Early Wednesday morning the Jordanian government took immediate revenge for the brutal ritualistic murder of its airman Moath al-Kassasbeh by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Two Iraqi prisoners convicted on terrorism charges were taken from their cells and hanged. On Thursday Jordan followed up with airstrikes against ISIL targets.
Ironically, the executions brought the larger story full cycle: The founder of the Al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq in the early 1990s that would later become ISIL was Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian convicted terrorist who was arrested and partly radicalized in the same Jordanian prisons in the 1990s.
As public opinion against ISIL in Jordan and across much of the rest of the Arab world now reaches a boiling point, Jordan stands at the fulcrum of those states willing and able to strike militarily. Yet they all face the vexing reality that the past quarter-century of fighting radical groups has only seen the menace metastasize. Even worse, the more Arab governments appear to attack radicals in line with or at the bidding of the United States, the greater the opposition from their citizens, who do not want to be seen as marching alongside the U.S. and its regional ally Israel.
In the case of Kassasbeh’s murder, however, public reservations about working too closely with the United States have given way to outpourings of rage rooted in national humiliation and a deeply wounded collective psyche. Public pressure in Jordan may force King Abdullah’s hand.
The Jordanian government has several military options available. It could expand its participation in the coalition against ISIL through direct strikes, intelligence, training, logistics and other contributions. It could use its very able intelligence and special operations forces to kill or capture ISIL forces. (When Abdullah was a prince, he commanded the special forces and knows this branch of military work very well.) It could help galvanize other Arabs and regional actors in joining the ground war that will be needed to dismantle ISIL.
Abdullah now faces an enormous test of his leadership: He must balance several forces that are inherently irreconcilable and take actions that could generate greater threats than the ones he faces now. Military strikes by Americans, Arabs and others against Al-Qaeda and ISIL have continued ever since the first strikes against the nascent Al-Qaeda in the late 1980s, yet they have only resulted in these groups’ continuing expansion and depravity. A few hundred Al-Qaeda zealots in isolated Afghan mountains in the 1980s have now morphed into tens of thousands of organized adherents in a dozen countries, with the ability to target Western capitals.
So another Jordanian strike against ISIL will likely kill dozens of fighters but at the cost of inadvertently attracting new members to the group and opening new battlefronts in Jordan or elsewhere. Such militaristic approaches have been shown to suffer from a twofold weakness: The attacks tend to spread chaos and draw recruits who are motivated by fighting the heavy-handed U.S. and its allies, and defeating armed groups removes symptoms but not the causes of radicalization.
The real war that must be waged to wipe out ISIL and its ilk requires eradicating the three principal drivers in Middle Eastern societies that have incubated such criminal groups: Arab autocracy and socioeconomic mismanagement that have left majorities of Arabs in conditions of poverty, vulnerability and political helplessness; the continuing humiliation and waste of the Arab-Israeli conflict; and the repeated damage caused by foreign military attacks and interventions across the Middle East.
The weakness of Arab states was evident in their unwillingness to move seriously to counter ISIL during the years of its birth and early expansion until the United States took the lead last summer. Any Jordanian retaliation now must aim beyond simply assuaging the public’s desire for revenge. It should indicate an awareness of and a determination to address the underlying causes of the frightening rise of ISIL, in a way that no other Arab or regional government has dared. This plan would ideally blend any military action with credible political reforms at home to create more participatory and representative governance, expand national decision-making beyond security-defined criteria and address socioeconomic disparities that have generally worsened in recent decades.
The absence of these actions, combined with foreign militarism, has created the environment that continues to allow ISIL and similar groups to flourish and multiply. Venturing into such a bold political and socioeconomic reform strategy is the best ultimate path to national unity and security. It is certainly something Jordanians would see as worth fighting for.