Jordan's Army Preps For A Bigger Role Against ISIS | KERA News

Jordan's Army Preps For A Bigger Role Against ISIS

Feb 23, 2015
Originally published on February 25, 2015 3:55 pm

Jordan's King Abdullah was way out ahead of the people in his support of the war against the self-declared Islamic State, or ISIS. Many Jordanians used to say it was someone else's war even though it's only a 90-minute drive from the capital, Amman, north to the Syrian border.

But Jordanian opinions changed dramatically after the horrific video in which ISIS immolated a Jordanian pilot, Moaz Kassasbeh, who was captured back in December.

Jordan ramped up its airstrikes. Videos of the attacks were cheered when they appeared on Jordanian television. Photos of the king in military dress won him applause both at home and in the West.

This has produced a great moment of national consensus. But where does Jordan go from here?

The country appears set to play a larger role in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, but the war looks to be long and difficult. Jordan, a country of just 6.6 million people, is already hosting more than 600,000 Syrian refugees. This has placed great strain on a country with limited resources and a fragile economy.

Government critics, meanwhile, are calling for political reform and democratization in a country where the king still has the final say on all important matters.

Jordan's military is a key player in all this, and NPR got to see it up close at the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center, which is just outside Amman.

The Jordanian armed forces are closely aligned with the West, and the commander at the training center, Brig. Gen. Aref al-Zaben, is no exception. He has been trained at Fort Bragg, N.C., and also studied at the National Defense University in Washington.

A Package Of Tools

Zaben, who has also served in Afghanistan and Yemen, stressed the ideological dimension of special operations: spreading the message of moderate Islam that Jordanians, and he would say most Muslims, practice.

"From my experience in Afghanistan, we found that there is another tool that we can fight with when we go for the root cause of the terror in the world. The voice of moderate Islam," he says.

In Afghanistan, Zaben took an imam with him to villages threatened by the Taliban. An imam who preached moderation. Back in Jordan, it's become part of the curriculum at the training center.

"You need to fight the ideology with the ideology," he says. He adds that the training involves both "kinetic," or traditional military action, as well as "nonkinetic" elements.

"When we're talking about the nonkinetic, we're talking about the lectures, the ideology and how to counter the ideology," he said. "It's a package."

It's a training package not just for Jordanian special forces but for soldiers, counterterrorism units and SWAT teams from neighboring countries including Iraq and the Palestinian Authority.

I asked about Jordan's role in Syria. Support for airstrikes is strong, though a ground invasion is not on the table. But what about special forces?

"The fight against ISIS will [include] special forces, special operations on the ground, in the future," he said. "That's going to be a coalition initiative."

Asked if that meant that other regional countries, not only Jordan, were likely to send in special forces, he answered definitively.

"Must be," he says. "I think we all have to stand together."

Defining Moderate Islam

King Abdullah is part of the Hashemite royal family that claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and the family often describes its own practice of the faith as "moderate." The king is seen as an appropriate spokesman for that cause.

But, talking with Jordanians, you hear a lot more about what moderate Islam is not, rather than what it is.

Omar Razzaz, the chairman of the board of trustees for the King Abdullah II Fund for Development and the chairman of the Jordan Strategy Forum, said soul-searching is harder when the region is full of war and sectarian strife.

"A community that is sort of safe and contained can go on searching and asking questions about their beliefs and have they gone wrong," he says. "When you perceive yourself as being under attack from the outside somehow, that ability to soul-search becomes much more limited. ...

"People become more defensive and we're stuck in that place where we are on the defensive, but we also need to carry out that conversation about what do we actually stand for," he says.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The fight against ISIS has made for an interesting moment in Jordan, which neighbors both Iraq and Syria. Jordan's King had been way out ahead of his people in his support of fighting ISIS. Many Jordanians used to say it was someone else's war, even though it's all of a 90 minute drive from the capital Amman north to the Syrian border. They used to say that, until that horrific video of the immolation of the Jordanian pilot Muath Kaseasbeh three weeks ago. Jordan ramped up its airstrikes, which became very high profile. I spent last week in Amman, and this week we'll hear some conversations with Jordanians, the minister of information, some government critics who'd like to see reform and democratization. And we'll start today with a general who trained special forces, forces he says are bound to join the fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SIEGEL: This is a counterattack in a war of highly produced videos. Special ops troops are shown in training with realistic sets, props and stand-ins, capturing a terrorist, retaking a hijacked airliner, repelling from a chopper down to a terrorist hideout in a mock village. They are scenes from Jordanian facility just outside Amman.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SIEGEL: KASOTC stands for the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center. The Jordanian Armed Forces are closely aligned with the West, and the commander here, Brigadier General Aref al-Zaben, is no exception. He's trained in special ops at Fort Bragg, N.C., and he studied at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. General al-Zaben also served in Afghanistan.

