Is Jordan Facilitating ISIS' Grand Strategy?

02/13/2015 02:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015
Jordan Pix via Getty Images

BEIRUT -- Last September, I wrote that "Nothing that ISIS has done has been whimsical, rather it reflects serious planning and intentionality. A map of ISIS-intended conquest of territory with its oil wells all carefully marked out, dates back to 2006. Its strategy for taking Mosul was more than two years in its incubation." ISIS' horrific immolation of a caged Lt. Muath Al-Kaseasbeh, the Jordanian pilot, too, will have been done in full understanding of the emotional impact of the manner of his death on Jordanians and in the West: This was very deliberate -- not some spur-of-the-moment act of barbarism. It is important to understand what lies behind and beyond the event itself.

As I explained last year when I cited an article by the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar on the topic, a hadith (a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), asserts that the "long-awaited Hour (of Resurrection)" will not arrive for believers until after the Byzantines have landed in al-Amaq (Southern Turkey), or in Dabiq (a Syrian village located to the north of Aleppo). Indeed, there is a conviction that is widely held across disparate sects (including Christians) in the Middle East today that the foretold signs, prefiguring the coming of redemption, are evident in contemporary world events. ISIS' followers take their understanding of the Dabiq "saying" by the prophet to mean that the great battle will take place between the "Crusader West" and Islam -- and that this struggle has been made imminent by ISIS' declaration of the khilafah (caliphate).

For ISIS, the term "Byzantine" is held to stand for today's "Crusader West" and its acolytes. Islamic State fighters assert that this epic "War of the Cross" will unfold with a "crusader" strike on them inside Syria; but that ultimately, the forces of Islam will prevail -- as the prophecy foretells -- and that the coming of the redeemer will then ensue.

ISIS ALWAYS ACTS WITH INTENTION

The Islamic State takes this hadith literally -- as a biblical prophecy, which it would hope to see materialize literally -- and if this were to occur, in its view, it would signal to the world that ISIS truly stands as the end-of-world caliphate, and the beginning of the longed-for redemption of the world. But for this prophecy to be actualized, ISIS needs the Crusader forces (i.e. American or coalition boots) to be on the ground -- and for these forces to be visibly defeated as "proof" of ISIS' divine guidance. The latter therefore need to persevere through the coalition air attacks sufficiently intact (to signal, firstly, the air attacks' ineffectiveness) and secondly to leave the West with no option but to put boots on the ground. (In 2006, Hezbollah similarly dug itself in -- up to 40 meters deep -- during the Israeli air bombardment of southern Lebanon, only to emerge to continue its rocket attacks on Israel, to the point where Israel thought it had no alternative but to commit the Israel army to an invasion of southern Lebanon, in order to suppress the attacks. But with boots deployed on the ground, the Israelis inevitably experienced serious casualties).

"President Obama's recent request to Congress to allow for the limited use of American ground forces in Iraq or Syria indicates that ISIS' strategy has at least had partial success."

President Obama's recent request to Congress to allow for the limited use of American ground forces in Iraq or Syria indicates that ISIS' strategy has at least had partial success. Provoking this reaction was precisely its intent in making the Jordanian pilot's death such a carefully stage-dramatized and filmed horror show.

Since the beginning of these deliberate provocations, ISIS has been (so far correctly) adamant that U.S. airstrikes would not bring about the Islamic State's defeat -- but rather, the reverse. In interviews with Al-Akhbar, ISIS sources "speak of a strategy of resistance that the Crusaders have no capacity for, [and say that] the mere persistence of IS, and its survival after the [air]strike, definitely means its victory." According to Al-Akhbar, this opinion is "shared by most IS members." "They believe," Al-Akhbar reports, that, "'standing up to an alliance of 40 states without [it] resulting in their utter defeat, to the rest of the world, will mean that a divine power stands with them.'"

WHY TARGET JORDAN?

