The Mouse That Roars

Tiny Jordan's spies have helped the United States hunt down some of its most dangerous enemies. Now Obama is hoping those spooks can beat the Islamic State.

Photo by Saul Loeb / AFP
Photo by Saul Loeb / AFP

Barack Obama’s administration says that more than three dozen countries have pledged to join its new fight against the Islamic State, from Saudi Arabia, one of the region’s richest countries, to Egypt, one of its largest and best-armed. The most important help, though, could come from Jordan, one of the Middle East’s tiniest nations. But it’s not boots on the ground that Jordan will provide: It’s intelligence, gleaned from a network of spies and informants who have helped the Americans nab some of their worst enemies and, Washington hopes, will be able to do so again.

Jordan played a key role in helping U.S. intelligence hunt down and kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor, according to former U.S. and Jordanian officials. Outside of Israel, Jordan’s intelligence service is widely seen as the most competent and the closest to U.S. intelligence organizations. Many of its senior staff members were trained by the CIA, former U.S. officials say. That has helped Jordan, despite its small size, craft an intelligence service capable of wins like nabbing Zarqawi and helping the Americans quell a Sunni insurgency in Iraq in 2006.

The Jordanian mukhabarat has also had some misses, most notably when it recommended that the CIA work with a Jordanian doctor, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who turned out to be a double agent working for al Qaeda. On Dec. 30, 2009, Balawi blew himself up at a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan, killing nine people, including seven American CIA officers and contractors, as well as a Jordanian intelligence officer. It was the deadliest attack on CIA personnel since a suicide bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983. Jordan has also been accused of torturing suspected terrorists and condoning brutal interrogation methods that the United States has disavowed.

Despite the massive intelligence failure that culminated in the Khost attack, officials say that the U.S.-Jordanian alliance is strong and productive. "Jordan has a very strong intelligence service. It has infiltrated [the Islamic State] in the past," said Marwan Muasher, who served as Jordan’s foreign minister from 2002 to 2004 and then as deputy prime minister until 2005.

A former U.S. intelligence official also credited the Jordanians with helping to find Zarqawi and said its General Intelligence Directorate has been an especially close partner with the CIA since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "From an intelligence-collection perspective, Jordan has the geographic advantage," the source said, owing to its central location and borders with Iraq and Syria. "A big part of what they’ll do for the U.S. will be intelligence collection" including running networks of spies and recruiting informants in Iraq and Syria to help root out Islamic State members and understand the group’s hierarchy and organizational structure. Since the group overran key Iraqi cities and seized vast swaths of territory this past summer, U.S. intelligence agencies have been trying to understand how the group operates.

Jordanian intelligence "is known to have networks in Iraq which date from 2003 [the year of the U.S. invasion] forward," said Robert Blecher, the acting program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. "The Jordanians have good connections and have tapped them before," Blecher added. They’ll have to do so again.

But it’s not just Jordan’s spying prowess that the United States needs. Jordanian intelligence also has ins with Iraqi Sunni tribes aligned with the Islamic State. During the Iraq war, the United States managed to turn those tribes against al Qaeda in Iraq and got them to fight with the Americans. That was a key pillar in the strategy that ultimately helped defeat the terrorist group, albeit temporarily. Muasher said that the Jordanians’ connections with those Sunni tribal leaders could now "play a very important role in turning them away from" the Islamic State. In July, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Sunni tribal sheikhs in Amman, Jordan, and urged them to turn against the militant group.

The Jordanians are also likely to provide logistical support to the American air campaign, which has so far launched more than 150 strikes against Islamic State fighters, vehicles, and artillery using drones and manned aircraft. (The CIA now says that the militant group has recruited as many as 31,500 fighters, up from an earlier estimate of 10,000.) Blecher said that Jordan has allowed the U.S. military to use its air bases throughout the past decade, though Jordanian officials are reluctant to acknowledge that. Muasher said the country will likely lend logistical support but that he didn’t envision a role in direct military operations. "That’s probably not in the cards," he said. "Military efforts have to be led by the United States."

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been feverishly assembling a coalition of countries willing to assist in the fight against the Islamic State, but it may not be as broad or as significant as officials would hope. Turkey has yet to agree to allow U.S. planes involved in airstrikes to fly out of the country. Canada, which has sent special operations forces to Iraq, has said it will not send conventional ground troops. And Germany has said it will not participate in any airstrikes against the Islamic State.

The CIA already trains Syrian rebels in Jordan. The agency has been reluctant to arm them for fear of American weapons falling into the hands of fighters who might turn around and join forces with the Islamic State. But for several months the CIA has been vetting Syrian rebel groups, an effort directly overseen by the agency’s director, John Brennan, and that work has paid off, a senior administration official said. "We have far greater confidence about who we’re dealing with."

Now the Obama administration wants to ramp up the mission and have the Defense Department train and equip those Syrian rebels. Saudi Arabia has agreed to host the facilities for that project.

The Jordanians’ cooperation isn’t motivated solely by its long-standing alliance with the United States. The Islamic State is a profound threat within Jordan. The Sunni militant group envisions expanding its reach beyond Iraq and Syria. And experts said that Islamic State fighters could covertly slip into Jordan by hiding among the millions of refugees who have poured over the border from Syria, escaping that country’s brutal civil war.

The Jordanian government estimates that more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees are in Jordan and that between 200 and 300 flow over the border every day. "I think there’s concern about ISIS already operating in that population or being able to infiltrate more easily into Jordan through that population," said Blaise Misztal, the director of foreign policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, referring to the group by one of its acronyms. Gulf countries, fearing the Jordanian monarchy could crumble under the strain of the refugee crisis, are funneling tens of billions of dollars in direct aid to Amman.

Jordanian leaders at the highest levels are alarmed by the Islamic State threat. "The crisis in Syria has shown us that transnational terrorists have no regard for borders … as well as the challenge we face when those terrorist organizations or those extremists return back to their host countries," Jordan’s King Abdullah II stated in June after the Islamic State overran Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Experts estimate that as many as 700 Jordanians are fighting with the Islamic State and that thousands of others have left their country to fight with al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. (The Islamic State officially severed from al Qaeda after its leaders failed to heal a breach between the group and al-Nusra Front. The Islamic State declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in June.)

Obama administration officials have been shuttling around the Middle East this week to secure countries’ participation in the anti-Islamic State coalition. But for months now, Washington has been hearing from Amman about the growing threat that the militant group poses.

"In discussions with governments in the region, notably the Saudis and the Jordanians, what is clear is that we have a very common view of this threat," one senior administration official who has spent time in the region said in a conference call. "The Jordanians are experiencing a destabilizing impact" from the crush of refugees "and are profoundly concerned" that the Islamic State will not confine its territorial ambitions to Iraq and Syria.

Blecher, of the International Crisis Group, said that in his visits to Jordan, officials showed him maps of how they predict the region may look one day if the Syrian civil war and sectarian violence in Iraq are left unchecked: Syria and Iraq were Balkanized into different de facto states, and an Islamic caliphate sat right in the middle. "They have long feared that. And when the Islamic State was announced, they felt they were watching that map materialize before their eyes," Blecher said.

Now, with the United States building a coalition of dozens of countries to combat the Islamic State, Jordan may finally feel that the world is on its side. But King Abdullah II has to tread a fine line between siding with his allies and resuscitating a faltering economy strained under the weight of the refugees.

Jordan "is feeling like it’s bearing the brunt of these conflicts," said Dalia Dassa Kaye, the director of Rand Corp.’s Center for Middle East Public Policy, in a call with reporters. "There is a concern that by entering more conflicts in the region, Jordan will face more uncertainty and instability at home.… It’s going to be a very tough tightrope for King Abdullah to walk."

Kate Brannen contributed reporting.

This article has been updated.  

 Twitter: @shaneharris

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