By Jonathan Schanzer, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former terror finance analyst at the U.S. Department of Treasury. He tweets at @JSchanzer. The views expressed are his own.
Jordan disrupted a major terrorist attack in Amman this month, and security services reportedly arrested 11 jihadis who intended to attack multiple targets – including the U.S. embassy and popular shopping areas – with heavy weaponry including car bombs and machine guns.
That the attack was thwarted comes as good news for this American ally, where King Abdullah’s rule has come under increasing pressure amid the Arab Spring. But the failed operation was also, in many respects, a witch’s brew of America's most vexing policy challenges, raising questions about the path ahead.
For one, the failed attack raised additional fears about our diplomatic security. After all, American diplomats and diplomatic installations were among the targets. In light of the recent debacles in Benghazi and Cairo on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the plot raises the question: was the United States sufficiently staffed and prepared at the Amman embassy? If you’ve ever seen the fortress we call an embassy in Amman, the answer is probably “yes.” But the bigger question is: how do we address this apparent surge in attempts to harm American diplomats in the region?
Then there is the issue of Syria. Jordanian Information Minister Samih Maayatah announced that the suspects had entered Jordan from neighboring Syria. And as a Jordanian security source told Reuters, “Their plans included getting explosives and mortars from Syria.”
These revelations underscore the cost of American indecision. The U.S. has stood on the sidelines while Syria descended into civil war. Washington ignored the death toll as it climbed over 30,000, and the refugee count as it neared a quarter million, insisting that intervention on any level would only attract more radical jihadi types into an already complex situation. A year and half later, in addition to what can only be deemed a sectarian mess, the jihadis have arrived, anyway. The debate continues about whether the fighters are affiliated with al Qaeda or not, but it doesn’t matter. There is a jihadi component to the Syria war, and it’s now spilling over into Jordan, where Washington has a stake in the survival of the regime.
The Iraq angle is equally troubling. The Jordan Times cited Jordanian press sources as noting that the disrupted cell “gathered intelligence and consulted with the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda via the internet.”
The resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq, a franchise of the al Qaeda core once thought to be largely defeated, is now undeniable. A recent spike in attacks inside the country undermines what the U.S. achieved during an admittedly controversial war. And while there is little doubt among Americans today that leaving Iraq was a wise policy, it may be equally wise to revisit the military infrastructure that remains in Iraq to neutralize terrorist threats. AQI’s stubborn presence in Iraq is testament to this. The Obama administration’s equally stubborn insistence that al Qaeda is “on its heels” or “decimated,” makes the return of the previously weakened terrorist affiliate all the more important to address.
This is by no means to imply that we should return to Iraq with boots on the ground. But one gets the sense that measures may be needed to shore up security in a country where America has invested too much blood and treasure to let these recent developments go unchecked.
Then there is the supremely messy question of how to handle the question of Jordan's security. Jordan’s General Intelligence Department is now likely to conduct a sweep of the country, and to wrap up the rest of this terror network, not to mention other individuals who may pose a threat. But doing so in the current environment will be exceedingly difficult.
Jordan is under great political strain, and recent protests have threatened the stability of the fragile monarchy to the point that some analysts are warning of collapse. What began with protests by the Islamic Action Front, Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood branch, has given way to broader unrest led by tribal factions known as al-Hirak (the movement), which demands an end to corruption and calls for a new era of political reform in Jordan in which Islamists are almost sure to dominate.
In this highly politicized environment, it will be difficult for King Abdullah to justify a broad security crackdown. The IAF remains the largest and most cohesive group among those challenging the kingdom, and the line between the Brotherhood and Salafis is blurry, at best. If Brotherhood members are caught in the dragnet, we can expect additional unrest.
Abdullah's own choices, along with having been dealt a bad hand, have led him to this political crisis. But we cannot forget that he is still an ally. As it has been the case with many other Arab Spring challenges, we have offered little help to shore up the regime in the face of unprecedented challenges. But in this case, Washington cannot stand again on the sidelines. Stability in Jordan is key to maintaining stability in Israel, the West Bank, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and even a future free Syria.
Fortunately, there may still be time to help the King. The right steps include pushing him to enact meaningful reforms and to combat the corruption that plagues his regime, while also ensuring that international donor funds continue to flow, all the while providing security guarantees that he will not go the way of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
This will require an important shift in Washington. Amidst all of the other pressing foreign policy challenges in the Middle East, some of the focus must now turn to Jordan.
But as the failed attack in Amman demonstrated, other regional challenges will continue to impact Jordan's security, too.