Jordan. A Mysterious Attack that Sheds Light on the Flaws in Power

Jordan’s stability seems to observers the consequence of both regional factors and international decisions. They are unanimous in recognising the efficiency of a system which has thus far enabled the country to weather many perils without too much damage. However, the Fuhais terrorist attack on 10 August 2018 has caused this opinion to be revised in a country vulnerable to outside interference and whose economy is dependent on foreign aid.
For the first time, it has had to be admitted officially that Jordanian society itself is liable to generate violence which undermines the present model.

August 12, 2018. — Jordanian soldiers and relatives of Sergeant Hisham al-Agarbeh, killed during the attack in Fuheis yesterday lower his body into the ground during his funeral.
AP/Raad Adayleh

Last summer, on 10 August, during a music and poetry festival held every year in the town of Fuhais, a home-made bomb exploded : the target was a police patrol. Twenty-four hours after that bombing, which had left three dead and several wounded police officers, the terrorist cell was dismantled and the building in which its members had taken refuge completely destroyed.

The security forces later admitted that there was nothing foreign about the bombing, that the terrorist cell was not sent from abroad by hostile forces but was a “local product.” In the light of this, the viability of the current security, social, political and economic arrangements must be questioned.

Emergence of Terrorist Groups

The members of that terrorist cell—most of whom were killed or arrested—came from the town of Salt, near Amman, and some belonged to the Beni Hassan tribe whence Abou Musab Al Zarqaoui originated1. The reactions to the bombing were extremely diverse, ranging from the reserved attitude of the tribes and the population as a whole to certain displays of sympathy, which were responsible for rumours challenging the official version and vaunting the merits of the cell members. Thus alongside the popular discontent, kept at bay by a degree of ideological and political adherence to the State and which in no way threatens the country’s stability, we are witnessing the birth of a menace to the existing power structure in the form of terrorist groups.

The Jordanian security system has always been extremely careful to detect any attempts at infiltration. But there had been a turning point on 9 November 2005, when several hotels in the capital were attacked simultaneously causing dozens of casualties. The political riposte came in the form of street demonstrations in support of the regime, followed by a reshuffling at the head of the security and military forces, with the commander of the intelligence services Samih Asfoura replaced by Mohamed Al-Dahabi. A retired general who wishes to remain anonymous has revealed that the new head of intelligence had then come to an understanding with al-Qaida “to avoid any repercussions of terrorist operations within the security apparatus, so that the new director could keep his job as long as possible.” “It’s absurd to replace the security chiefs every time there is a terrorist attack. The impact is considerable insofar as most of the changes in the security apparatus go hand in hand with political changes. And at this rate, both the political environment and the security institutions will be held hostage by terrorist organisations,” the general observed, and his remarks attest to a certain evolution in the way politics are perceived in Jordan.

The 2015 Attacks: A Turning Point

Following the events of November 2015, the same evolution also began to be perceptible in King Abdullah’s attitude, in the fact that he distanced himself from the conservative, traditionalist clan which has always had close ties with the State. This current is made up of tribal figures who came to politics via some public function—such as the army or elsewhere—or their election to parliament. They cling to the status quo and oppose any attempts at reform.

While this evolution is mainly taking place behind the scenes, official rhetoric as well has recently come to convey the idea that no security system is immune to attempts at infiltration. The examples of the UK, France, the USA and Russia are cited, countries whose intelligence services are more developed and more complex.

In the context of local and regional threats, a comparison must be drawn between the cases of Salt and Karak. On 18 December 2016, a terrorist cell had been broken up in Karak, a town in southern Jordan, a bastion of that conservative current in the government. The skirmishes spread to the historic citadel and caused the death of ten policemen, while some forty officers and civilians were wounded.

There are two major differences between these two cases: first of all, responsibility for the Karak attack was claimed the very next day by the Islamic State (ISIS), whereas no foreign party made itself heard following the attack by the group from Salt. And secondly, it was by decision of the central services that the Salt group was dismantled a few hours after the Fuhais operation, whereas the Karak group was uncovered during a routine inspection. The fighting around the citadel lasted all day, since at first the police had failed to lay hands on the terrorists, who managed to cover some fifteen kilometres under a hail of bullets before taking refuge in the fort. Moreover, local inhabitants came to the aid of the security forces as did the anti-terrorist unit commanded by King Abdullah’s nephew. Among the members of that cell were several young men from Salt.