BRIGADIER GENERAL AREF AL-ZABEN: From my experience in Afghanistan, we found that there is another tool that we can fight when we go for the root cause of the terror in the world - the voice of moderate Islam.

SIEGEL: The kind of Islam, he says, most Jordanians and most Muslims practice. In Afghanistan, he took an Imam out with him to villages threatened by the Taliban - an Imam who preached moderation. Back in Jordan, it's become part of the training center's curriculum.

AL-ZABEN: You need to fight the ideology with the ideology.

SIEGEL: How much of the training that you're doing here is about this ideological message as opposed to, say, training in explosives or interrogation or surveillance?

AL-ZABEN: It goes kind of (unintelligible) and (unintelligible). And when we talk about (unintelligible), we're talking about the lectures and the ideology and how to counter the ideology, which goes with the training.

SIEGEL: So it's all of a piece, you're saying.

AL-ZABEN: It's a package.

SIEGEL: It's a training package, not just for Jordanian Special Forces, but for soldiers, counterterrorism units and SWAT teams from neighboring countries, including Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. I asked about Jordan's role in Syria. Everyone says airstrikes - OK - ground invasion - no way. But special forces? Well, General al-Zaben says yes.

AL-ZABEN: The fight against ISIS - there will be special forces, special operations on the ground in the future.

SIEGEL: You think there will be?

AL-ZABEN: There will be. Yeah. That's going to be a coalition initiative.

SIEGEL: Not just Kurdish Peshmerga militias and some Syrian Kurds, but other countries from the region are going to have to see some special forces on the ground in Syria?

AL-ZABEN: Must be.

SIEGEL: Must be?

AL-ZABEN: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Brigadier General, I just want to say, I'm struck by how candid you are about the inevitability that special forces will have to be used in Syria at some point. Do you think that sometime is very soon?

AL-ZABEN: You know, now with the killing of the 21st Egyptians...

SIEGEL: ...The Coptic Christians in Libya?

AL-ZABEN: Yeah, the Christians in Libya. I think we all have to stand together and time is ticking.

SIEGEL: Brigadier General Aref al-Zaben, thank you very much for talking with us.

AL-ZABEN: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: I asked General Al-Zaben if he thinks the special forces used against ISIS will be largely American. He wouldn't say. One observation about his emphasis on moderate Islam - a phrase that I heard very often in Amman last week - Jordan's Hashemite royal family claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and Jordanians often describe their own practice of the faith as moderate. The King is seen as an appropriate spokesman for that cause. But talking with Jordanians, you hear a lot more about what moderate Islam is not - like burning people alive - than what it is. I asked Dr. Omar Raziz about that. He's a very thoughtful Jordanian, an American-educated economist who now runs a bank. He says self-scrutiny is hard when the region is in turmoil. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly identified Omar Razzaz as Omar Raziz. His name is mispronounced in the audio.]

OMAR RAZZAZ: There's a lot of soul-searching on this issue, and I think we need to do more of this. A community that is sort of safe and contained can go on searching and asking questions about their beliefs and have they gone wrong etc. When you perceive yourself as being under attack from the outside somehow, that ability to soul-search becomes much more limited.

SIEGEL: People become more defensive at that time?

RAZZAZ: People become more defensive. And we're stuck in that place where we are on the defensive, but we also need to carry out that conversation about what do we actually stand for?

SIEGEL: Tomorrow we'll hear another conversation about the kingdom of Jordan and more about religion. What does the Muslim Brotherhood's political party want? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.