian intelligence has recently learned that operatives of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) are among the 60,000 Syrian refugees living in the desert refugee camps of Al-Rukban and Hadlat, on the Syria-Jordanian border. At the behest of American intelligence agents, Jordan demanded that both the Syrian regime and the rebel groups keep their men seven kilometers away from the Jordanian border to help prevent a car bomb attack. It’s therefore unclear how a terrorist succeeded in getting a car close to the camp entrance to blow himself up, nor is it clear why Jordanian intelligence didn’t seem to have any information about the planned attack.
Jordan has an account to settle with ISIS ever since it executed Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh, whose plane was downed over the city of Al-Raka. It was a particularly horrifying execution; the pilot was burned alive in an iron cage that had been built specifically for this purpose. Jordan afterward intensified its bombardments on the jihadist bases as part of the Western coalition it joined, and even sent special ground troops to act against ISIS bases in Syria and help the rebels. Some of the rebel militias conduct training exercises in Jordan, as do a few Iraqi military units.
The Jordanian monarchy’s cooperation with the Syrian rebels and the British and American armies have made it a target of ISIS, and apparently not just ISIS. In 2005 it was Al-Qaida that attacked hotels in Amman and killed 60 people. Between 2004 and 2006 Al-Qaida in Iraq was headed by Jordanian terrorist Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in an American bombardment 10 years ago this month.
Jordan, which closed its long border with Syria on Tuesday, keeps a close watch on the refugees in the Rukban and Hadlat camps. Every day it allows only a few dozen to cross the border into Jordan, and only after they go through a rigorous security check. On Tuesday the Jordanian government announced it would not allow any more refugees to enter, nor will it expand the existing refugee camps and allow more refugees into them.
These steps have not solved Jordan’s problems with the refugees who are already in the country, for example in the Za’atari refugee camp or the thousands living in the cities of Irbid and Amman. Some called this week for opening the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia in order to enable the refugees leave Jordan, the same way Turkey allowed the refugees to pass through its territory on their way to Europe. But Jordan, which is dependent on Saudi aid, will find it difficult to force the kingdom to its south to change its strict policy that bars entry to Syrian refugees.
While the motive for the attacks in Jordan may seem natural, what is not obvious is actually the very low number of such attacks involving Syrian refugees, over 1.4 million of whom now live in Jordan. One of Jordan’s greatest fears is that ISIS operatives will take advantage of the refugee camps and the refugees who live outside the camps to sow terrorism.
Lebanon, Turkey and European nations have similar fears. These refugees are seemingly fertile ground for the growth of terrorist cells, and the harsh economic situation most of the refugees face can produce great temptation to carry out such attacks in return for money. The organized refugee camps may be watched over by intelligence officers, but hundreds of thousands of others live all over the large cities and it is impossible to keep track of every refugee.
Most of ISIS’ attacks in Europe or the Middle East, until now, were carried out by the organization’s “regulars” or lone attackers – and not by refugees. As to why the jihadists have so far avoided exploiting this potential source, no single answer exists. Part of the explanation is based on the refugees’ fears of cooperating with the terrorist organization in order not to harm the entire refugee community. Another explanation is the difficulty to train and arm these “accidental” terrorists. Another reason may be the strict supervision in the refugee camps. In any case, the lack of cooperation with the extremists on the part of the refugees can – for now – serve as a source of calm in the war against ISIS.