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The enemy within: Jordan's battle with homegrown terrorism

An 11-hour battle in northern Irbid foiled a major IS attack in Jordan. But the IS cell crossed no border - it grew from within
Jordanian forces rush to battle in Irbid (AFP)

It was Jordan's most significant terrorist-related incident in a decade, a two-week operation which culminated in a ferocious 11-hour gun battle in the northern town of Irbid, followed by statements that security forces had averted a major attack by the Islamic State (IS) group aimed at the heart of the country.

But the battle on Tuesday, which resulted in the deaths of at least seven militants, has raised concerns that for all of Jordan’s efforts to bunkerise its borders with war-ravaged Syria and Iraq, the biggest risk to the country’s stability might already be inside them.

According to the country’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the raid late on Tuesday in Irbid foiled an IS cell’s plot to attack both civilian and military sites “in order to destabilise national security”. The same statement noted that those killed were wearing explosive belts, and automatic weapons, explosives and detonators were all found at the scene. 

The clashes were centred on the Hanina area of an old Palestinian camp near Irbid’s core. Locals said gunfire was first heard around 4pm. An hour later, video taken in Irbid’s central area shows shoppers and pedestrians panicking as special forces vehicles scream down the main street. 

By 8pm, security forces had cut power to a roughly 30-street stretch of Hanina, leaving the city shrouded in darkness and echoing with ferocious volleys of gunfire and the boom of grenades.

Around 10pm, security officers at the scene told MEE the operation was still ongoing, and that special forces were battling "some of the very bad people of the world".

The battle continued to escalate, and at midnight local news reported that another 20 police vehicles were on their way north to Irbid. Five soldiers and two bystanders were injured, and Captain Rashid Hussain Zyoud was killed.

On the edges of the affected area, small groups of young men clustered in dark alleys, listening as the battle raged on. A Palestinian who refused to give his name said he had spent time in Gaza and various hotspots in Libya, but couldn’t believe he was hearing these sounds in Irbid.

Another, a 28-year-old who gave his name as Tarek, agreed: "This is normal in Maan but here it's the first time.”

Despite its proximity to Syria's war – Irbid is just 15km from the border – and the fact that its population has doubled in the last five years, swelling with Syrian refugees, the town, like much of Jordan, has experienced none of the security crises that are commonplace in Maan, a historically restive city in the country's south.

And even Maan is something of an anomaly. Jordan, led by pro-Western King Abdullah II, has been largely shielded from the suicide attacks, car bombs and raids that have so destabilised Syria’s other neighbours Turkey and Lebanon.

And whereas Turkey and Lebanon are known for their porous borders with Syria, Jordan has taken the opposite approach and remained remarkably stable. The GID has foiled multiple attacks in the past, keeping the country’s streets and public spaces secure. 

But the scale of Wednesday's operation - both the number of security forces required to control the situation and the duration of fighting – shows that destabilising elements have managed to establish themselves and amass strength even under the heavy scrutiny of the country's security service, widely seen to be among the most effective in the region.

Jordan’s last experience of terrorism-related violence was 2005, when suicide bombers from al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor group to IS, killed more than 60 people in attacks on three Amman hotels.

The cell targeted in Tuesday’s operation have not been formally identified, but government statements have moved from referring to them as “outlaws” to “terrorists”. At the security cordons, special forces officers said they were fighting terrorism, and in the darkened alleys, bystanders whispered of Daesh – IS.

But Tuesday’s clashes weren’t the result of a cross-border IS raid or spillover, as this is a homegrown problem.

“Irbid is, and has been for years, an area where IS – and not the Nusra Front – has been strong. The key leaders in Zarqa and Mafraq have gone over to the Nusra wing of Salafi jihadist thought, but in Irbid, the dominant ideology is IS, not al-Qaeda,” said Kirk Sowell, a longtime follower of the Jordanian Salafist movement.

Indeed, two of Jordan’s most prominent IS supporters are from Irbid: radical cleric Omar Mahdi Zeidan, who was last seen in Mosul, and Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi. Tahawi is reported to have a strong following amongst Palestinians, in particular.

Although Jordan is not a significant source for IS rank and file, the group’s ideology has Jordanian roots: founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was from Zarqa, Jordan’s second-largest city.

Those roots still nourish a system that, despite the GID’s constant efforts and widespread scorn for IS after its murder by immolation of a Jordanian fighter pilot, still bears fruit: about 1,000 Jordanians are believed to have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight with the group – including the sons of two Jordanian MPs.

In December, AP documented the level to which IS had penetrated the Jordanian city of Karak in an investigation of how another young Jordanian was lured to the group.

Tuesday’s raids yielded seven arrests, and followed a series of earlier, lower-profile raids in which 13 others allegedly connected to the cell were arrested on terror charges.

As the fighting began to slow in the small hours of Wednesday, Tarek, the young business grad, was optimistic that this was an anomaly, and certainly not the start of Jordan’s slide into insecurity.

Over the occasional thunder of grenades, he grinned. “Tomorrow, there will be nothing.”

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