Past as Prologue
What Jordan Knows About Psyching Out ISIS
The suicide attacks on Amman hotels in 2005 were supposed to bring the Hashemite Kingdom to its knees. Instead, Jordan rallied against the man who staged them.
Every Jordanian knows the name and picture of the kingdom’s murdered fighter pilot, Muadh al Kasasbeh, burned to death by sadistic militants of the so-called Islamic State across the border in Syria. His poster is plastered on walls, fills the newspapers, graces the evening news, and serves as an avatar on Facebook. In death, this unknown 26-year old airman has become the political force that has animated and unified the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in a way not seen in years.Since confirming the pilot’s terrible demise, Jordan’s King Abdullah has vowed a “harsh war” against the Islamic State. Jordan has stepped up airstrikes in neighboring Syria and Iraq, and after one particular bombing run, flew its F-16s over the family home of the murdered pilot. The military issued a statement on television that “This is the beginning, and [ISIS] will get to know the Jordanians.” And there is growing speculation that Jordan may supply some of the “boots on the ground” sorely needed to tackle ISIS in Syria. If so it will need prolonged and strong public support.The weekend after ISIS posted the gruesome video of the murder on the Internet, thousands of Jordanians took to the streets with Queen Rania to protest and condemn the terror group. She even told the BBC the conflict is “every Muslim’s war,” giving the fight against ISIS an ideological and religious interpretation rarely heard from Sunni Arab royalty.But one of the Hashemite Kingdom’s very first acts of retribution was the hanging at dawn on February 4 of Sajida Mubarak Atruz al Rishawi—a middle-aged Iraqi woman terrorist whose suicide vest had failed to detonate in 2005 and who had spent most of the last decade on Jordan’s death row.Commentators have tended to gloss over the attacks that al Rishawi participated in, describing them in passing references to bombs and casualties, but they are much more important than that, because in their aftermath Jordan successfully turned the ideological tables on a major terrorist threat to the kingdom and its people.In November 2005, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—which eventually formed the core of ISIS— carried out gruesome suicide attacks against the Radisson SAS, the Grand Hyatt and the Days Inn hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing 57 people.In the aftermath of the horror, the government decisively turned Jordanian society against AQI and particularly against its Jordanian founder, Abu Musab al Zarqawi. There are lessons allied governments could all re-learn as they continue to fight both ISIS and al Qaeda ideology on the battlefield of ideas.The bombings killed scores of Jordanians as well as Americans, Chinese, and Palestinians, including several children who were attending a wedding inside the Radisson’s ballroom. Zarqawi quickly hailed the operation and released a statement calling Jordan "a filthy pasture to the apostate traitors.”When it became quickly and plainly obvious the slaughter just targeted regular people, Zarqawi desperately tried to backtrack with a subsequent statement a week later, doubling down on his comments. He said:“Know that we selected these hotels only after we learned—after scoping them out for over two months and collecting information from reliable sources inside the hotels—that they have come to [serve] as headquarters for the Jewish, American, and Iraqi intelligence apparatuses…. Regarding the Radisson hotel—most of the people of the Israeli embassy stay there, as well as Israeli tourists, and this is also true for the Days Inn Hotel. As for Hyatt Amman, it is a den [of evil] for the Zionist, American, and Iraqi intelligence [services].”This was plainly balderdash, and Jordanian society went berzerk. For days there was wall-to-wall coverage on television of the attack, and Jordanians from all walks of life converged to condemn this strike. Just about every Friday sermon in Jordan’s mosques deplored the terrorist attack. Almost a quarter of a million people demonstrated in Amman against AQI; perhaps more importantly for Jordanian society, many proudly and publicly displayed their tribal names and affiliations to prove they came from across the Hashemite Kingdom to protest this terrorist operation. Even Zarqawi’s brother and cousin publicly denounced and disowned him, telling Jordanian newspapers, “We sever links with him until Doomsday.”
When Jordan’s intelligence services caught Rishawi, it gave the government a rare and public opportunity to show the face of terror, and the almost casual way AQI carried out the slaughter. Instead of locking her up and keeping her incommunicado, as intelligence services are wont to do, Jordanian authorities instead put her on television and taped her showing off her defused suicide vest, leading the evening news in Jordan and across the Middle East.
Amman’s deft handling of this disaster was a textbook case of how to isolate and demystify a terrorist threat. For instance, it allowed citizens from across the spectrum of society to come together as “Jordanians” in large numbers and channel their anger toward a group and a person who was responsible for this bloodshed within the kingdom. The public condemnation by the tribes, I’m willing to hazard, was probably quietly organized by the government, too.
Jordan even handled the media component well by allowing its intelligence services to publicly identify Rishawi and parade her in front of the cameras, as well as producing the made-for-television re-creation of her bungled attack.
Thus Amman strengthened two security pillars simultaneously: First, it underscored to the average Jordanian that its security services are first-rate, professional organizations dedicated to protecting the country and its citizens; second, it showed that the terrorist group menacing the country was not a cadre of religious supermen, but rather made up of laughable individuals who were not terribly bright or successful at their jobs. By tearing away the abstract nature of terrorism and giving it a human, somewhat schlubby face, it allowed the average Jordanian to personify this particular brand of evil.And the results speak for themselves. According to the Pew Research Center, in the summer prior to the bombings, some 57 percent of Jordanians thought suicide attacks were justified “often/sometimes”; yet when asked the same question the year after, the number dropped to 29 percent, and it’s still falling in Jordan where, in 2014, it hovered at 15 percent. That is the equivalent of the support for suicide bombings among Muslim Israelis.Perhaps more importantly, Zarqawi was so chastised by the social blowback that he never directed another operation against Jordan again. Terrorism is ugly, violent political theater, and this operation—and Jordan’s smart handling of its aftermath—turned the people of a small but important Arab nation firmly against the group.So the next time killers from ISIS or al Qaeda decide to pull a stunt similar to this somewhere abroad, especially in the Middle East where its ideology might find fertile ground, it’s worth examining in detail what Jordan did a decade ago to help fight the war of ideas. With few of the immense financial resources that Western nations can bring to bear to fight terrorism, plucky little Jordan effectively neutered a significant threat to its capital and its people.Less than a year later, with help from Jordan’s intelligence services, the CIA and U.S. military tracked Zarqawi down in Iraq and dropped two 500-pound bombs on him.Last year, in the Jordanian city of Maan, ISIS supporters staged their first rally; but it’s doubtful given the righteous rage that is enveloping the kingdom that these folks will show their faces again. And while the Islamic State has over 2,000 Jordanian nationals among its recruits in Syria and Iraq, this last macabre propaganda effort will most likely destroy the murderous group’s efforts to capture the hearts and minds of the rest of Jordanian society.If so, Muadh al Kasasbeh’s tragic death will not have been in vain.