IRBID, Jordan — Tension lingers here in downtown Irbid months after Jordanian special forces, in carefully coordinated nighttime raids, swept through the city's Palestinian refugee camp to arrest or kill members of what authorities claim was a sleeper cell associated with Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, or ISIS.

For nearly 12 hours last March, Jordan's third largest city just 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from the Syrian border, became an urban battleground, with surgical, yet relentless close-quarters combat resulting in eight killed, including a Jordanian officer.

Nearly three dozen suspected terrorists were arrested prior to, during or immediately after the early March raid, which netted explosive vests, automatic weapons and voluminous rounds of ammunition.

In a statement, Jordan's security service hailed the pre-emptive anti-terror operation for thwarting "a criminal and destructive plot linked by the terrorist Daesh group aimed at destabilizing national security."

Security cooperation partners with Jordan say that the operation is only one of dozens that have taken place in recent months as King Abdullah II of Jordan expands overt and covert war against Islamic extremists seeking to destabilize his Hashemite Kingdom.

Cash-strapped, resource-deprived, and sharing long borders with Iraq and Syria — the last two letters of the ISIS acronym — Jordan "is boxing well above its weight class in the war against radical Islamic terror," a general officer involved in security cooperation with the kingdom told Defense News.

"Its intelligence organization is world-class, as are their security forces. We all understand we must work together to be synchronized and relevant to combat the common threat," the officer said. He spoke as special operations forces from around the world were due to arrive in Amman for the biennial Middle East  Special Operations Commanders Conference (MESOC) and Special Operatiions Forces Exhibition (SOFEX).

This week's SOFEX event takes place as the Hashemite Kingdom takes on an ever-increasing role in the global was against the Islamic State and other extremist groups spreading terrorism and anarchy across the world.

"Jordan has proven itself to be extremely effective in combating terror and providing for its homeland security," said Riad Kahwaji, founder of the MESOC conference, now in its eighth year.

Jordan continues to be a lead Arab partner and active participant in coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Washington's preferred term for Daesh, according to the most recent posture statement by US Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of US Central Command.

Beyond airstrikes, a January 2016 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report noted that Jordan allows "the use of its bases by foreign forces and sharing of intelligence with coalition partners." The kingdom hosts, among other facilities, US Central Command's forward-based CF-J (Command Forward – Jordan), which supports a CRS-estimated 2,000-strong military presence in the kingdom.

As Jordan now strains under the economic and social burden of an estimated 1.2 Syrian million refugees — swelling the country's population to more than 8 million - intelligence operatives, special forces and elite police units are increasingly called upon to vet, monitor and act against suspected terrorists among the wave of innocents seeking safety in the kingdom.

"One out of five people you see in the streets of Jordan today are not Jordanian," said Nabil al-Sharif, a former parliament member who heads the Imdad Media Center, an Amman-based research and public policy organization. He was referring to the multiple waves of Palestinian, Iraqi, North African and now Syrian refugees whom the country has accommodated willingly until last year, when it was forced to severely restrict its border crossings.

"For any country, this is a big burden. So imagine what it is for a country that lacks resources like ours."

In a recent interview, al-Sharif repeated the king's oft-expressed description of the ongoing war against Daesh as "a generational fight for good over evil" that requires not only military, but moral force.

"The king's strategy is very clear: There can be no talking with Daesh. … For us Muslims, they are waging war against Islam. Islam is being distorted, and I don't think there is enough conviction in the Arab world to combat this in our own societies and in our own mosques."

Fawaz al-Zuabi is a legislator representing Ramtha, just 11 kilometers (7 miles) from the Syrian border, where some 15,000 Syrians are encamped, awaiting the vetting process that admits an average of 100 of the most needy cases each day.

"When the Arab Spring started, we never expected we'd have such a big number of people fleeing into our area," al-Zuabi told Defense News during a recent visit to the Jordanian parliament.

"At the beginning of the crisis, the king visited Ramtha and gave us orders to welcome and host our brothers in Syria. … But now, unemployment there has risen by 70 percent; they're taking the jobs of Jordanians for much lower wages. Crime is rampant. We're frankly very concerned about the serious threat this poses to the security and stability of our country."

According to al-Zuabi, citizens are working hand in hand with security forces to maintain order in an increasingly chaotic environment. "When we see any strange behavior, abnormal behavior, we call our security forces. No one likes to do this, but we have no choice. No one can afford to be under this pressure," he said.

Laithy Alawneh, a Jordanian appeals court judge in Amman, estimated only half of the "at least 1.2 million" Syrian refugees are formally registered as such. Most of undocumented refugees are living in the country's north, not paying taxes, and stressing Jordan's education, medical and water resources, he said.

"It is true that diversity makes society richer, but Jordanians don't feel that the settlement of refugees must come at their expense," he said.

Beyond the immediate impact on resources or the potential threat to national security, Alawneh cited longer-term political dangers to Jordan's hereditary constitutional monarchy.

"In 15 to 20 years from now, the government will find it hard to control attitudes of those people who are settled today. … We managed to integrate Palestinians because historically, we are brothers. But I believe that 20 percent to 30 percent of Syrians will never leave Jordan and some 57,000 Iraqis will never leave Jordan. And then what happens to the structure of this country?"

But in the United Nations-run Zaatari refugee camp just across the border, one hears a different story.

Some 462,000 refugees from barrel-bombed and war-wracked Daraa, Syria, have passed through the sprawling camp — one of two hosted in Jordan — since the civil war started in 2011. It is now home to nearly 80,000, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The camp is divided into 12 sectors, organized around a main thoroughfare ironically called Champs Elysees. Authorities have permitted an informal marketplace there of some 3,000 refugee-operated shops and businesses.

Mohammed, a bicycle repairman, lives in the camp with two wives and 15 children. "I feel nostalgic. I love my country and I want to go back," he says. In Daraa, he used to sell carpets before arriving here 2.5 years ago.

Like most residents interviewed, Mohammed prefers not to publish his surname for fear of reprisals to himself upon his return or to family members still living in Syria.

"I will go back home barefoot if I must. We have to rebuild," he said.

Mohammed says he now views what started as a popular uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad as a mistake. "The majority here think it was a mistake to rise up. … Even if Assad remains in power, we want to return, as long as we are assured of our security."

A rare voice for remaining in Jordan is Aleid, a 28-year-old greengrocer who arrived two years ago with his pregnant wife. During a recent visit, his young daughter was seen toddling around his shop, under a prominently framed portrait of King Abdullah.

"Abdullah is the king of the Arab nation," he said. "Here there is no war, and this beloved King Abdullah is the one who protects us."

Khalid Shorman, director of the Masar Center, an Amman-based nongovernmental organization, said Jordanian security agents together with local police keep close tabs on activities within the camp.

"Security is the responsibility of Jordan, but the daily affairs of the camp are left to Syrians to manage. This arrangement is working quite well, with Jordan doing a good job of integrating the community," he said.

Jordanians interviewed say the government has internalized lessons from earlier waves of refugees, and is working to check radicalization among newcomers and citizens alike.

They noted that all seven sleeper cell suspects killed in that March firefight in Irbid were Jordanian nationals — some Jordanian-born, others naturalized, former Palestinian refugees — who are part of a fringe minority of citizens known to be sympathetic to Daesh or the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

"The attack in Irbid showed the strength and skill of our security institutions and the extent of our sacrifice," said Adnan Sawaeer, a Jordanian member of parliament.

He added, "Thank god we have the capabilities needed to counter those among us — not more than five percent of the population here — who may support or feel empathy for radical groups."


Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at

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