Contradictory Accounts

There is a general tendency in Jordan to question the official version of any events whatsoever. When violence is involved, however, it is the official version which usually has the favour of public opinion. But this time, the doubts expressed about the official version of the Fuhais attack show that violence is no longer enough to rally the people behind the power structure. This scepticism is gaining ground through the influence of the social networks, where government rhetoric now comes under constant scrutiny, especially with regard to security issues. The State and the security forces are no longer able to sustain a version which rallies the support of the population and the official media are incapable of providing coherent arguments. Thus the joint press conference held on 18 August last by the Minister of Information and Communication technology, Mothanna Gharaibeh, the director of the Department of Public Security, Major General Fadel al-Hamud and the General director of the Gendarmerie, Major General Hussein al-Hwatmeh, was violently criticised by cybernauts, who denounced its professional and technical mediocrity.

Some claimed that these groups did not mean to attack the State or the security apparatus at all but that their mission was to provide logistics support for Hamas by trying to convey weapons and explosives into Gaza and that they were disbanded “at the behest of Israel.” A thesis confirmed by the itinerary of certain members of those cells, which does not tally with the official version. It is also claimed that the owner of the building destroyed in Salt is a retired Jordanian officer with a licence to sell explosives, which would mean that the explosives in the building had been imported with the approval of the security services. Similarly, most of the versions in contradiction with the official explanations come out loudly and clearly in the defence of “the people of Jordan” who would never finance and arm terrorist cells that would endanger national security.

“It’s your last chance, King”

From now on, acts of violence will serve to justify political attacks against the structures of the State. The traditional conservative forces advocate a clampdown on freedom of speech in the political arena. Thus the President of the Upper Senate, Faisal Al-Fayez has demanded a toughening of the penalties for what he termed “individual crimes of murder”, in other words, verbal attacks aimed at public figures via the social networks. There is a new tendency among the population to take advantage of the slackening of the grip of the political class in the wake of an episode of violence. Protests are taking new forms, a sign of the erosion of people’s faith in State institutions.

Thus on 29 August of this year, several dozen officers and NCOs gathered in front of the Royal Palace in Dabouq to demand housing credits. What was unusual about this protest was the accusation of corruption. The available credits could satisfy only 300 among the thousands of beneficiaries, and so the question was: what had become of the rest of the money? And it was raised with considerable brutality, all the echelons of government were taken to task. Thus the protests have taken two forms: on the one hand, public demonstrations which respect the laws and accepted protocol in addressing the Palace, and on the other, calls for direct action which are far less cautious. Thus videos are circulating on the social networks which address the King directly. One protester speaks thus: “This is your last chance, King, because our loyalty is beginning to crumble.”

More Security or More Politics?

Recent events have sparked a debate over the balance between politics and security in Jordan. For the moment, the power structure does not have the appropriate tools to deal with the situation, while new players are arriving on a stage beset by unprecedented upheavals. Hence the security system finds itself isolated, left to its own devices and confronted with marginalised groups that want to have their say in the political life of the country. In the ruling camp, there is often talk of “renewing the elite,” a slogan which lets the security forces off the hook along with the conservative class which supports them. The power elite in its complicity has happily transformed this slogan into “expanding the elite.”

While the spectre of a “threat to security” has generally been raised to justify a repressive approach to political activity, it is interesting to observe that the events in Salt and Karak have not been used to launch media campaigns on this theme. In fact, activists have taken this opportunity to demand reforms and to call upon the security apparatus to stick to its mission and leave politics to the politicians: “The police are busy doing politics, chasing after activists, and its left to ordinary people to watch over national security. This is the new division of labour in Jordan!” a former minister remarked sarcastically, recalling the fact that during events in Karak, a private gunsmith had had to provide the police with weapons they didn’t have!

Are we going to see a reinforcement of the security apparatus in order to keep the present formula? Or, on the contrary, are recent events going to mark a turning point and make it possible to come up with a new arrangement taking into account the social and economic upheavals? One thing is certain: the system in force until now will be hard to maintain in view of the limited funding available. But what is equally certain is that many obstacles stand in the way of any real change.

The choice may be the one made by the present government, i.e. to pursue the same policies, but less brutally than in the past, hoping to delay as long as possible the moment of radical decisions, prompted by regional or international events. Today we are faced with a dilemma: on the one hand, international financial aid is shrinking and it is thus an unrealistic option to simply reinforce a security apparatus which is increasingly solicited on account of the deepening of the economic and social crisis (assuming there will be no change in the socio-political situation); and on the other hand, any reform in the political organisation of the country will increase the likelihood of instability and hence the role of the police. The solution to this dilemma obviously lies in a genuine implication of the political leadership and the activation of arenas for specifically political mobilisation which have lain dormant for too long now.

1EDITOR’S NOTE. Born Ahmad Fadil Nazzal Al-Khalayleh in 1966 in Zarqa, Jordan, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi was the head of al-Qaida in Iraq. He was killed on 7 June 2006 during an air raid under the command of the US Army near Bakuba, Iraq.