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Concerns that the violence in Syria could spill over the border into Jordan were realized when a group of Jordanian militants were arrested, accused of planning a series of attacks in the capital, Amman.

On October 21, Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID) announced that it had detained 11 local militants, who it alleged had been training with al-Qaida-linked groups in Iraq and smuggling weapons from Syria. The men were said to have been going in and out of Syria for some months and were planning attacks designed to seriously destabilize Jordan.

According to a government spokesperson, Sameeh Maaytah, the security forces had been watching the men since June. The initial information from the GID was that their plan was to launch a series of attacks on embassies, shopping malls, and areas popular with expatriates and diplomats. The plan was to launch the attacks on November 9, the anniversary of the bombing of four hotels in Amman in November 2005. The 2005 attack, in which some 60 people were killed, was blamed on al-Qaida-linked militants who had crossed over the border from Iraq.

Echoes of 2005

Subsequently, the GID later said that the group had also planned to launch attacks on October 5, the day when the Muslim Brotherhood organized an enormous pro-reform rally that not only drew some 15,000 people, but, importantly for the success of any terrorist operation, would have kept the attention of the security forces focused on the center of Amman (where the demonstration took place). The group was also accused of posting information on bomb-making on the Internet.

“The [Syrian] threat to Jordan’s stability could have serious political and economic implications.” – The Economist Intelligence Unit

Jordanians have been concerned at the risk of some form of overspill ever since the onset of the Syrian conflict, and particularly since Syrian refugees started to arrive in substantial numbers. Fearful that the Syrian regime may try to destabilize Jordan by sending agents into the country to target potential opponents, the government has been at pains to keep the influx of refugees under a watchful eye in purpose-built camps, and has returned a number of young men it considered to be a security threat to Syria.

Handout pictures of four of the 11 militants detained on suspicion of planning attacks with the intent of destabilizing Jordan (Reuters).

These fears have since morphed, however, with the growing number of suicide attacks that have occurred in Syria raising fears of similar such atrocities occurring in Jordan (as was the case in 2005, when al-Qaida in Iraq transplanted its methods to the kingdom). These fears were confirmed as the news of the plot in Amman was announced, and within days a Jordanian soldier was killed in a fight at the Syrian border with militants attempting to enter the country. According to military officials, his death occurred in a clash with a group of eight militants, while a second clash broke out shortly after, following which five suspected militants were detained.

Local Salafis implicated

Some of the men accused of planning the attacks were identified as members of a local extremist Salafi group that wants to see sharia law enforced in the country. A spokesman for the group said he recognized a number of them, but denied that they were involved in any plot to commit acts of violence. The group has always kept a low profile, but over the past 18 months has held a number of demonstrations calling for the release of members and their relatives who are currently in jail on terrorism charges. They are also reported to have sent fighters to Syria to join the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Among those currently in jail is Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, the spiritual mentor of the former al-Qaida in Iraq leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006. He is facing a military court on charges of recruiting people to join al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

Investigators are seen inside the Radisson hotel in Amman following a series of bomb attacks in the Jordanian capital in November 2005 (Reuters).

The threat to Jordan’s stability could have serious political and economic implications. In early October, the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, confirmed reports that the U.S. had sent a 150-person military task force to Jordan to help it prepare should the fighting in Syria spill over the borders, and to cope with the growing number of refugees fleeing Syria. However, the offer of U.S. assistance will no doubt provoke mixed feelings in Jordan, given that the enlarged U.S. military presence may only further place the kingdom in the terrorists’ sights.

Meanwhile, in the economic sphere, Jordan’s tourism industry, which has benefited from the Syrian situation as more Gulf tourists have diverted to the kingdom, could suffer from the perception of insecurity. In addition, Jordan’s efforts to attract regional and international investors could also be harmed. Although foreign aid to Jordan has been stepped up in the wake of both the Arab Spring and the influx of Syrian refugees (some 150,000 are now in the country), damage to the crucial tourism sector – the country’s single largest employer – could potentially push the already weak economy back into recession.

This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by The Economist Intelligence Unit

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The Economist Intelligence Unit

This post has been authored by experts of The Economist Intelligence Unit.

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