So, not only has ISIS prompted President Obama into putting American boots on the ground, but the killing of the pilot has also provoked Jordan into attacking ISIS and -- in the latter's view -- thereby given evidence that Jordan is little more than the frontline of the Crusader's sphere, and in fact a crusader state, too. More than this, prominent commentators in the Saudi press are urging for "what has [likely] been discussed privately: A Jordanian military [ground] operation against ISIS in Syrian territory." Should this occur, it would lend credence to the Dabiq prophecy in the eyes of many Muslims. But the second reason for the Jordanian provocation lies with the latter's potential vulnerability to domestic polarization and civil turmoil. ISIS makes plain by its very name (Islamic State In As-Sham, or "Greater Syria") that it lays claim to Jordan as a part of the caliphate (Jordan originally formed a part of As-Sham).

"The gruesome manner of al-Kaseasbeh's death is classic revolutionary polarization strategy: outrage 'authority' and provoke it into a heavy-handed overreaction that is directed against ISIS sympathizers and what were just sympathizers will metamorphose from passivity into committed insurgents."

Jordanians constitute the third biggest component within ISIS -- estimated now at over 3,000. And the taproot to ISIS lies squarely in Amman's distressed industrial suburbs, from which Abu-Musab al Zarqawi, whose very name derives from the misery belt of Amman (Zarqa, to which the dispossessed rural poor were drawn) well before the Iraq war. Notably, Jordanians also dominate the Nusra Front. In the first edition of Dabiq, ISIS' magazine, the authors assert that it was al-Zarqawi who paved the way for the Islamic State. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the present "Caliph") derived his ideas for building the "Islamic State" from those of al-Zarqawi and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (Abu Bakr's predecessor).

The gruesome manner of al-Kaseasbeh's death, of course, is classic revolutionary polarization strategy: outrage "authority" and provoke it into a heavy-handed overreaction that is directed against ISIS sympathizers -- and there are many in Jordan -- and what were just sympathizers will metamorphose from passivity into committed insurgents. Thus ISIS has just ignited the internal sphere in Jordan.

But there is another important dimension, too (beyond igniting Jordan as auxiliary territory to ISIS' existing field of war), and one which has always been a part of the group's strategy.

ISIS differs from al Qaeda in a number of ways, but particularly in respect to the ordering of conflict. The principle that Islamic State soldiers follow is that: "fighting nearby 'apostates' is more important than defeating faraway infidels [such as Israel or the West]." Thus defeating the "apostates" in Jordan takes ISIS a step closer to the stage when it might confront the "faraway infidel."

Al Qaeda, by contrast, orders conflict vice versa. To justify this, ISIS leaders rely on the "Wars of Apostasy" (CE 632-3) initiated by the Caliph Abu Bakr (against Muslims who renounced their religion following the death of the Prophet Muhammad -- and to critics and opponents of the caliphate, too).

In short, many Wahhabis, including ISIS, "believe that 'Shias are more dangerous than Jews' (which explains why some jihadists are willing to cooperate with Israel -- albeit as a temporary expedient -- and why Israel is willing to cooperate with the jihadists).

And temporary, and expedient it is, in ISIS' view. "In substance," reports Radwan Mortada of Al-Akhbar, "they believe that liberating Palestine is irrelevant without the establishment of the caliphate in the countries surrounding Palestine first. Sources linked to IS told Al-Akhbar, 'The final war that will liberate Palestine will be led by the caliphate, preceded by the establishment of this state in [As-Sham],' on the basis of sayings they attribute to Prophet Mohammad. The sources add, 'Allah alone knows just how much the soldiers of the caliphate yearn for skipping the necessary stages and battle the Jews in Palestine, but he who rushes something before its time comes, shall be punished by being denied it.'"

In the same article, Mortada quotes another jihadi who argues:

'No one can initiate a battle against Israel except through the [direct] borders.' The jihadi then adds sarcastically, 'Certainly, the mujahideen will not be able to bomb Israel by air. . . IS is still far from Israel: If it reaches Jordan and southern Syria (the Golan and Quneitra), then things will be different.'

