Several times since the Al-Qaeda-breakaway group staged its astonishing takeover of Sunni-majority Iraq last month, supporters of the Islamic State have marched through the streets in the southeastern Jordanian city of Ma’an raising black flags and declaring their restive city “Jordan’s Fallujah” — a reference to the extremist stronghold in Iraq, the first city that fell to the insurgents back in January.
Scores of protesters calling for radical Islamic rule in Jordan's Salafist stronghold wouldn’t otherwise worry the country's Hashemite monarchy; Ma’an, an economically depressed city of 50,000, has long been a flashpoint of anti-government unrest in a country otherwise considered the region's bastion of stability.
But ever since the Sunni insurgents of the Islamic State declared their vast holdings across Syria and Iraq to be a restored seventh-century-style caliphate, neighboring Jordan and Lebanon have been on edge. The group explicitly seeks to eradicate the modern state boundaries across the region — and, one day, the globe — and since storming Iraq, its fighters have been knocking on Jordan’s door. The group has captured, lost and recaptured towns along the Iraq-Jordan border these past weeks and continues to threaten expansion into the kingdom — whether from across the Iraqi border or from within Jordan itself.
“The caliphate is coming to Jordan,” protesters in Ma'an have chanted. “Down with King Abdullah."
Along with Lebanon, Jordan is considered to be part of the “Levant,” an amorphous term used primarily to mean Greater Syria, which was until recently included in the Islamic State’s name (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and therefore figured as one of its next fronts. Jordan's powerful U.S.-backed security forces have acted accordingly; around 40,000 troops have been deployed to shore up Jordan’s porous northern and eastern borders, a security source told Al-Arabiya.
Though King Abdullah has by and large weathered the Arab Spring unrest that shook the region over the past couple of years, a brief scare erupted in October 2012 when tens of thousands filled the streets of Amman and other cities, especially Ma’an, to protest Abdullah’s decision to lift fuel subsidies just as the desert country’s winter cold was about to set in.
Given that about 10 percent of Jordan’s oil comes from Iraq, there are fears that the Islamic State takeover could cut supplies to Jordan and spark unrest similar to what the country saw two years ago. Compounding societal tensions are the more than 600,000 refugees from Syria that Jordan has taken in. If Iraq continues to crumble, Iraqis are certain to pour into the refugee nation of Jordan again, as half a million did in 2005 during the U.S.-led invasion.
According to a report by the Jordan Times, the rallies in Ma’an have been organized by the group’s affiliate in Jordan — a faction that comprises a meager 200 current and former Islamic State fighters “devoted to recruiting and raising support for the group.” One Islamic State supporter who called himself “Abu Mohammad” told the Jordanian newspaper at the first rally, on June 21: “This march aims to show that we are a genuine, independent movement that has true support in Jordan.”
To be sure, most analysts doubt that is true and suggest instead that disaffected citizens may be piggybacking on the Islamic State's demonstrated capacity for stoking unrest in Jordan's neighbors. Others point out that while sectarian governments in Syria and Iraq have provided fertile ground for the Islamic State’s precipitous takeover of Sunni lands, and while government armies have been either unwilling (Syria) or unable (Iraq) to stop them, Jordan has neither of those vulnerabilities.
“You could see terror attacks, maybe, but what [the Islamic State] is doing in Syria and Iraq is far more profound than terror. They’re building military and political capabilities, which they can’t do in Jordan," said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. "It’s far less oppressive, doesn’t have sectarian lines, is less militarized, and the security forces are real security forces.”
Jordan's Abdullah, though painted as a tyrant by some in Ma'an, is also a Sunni — unlike Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki.
On top of that, even if Al-Qaeda's unofficial affiliate in Jordan were able to effectively mobilize anti-government sentiment, the extremist group has rejected the Islamic State's declaration of a caliphate. The radical Salafist movement, largely unified since Al-Qaeda rose to prominence on Sept. 11, 2001, has splintered. For his part, the leader of Al-Qaeda’s unofficial affiliate in Jordan, the “Jihadi Salafist” movement, condemned the Ma’an demonstrations as the “actions of uneducated youths."
“The organizers of this rally were misguided and do not represent the Salafist movement or any jihadist group,” said Mohammad Shalabi, also known as Abu Sayyaf. “There is no Islamic State in Jordan.”
Still, more than 2,200 Jordanian nationals have been recruited to fight with the Islamic State (or alongside it in other hard-line rebel factions) since the group first entered the Syrian civil war, Salafist leaders say. This is despite Jordan’s best efforts to contain the flow of extremist fighters into Syria: An amendment to the country’s antiterror law passed in April has expanded the scope of Jordan’s security forces to crack down on extremism by broadening the definition of “terror act” to include “attempting to join” a group like the Islamic State or providing “indirect funding” for its reign of violence.
If the Islamic State proves it can defend its newly declared caliphate — a tall task — it might accrue greater financial support among extremist cells abroad and draw a larger pool of recruits, experts say. Jordanian extremists could be lured back to their home country if a new front were to open up there.
In that worst-case scenario, Jordan would lean on its powerful allies in the U.S. and Israel, with whom it shares intelligence and a mutual interest in combating extremism. Drawing in either of those countries could be the death knell to the Islamic State's nascent caliphate, which is defended by no more than 10,000 fighters already stretched thin across Syria and Iraq.
The U.S. has long been Jordan’s most important military backer, in large part because of Jordan’s tacit cooperation with U.S.-allied Israel. Many suspect the Hashemite Kingdom would be a red line for the Obama administration to take stronger action than the hundreds of military “advisers” it has sent to help its reluctant ally in Baghdad.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, also suggested his country would come to Jordan’s rescue — though he made the comment before turmoil erupted in Gaza and the West Bank. “I think it’s our common interest to make sure that a moderate, stable regime like [Jordan] is able to defend itself,” Netanyahu said in a speech at an Israeli think tank last month. “We must be able to stop the terrorism and fundamentalism that can reach us from the east at the Jordan line and not in the suburbs of Tel Aviv.”
History backs him up: Israel has twice intervened to save the Jordanian monarchy, which is one of only two Arab governments with a peace treaty with Israel. In 1958, Israel facilitated as the U.K. intervened in Jordan to crush an apparent plot by supporters of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to overthrow King Hussein. Then, in 1970, Israel massed troops along Jordan’s border to successfully scare off a Syrian invasion threat.
As Yossi Melman, an Israeli security expert and the author of a book on Israeli intelligence, put it: “Israel, directly or indirectly through the U.S. and the U.K., is, de facto, the ultimate guarantor of Jordanian sovereignty.”