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Why Jordan, intelligence hub on ISIS, took a rare hit Monday (+video)

Political values

Jordan's intelligence agency, one of the best in the region, has been on the top of militants' hit-list for more than a decade. The assailants have not yet been identified.

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Assailants attacked Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate today, which is located on the northern outskirts of Amman near the Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp.

Stringer/Reuters

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A group of unknown assailants succeeded Monday in striking an institution that has been on the top of jihadists’ hit-lists for nearly two decades: Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID).

Known and feared as the mukhabarat, they are Jordan’s first line of defense, the linchpin of the kingdom’s stability, and the West’s greatest asset in the war on terror.

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The Jordanian government announced late Monday that it had arrested a suspect in the attack, which killed three officers and two employees at a GID branch on the outskirts of Amman, near the Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp. But even though the motives and identity of the attacker have yet to be revealed, both the government and security analysts immediately suspected the self-declared Islamic State (IS).

IS had warned of a wave of attacks around Ramadan, which starts Monday. Observers say among potential targets for IS worldwide, Jordan’s intelligence services would be at the top of its list.

“Jordan’s contribution to the war on ISIS is not by airstrikes, or bombings, or ground troops – it is by its intelligence,” says Oraib Rantawi, political observer and director of the Al Quds Center for Political Studies. “When you talk about intelligence [on IS], you talk about the Jordanian GID.”

Indeed, by targeting the Jordanian GID, militants would be targeting the hub of intelligence collection for the war against IS – intelligence that is used to carry out airstrikes against the group in Syria in Iraq. Attacks undermining Jordanian intelligence would come at a critical time as the group faces offensives on its strongholds in Raqqa, Syria, and Fallujah, Iraq.

According to Syrian rebels, Jordan’s GID has extended its reach well into southern Syria, actively preventing the conflict from encroaching Jordan’s borders. And Jordan’s intelligence has a long history in Iraq, where its sources have led to US airstrikes on a series of Al Qaeda and ISIS targets – including IS’s spiritual founder, Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

The attack would also serve a more immediate purpose. Jordanian intelligence has arrested over 400 jihadist sympathizers for plotting attacks or attempting to join ISIS over the past four years, according to state security records. It uncovered several Al Qaeda or IS-affiliated cells over the past decade, preventing "dozens" of attacks within Jordan.

By weakening the GID, militants would be weakening Jordan’s ability to preemptively stop terrorist attacks – the major barrier preventing groups from destabilizing the kingdom.

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“The mukhabarat has proved on many occasions that it has a very long arm and can chase terrorists in even their safe havens,” Mr. Rantawi says. “They have been the reason Jordan has been an island of stability amid war and violence.”

11 years without a major incident

During a raid in March, security services foiled a terror cell linked to ISIS allegedly planning to carry out a series of attacks on military targets – including the GID. The shoot-out left seven ISIS supporters and one security officer dead.

The GID and security services were the target of an alleged Al Qaeda plot in 2012, in which 11 young Jordanians plotted to strike shopping malls and diplomatic sites. They planned the attack to commemorate the anniversary of triple hotel bombings carried out by Al Qaeda in 2005 – the last major terrorist attack on Jordanian soil.

The bombings marked one of the few failures of the GID, and led to an expansion of the Jordanian intelligence department that led to more than 11 years without a major incident.The Jordanian intelligence were able to detain the suspects, who were allegedly planning to carry out attacks using munitions and mortar rockets destined for Syria, in a directive from Al Qaeda in Iraq, now known as IS.

In 2009, three Jordanian militants, unable to carry out planned attacks on the Israeli-Jordanian border, set their sights instead on the Jordanian intelligence- and plotted to attack the very GID office in Baqaa which gunmen ambushed on Monday.

Perhaps the greatest attempt on Jordan’s intelligence services came in 2004, when Abu Musab Zarqawi, then Jordanian leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, planned a spectacularly grizzly “suicide chemical attack” – a series of truck- and car-bombings targeting the GID headquarters in Amman. As presented in Jordan's state security court, the GID managed to track down the operatives and bombmakers before they were able to carry out the plot, which would have leveled the GID headquarters and released poison gas across the heart of Amman – potentially killing tens of thousands.

'Sworn enemy of jihadists'

For many jihadists, an attack on the Jordanian intelligence has an even greater meaning: personal revenge.

The GID's efforts to thwart terrorism rests in part on its ability to tap jihadists, Al Qaeda-aligned salafists, and their sympathizers as intelligence assets, which has bred deep-seeded resentment among such individuals and their families. Many of them have told of “regular” visits from the GID, marathon sessions of questioning and interrogation where officers attempt to sway them and use them as agents. They are often subject to arbitrary detentions for days at a time, dawn raids, and intimidation.

The practice can also backfire. In 2009, Jordanian jihadist Humam Balawi turned on his Jordanian handler – a GID officer – and detonated a suicide belt inside a CIA outpost at Camp Chapman near Khost, Afghanistan, killing several CIA officers. Prior to the attack, the Jordanian GID believed that Balawi was acting as a double agent against Al Qaeda and thus he was granted access to the CIA camp.

Security officials have confirmed and defended such tactics, saying such “close follow-up” and “one-on-one” relationships with jihadis are keeping the kingdom safe.

But experts following the jihadist movement say the practice has also placed the Jordanian GID in jihadists’ crosshairs.

“There has always been bad blood between the jihadists and the Jordanian intelligence,” says Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordanian expert in jihadist movements.

“The mukhabarat has attempted to recruit, turn, and use jihadists as a source of information, and many resist – it is a constant battle that has made the Jordanian intelligence the sworn enemy of jihadists.”