ISRAEL & LARGER REGIONAL IMPLICATIONS

So, this is the second dimension to the immolation of the Jordanian pilot: the strategic intent to enfold Jordan into the caliphate.

At one level, the destabilization of Jordan has been initiated through the act of outrage; but at the political level, too, ISIS' act aggravates and stirs the political contradictions inherent in Jordan's political posture.

On the one hand (more obviously at the outset), Jordan has claimed that it has tried to stay aloof from the conflict in Syria. Syria is a big neighbor with a long memory, which will not forget or forgive acts done against it during this war; and Jordanian leaders too have, in the past, appreciated that their own state is far from invulnerable from inflamed radical Islamism.

But, on the other hand, Jordan has been (and is) financially distressed, and has had to seek assistance from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Under such pressures, Jordan has been inveigled into the Saudi-Israeli-U.S. alliance, participating in a joint operational control room managing, for example, the present Syrian jihadist opposition's "push" into southern Syria, which ostensibly is led by Jaish al-Islam (Saudi Arabia's supposedly "moderate" Salafist-jihadis) fighting in close cooperation with (Israeli facilitated) Jabhat An-Nusra (al-Qaeda's official arm in Syria). There is not much evidence, however, that King Abdullah has pushed back against these pressures; rather the reverse. And in the wake of the horrific killing of al-Kaseasbeh, as Slate's Joshua Keating notes, "the U.S. really wants Jordan to seek more revenge for its pilot's murder" against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and is offering "a new $1 billion aid plan" as "another inducement."

"The coalition might well be encouraging Jordan down a path that may lead to the mobilization of an internal jihadist uprising against the monarchy, and to bringing ISIS closer to Israel."

The contradictions inherent in this posture are plain: Jordan cannot afford to have the Syrian government become an implacable enemy; but nonetheless the state has become increasingly entangled with the Saudi-Israeli front (including facilitating An-Nusra. Israel and Jordan, in the triangle formed where their two borders meet, have been facilitating and giving artillery and rocket cover to An-Nusra and Jaish al-Islam fighters). Saudi Arabia and Israel are still intent on landing a powerful blow at Damascus. (Israel has prioritized the strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia above other considerations).

In effect, Jordan has now entered a war with ISIS, whilst sharing the bed at home, with thousands of Salafist-jihadis, including al-Qaeda (An-Nusra). Some may view Jordan's entry into the war as a potential catalyst for other Arab states to do the same; but it is just as likely that ISIS has effectively ignited these Jordanian contradictions, as well as lit the fuse of internal polarization. The coalition might well be encouraging Jordan down a path that may lead to the mobilization of an internal jihadist uprising against the monarchy, and to bringing ISIS closer to Israel.

To stand back somewhat is to see how the combination of two quite distinct and separate events have put the whole region from south of the Litani River in south Lebanon, to the Golan and Quneitra, and now down through Jordan to the Red Sea, into a state of potential turbulence and conflict. Israel's act of killing an Iranian general, together with several Hezbollah members, has created a new situation to the north: Hezbollah has said the "rules of war" with Israel -- which confined the military aspect of their conflict to defined responses within southern Lebanon -- have now ended. Israel, by its assassination in Syria, has effectively opened a "war front" extending from south Lebanon to the occupied Golan. Hezbollah Secretary General, Seyed Hassan Nasrallah, in his speech announcing this, effectively has declared that the long hiatus -- in which the region was too preoccupied by its own problems to have much time for Israel -- is now over: Israel is back on the radar.

Saudi Arabia and Israel bear much of the responsibility for bringing Jordan into this war with ISIS by pushing so hard on the Syrian issue and entangling the kingdom more and more in their efforts to overturn the government of its close neighbor, Syria. The net result -- the unforeseen consequence of these actions -- is that a much bigger area of the Middle East -- and one which lies on Israel's borders -- serves both to consolidate the caliphate in As-Sham and at the same time lay the foundations for a subsequent attack on Israel. . . just as ISIS leadership intended.