WASHINGTON – Worried that Jordan could be vulnerable to the Islamic State militant group, the U.S. is stepping up its intelligence cooperation with one of its most stalwart Middle East allies.
The CIA has approached a retired former agency official with close ties to King Abdullah II about setting up a special task force to help Jordan deal with the threat from the Islamic State group, according to two former agency officials who would not be quoted by name discussing a secret mission.
The retiree, Robert Richer, a former Marine who was chief of CIA's Near East division, became close with King Abdullah when he was Amman station chief in 1999. Richer is now a consultant with clients in Jordan, according to his LinkedIn page. He declined to comment.
While the prospect of the Islamic State prevailing over the well-equipped Jordanian military seems remote, Jordan is vulnerable to both terrorist attacks and internal strife. Its economy is weak, its unofficial unemployment rate is 30 percent, and 1.5 million Syrian refugees are consuming scarce resources and services, U.S. officials and experts say.
"You couldn't imagine a worse scenario" that the collapse of the Jordanian government, said David Schenker, a former senior Pentagon official who now directs the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute. "Everybody agrees that the stability of Jordan is a lynchpin of stability in the region. We're looking at a total meltdown if Jordan goes."
Jordan is among the countries directly threatened by the Islamic State's recent surge, White House counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco told reporters last week. Secretary of State John Kerry is departing Tuesday on a trip to Jordan and Saudi Arabia as he tries to formally enlist those countries in a U.S. and European coalition against the Islamic State group.
Whatever he does publicly, Abdullah — who graduated from Deerfield Academy, a Massachusetts prep school, and once appeared on an episode of "Star Trek: Voyager" — has consistently supported the U.S. behind the scenes. The CIA has long had close ties to Jordan's intelligence service, and the two countries work closely together against al-Qaida and other extremist groups.
The U.S. is providing Jordan about a $1 billion this year in economic and military aid, according to the Congressional Research Service, a sum that does not include classified intelligence funding through the CIA.
Jordan's Information Minister, Mohammad al-Momani, acknowledged in an interview that his country faces both a terrorism danger and an internal security risk from the Islamic State. Jordan is cooperating with its allies to counter that threat, he said, but he declined to discuss details.
The CIA is seeking to help Jordan coordinate intelligence on the Islamic State and its own internal extremists, thousands of whom have been going to fight with the al Nusra front, an al-Qaida affiliate, in Syria. Some have also gone to fight with the Islamic State group, which has broken from al Qaida and is laying claim as the true heir to Osama bin Laden, U.S. intelligence officials say.
The agency can offer "more intelligence collection resources, more eyes looking at it, more monitoring, more operational one on one planning," said Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who used to track al-Qaida in Iraq.
Al-Qaida in Iraq, the Islamic State's predecessor, was founded by a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by the U.S. military in Iraq in 2006 after the CIA — and Bakos — tracked him down. Al-Qaida in Iraq killed 60 people when it bombed two hotels in Jordan in 2005. In 2012, Jordanian authorities disrupted a terrorist plot by the group in which nearly a dozen militants allegedly planned to use weapons and bombs they obtained fighting in Syria to attack government buildings and embassies in Amman.
Graffiti in support of the Islamic State group — and black flags suggesting solidarity — are a common sight in Jordan's southern city of Ma'an, long a hotbed of discontent.
In an interview with the Associated Press in Jordan, an Islamic State group sympathizer who said he had fought in Syria said the group has wide support in Jordan, including many heads of tribes. The militant declined to be named because he could be arrested.
In April, Jordan adopted a new anti-terrorism law that makes it illegal to speak in support of extremist groups. The Jordanian newspaper a-Sharq al-Awsat reported last week that Jordanian security forces had arrested 71 activists belonging to Islamist organizations, including the Islamic State group and the al-Nusra Front.
"There's no doubting that ISIL has expanded its visible support base in the country in recent months," said Charles Lister, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, using an alternate acronym for the group.
Jordan's weak economy "is arguably the most serious concern with regards to its potential impact upon internal stability," Lister said. "One single terrorist attack in Jordan would be all it would take to induce the necessary internal conditions for the development of an active domestic terrorist or militant movement, such as ISIL or Al-Qaida."
Associated Press writer Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.
Follow Ken Dilanian on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KenDilanianAP