Castle attack exposes Jordan's vulnerability to IS threat
KARAK, Jordan – Bullet marks on the thick walls of a Crusader fortress and shattered windows of nearby tourist restaurants — damage from a recent shooting rampage — bear witness to Jordan's vulnerability to attacks by Islamic extremists.
Some say the assault on Karak Castle by Jordanian followers of the Islamic State group could signal a more aggressive campaign to destabilize the pro-Western kingdom. A senior security official said the Karak attackers had planned multiple attacks in Jordan on New Year's Eve.
The government dismisses IS as a fringe phenomenon and says Jordan's security forces can contain any threat — but the Dec. 18 shooting set disconcerting precedents.
It marked the first time IS claimed an attack on a civilian site in Jordan, a spot popular with tourists. A Canadian woman and two local residents were among 10 people killed.
The four shooters were sons of Jordanian tribes, traditionally a pillar of support for the monarchy. Local media said they were college-educated men in their late 20s and early 30s, underscoring the appeal of IS ideology among some Jordanians.
The security establishment, meanwhile, faced rare criticism over its failure to prevent the attack, with more than one-third of parliament members calling for a vote of no-confidence in the interior minister.
Marwan Shehadeh, an expert on militants, said the Karak shooting signaled "a remarkable change" in IS tactics. "The year 2017 will be the year of great security challenges in Jordan," he said.
Government spokesman Mohammed Momani said Jordan, a member of the U.S.-led military coalition against IS, is a target, but has countered threats because of social cohesion and what he said are well-trained security forces.
"We know we have been successful in stopping them on many other occasions," he said. "If you look at what is happening in countries around us ... you see our ability to preserve our stability and security."
Jordan's confrontation with IS goes back to 2014, when the kingdom began carrying out air strikes as part of an international campaign to dislodge IS from neighboring Syria and Iraq where the militants captured large areas.
But Jordan's military strikes have not kept the militants from its borders, and have made the kingdom a target.
Last year, seven IS supporters and a Jordanian officer were killed in a shootout during an arrest raid. In June, IS sent a car bomb from Syria that killed seven Jordanian troops. Lone gunmen carried out three separate attacks at Jordanian security installations, with five Americans among the dead. Jordanian officials have remained silent about the attackers' motives.
As IS comes under growing pressure in Syria and Iraq, a gradual retreat there might generate an even stronger incentive for the group to carry out mass attacks elsewhere to affirm its relevance.
Jordan is a logical target because of the visible presence of Western installations and foreigners, said David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The U.S. is providing $1.6 billion in economic and military support to its beleaguered ally in 2017.
Still, any U.S. concerns about Jordan may be overshadowed by the turmoil next door, said Schenker. "The narrative here in Washington is that the threat is pretty large, but that Jordan can handle it," he said.
Jordan has clamped down on suspected IS sympathizers since 2014, with several hundred serving prison terms and five recently sentenced to death.
After the Karak shooting, security forces detained dozens more people. Twenty-two hard-line preachers who refused to pray for the Karak victims will be punished, said Religious Affairs Minister Wael Arabiyat.
Critics say Jordan fails to address the wider causes of the militants' appeal among Jordanians, hundreds of whom have been fighting in the ranks of IS in Iraq and Syria.
Musleh Tarawneh, a Karak legislator who led the recent push in parliament to dismiss the interior minister, noted that unemployment in his district has risen to 25 percent and that university graduates can't find jobs. "Islamic State found a way to enter the Jordanian tribes through poverty and unemployment," he said.
The rise in unemployment is a result of long-term trends that could take years to reverse, including an economic slump caused in part by regional instability. The Karak shooting dealt another setback to an already struggling tourism industry, once a vital sector of Jordan's economy.
Last week, damage inflicted by the gunmen in Karak was still visible.
Glass shards from a window shattered by gunfire covered the floor of the Shehab Restaurant at the castle gate. Linda Vatcher, a retired Canadian teacher, had stood in front of the restaurant when the white pickup carrying the four assailants screeched to a halt near her and assailants opened fire, killing her, said Jamal Saoub, a witness.
At nearby King's Castle restaurant, four tourists from France and Italy were eating lunch when the shots rang out, with at least two bullets piercing the glass door of the dining room, said waiter Abdel-Al Ibrahim, 52.
The attackers held off the security forces for hours, firing from slits in the castle walls before they were killed.
There has been speculation that the Karak cell targeted the castle spontaneously, after its hideout was discovered earlier that day. Atef al-Saoud, the head of the Public Security Directorate, said last week that the cell had planned to carry out New Year's Eve attacks with five explosives belts.
Individual tourists from the United States, Italy and Switzerland seemed undeterred, walking outside the castle last week, a day before it reopened.
They said they felt safe since the probability of a second attack in the same spot is low. They also said that attacks by militants can happen anywhere, pointing to recent incidents in Berlin and Istanbul.
Emily Clymer, 31, a U.S. academic from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said she feels safer in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where she works, than in the United States. Jordanian security forces "take precautions, they react quickly," she said.
Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank.