The June 15 edition of the Jordan Times reported that Amman had beefed up security along its border with Iraq amid fears that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is inching toward the kingdom. Quoting unnamed Islamist sources, the report added that the jihadist group had established a branch within the kingdom as part of its plans to create a regional emirate.
The militant group's intent to expand into Jordan follows the region's geopolitical logic. After its push into Iraq, and already controlling significant swathes of Syrian territory, the jihadist group can try to push into the Hashemite kingdom from two directions. Jordan is the only opening available to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — the group cannot move north into Turkey, nor could it move southwest into Lebanon. Even in Jordan, though, the group faces considerable challenges.
For starters, the Jordanian regime is far more stable than Syria or Iraq, and its security forces have proved to be quite effective. Furthermore, Jordan has strong backing from the United States and Saudi Arabia, especially since the kingdom became a critical staging ground for support to Syrian rebels. Washington and Riyadh can extend financial, intelligence and military assistance to Amman. But Jordan is also a key sanctuary for rebels, and this aids the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant's cause.
Jordan has long had a substantial Salafist and jihadist presence. Since the start of the civil war in Syria, jihadists have moved frequently across the Jordan-Syria border. Amman has tried to crack down on this cross-border traffic, but it has not brought it to a stop.
Jordan is the native country of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain founder of the organization that later became the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. However, the kingdom's jihadist landscape is currently dominated by forces that oppose the group and are aligned with al Qaeda and its Syrian ally, Jabhat al-Nusra. Though the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has its own supporters in Jordan, the best-known jihadist ideologues in the country — people such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada — have criticized the group, especially its revolt against al Qaeda prime, creating dissension within jihadist ranks in Syria.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant's jihadist opponents are dismayed by what they see as the group's high-risk maneuvers, such as its mass killings of Shia and its insistence on imposing austere Islamist laws in the areas it controls, actions that risk alienating locals in a given country. In September, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issued guidance specifically addressing the issue, calling on jihadist fighters to refrain from fighting sects, such as Shia, Ismailis, Qadianis and Sufis, unless elements from those sects begin the fight. He similarly called for noninterference with Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities living in Muslim lands. He also ordered jihadists not to target noncombatant women and children or fellow Muslims via explosions, killings, kidnappings or destruction of property.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant openly rejected this call. The group's predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, despite frictions with Jordan-based jihadists, was able to stage attacks in the country, including suicide bombings in 2005 that targeted three Western hotels in Amman, and the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley. Now that the group's capabilities have dramatically expanded, it can certainly carry out attacks in the kingdom if it chooses to do so. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will have to assess its current position, especially in light of its push into Iraq, and decide whether it is in its interest to quickly begin operations in Jordan, or whether it should wait until it has consolidated itself in Iraq and weathered the counteroffensive from Shia and Kurds there.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant certainly will not want to alienate many of its Iraqi Sunni partners who have sanctuary in Jordan. Sunni tribal forces in Iraq would prefer that the group focus on that country and desist from any action in Jordan that could trigger a strong reaction from Amman. It is unclear how the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will proceed. The key thing to bear in mind is that while it can carry out terrorist attacks in Jordan, there are too many constraints for the group to act in Jordan as it has in Syria and Iraq.