Jordan, Egypt, and the response to ISIS: Beyond air strikes

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Tha’r, or “blood vengeance” in Arabic: this was how the Jordanian Air Force spokesman described last week’s renewed strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), carried out in retribution for the murder of downed pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh. The word was splashed across Egyptian newspapers, as the country’s warplanes struck the ISIS-held city of Derna in retribution for the group’s murder of 21 Egyptian Christians.

Many in both countries drew parallels between the two situations, with candle-lit vigils and high-level communications to express solidarity. “The killing of an Egyptian citizen is no different than that of the Jordanian pilot,” said one Egyptian analyst to news site Mada Masr.

ISIS broadcast film of Kasasbeh being burned to death on February 3, ostensibly aiming to drive a wedge between Jordan’s ruling elite (particularly King Abdullah) and its people—who, it bears noting, had little say in the initial decision to join the U.S.-led air war against ISIS. The regional coalition against ISIS in Syria, based on the September 2014 Jedda Communique, has succeeded in providing a veneer of Arab participation around U.S.-led strikes, yet Arab governments have done little to bring their publics along with them.

In the weeks since the video’s release, though, the group’s actions have failed to divide the Jordanian people, instead provoking the unified wrath of much of the population. Safi al-Kasasbeh, the pilot’s father, called on the Jordanian government “to take blood vengeance for Muadh and blood vengeance for the nation.”

Demonstrators and newspaper editors called on the government to execute all ISIS sympathizers in detention, with the government acquiescing by immediately executing two condemned Iraqi terrorists in Jordanian custody, Sajida al-Rishawi and Ziad al-Karbouli. King Abdullah, vowing a “relentless war” against the group, was greeted by cheering crowds of thousands.

Even radical voices critical of the coalition have been forced to moderate their tone, likely fearful of public wrath or a spell in Jordanian prisons. Former al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi was released from prison to condemn Kasasbeh’s burning as un-Islamic, while prominent jihadi Salafi leader Abu Sayyaf said that the execution “had no connection to Islam,” blaming the burning on ex-Baathist officers among ISIS ranks.

Yet the slaughter of Coptic Egyptian workers in Libya has lent further credence to the idea that ISIS aims not to sow discord abroad, but to draw countries such as Egypt and Jordan further into the internecine conflicts raging on their borders, regardless as to whether they do so out of apocalyptic fervor or the strategic logic of asymmetric warfare.   

Though broad swaths of the Jordanian and now the Egyptian people have rallied around the flag in the face of tragedy, there is a clear potential for blowback to take its toll on each country. Beyond chronic economic and social problems, a radical fringe of violent jihadis—ever a presence within Jordan and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula—will be further encouraged to foment chaos within the countries’ borders, despite the best efforts of the powerful Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate or the Egyptian military.

And while a greater percentage of each country’s population now views this as “their war,” as late as November most in Egypt and Jordan largely viewed air strikes against ISIS as furthering the interests of the United States, Iran and Israel—the same three countries they viewed as the greatest threats to the security and stability of the region. 

The language of a military campaign does little to encourage political reform in either country, contributing to an ever-widening gap between state and society. Jordan jailed two newspaper editors for contradicting the official line on negotiations to secure Kasasbeh’s release, while the Egyptian government is seeking to upgrade its anti-terror laws to block all internet content related to “terrorism,” as yet undefined.

The Jordanian economy has been battered by years of war in neighboring Syria and burdened by the influx of Syrian and now Iraqi refugees. It now stands to lose yet another source of precious foreign currency as Western and Gulf Arab tourists head elsewhere, wary of visiting a country now seemingly in a war zone. The Egyptian economy continues to flounder, despite billions in aid pledges by various Gulf nations over the past few years.

So far, though, efforts to minimize threats remain thoroughly concentrated on military and security matters. American officials have expedited shipments of weapons and munitions to Jordan, while a delegation from the House Armed Services Committee has ventured to Amman to discuss counter-terror strategies. The UAE, along with Bahrain, has rejoined the fight against ISIS, sending fighters in support of expanded air operations. The Kingdom itself has sent thousands of troops to the border with Iraq, although the government has thus far ruled out a ground war.

Egypt has called for a United Nations mandate to back an international coalition against ISIS in Libya, while Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri has used the crisis to call for greater U.S. and international backing for Egypt’s fight against ISIS—as well as Egypt’s oft-indiscriminate domestic war on terror. President Sisi highlighted these connections in a diplomatic meeting with French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, as Sisi’s cash-strapped government completed the purchase of 24 French-made Rafale warplanes.  

Though military action will remain an unavoidable policy against ISIS, a greater role must be lent to diplomacy and development in rooting out the power vacuums that allow such a group to thrive. For Jordan, this means redoubled efforts by the international community—especially the United States, Russia, and Iran—to find a political solution to the Syria conflict that has exacerbated the Kingdom’s pressing social, political, and economic problems. As we noted in a recent review of policy towards the country, foreign diplomats and Jordanian officials must work together ensure that aid dollars flow towards reinforcing a productive economy—one that can stand to incorporate the hundreds of thousands of refugees and the legions of unemployed alike.

Likewise, in Egypt, a political resolution to the current factional turmoil in Libya would far better address its concerns of border security and regional radicalization far further air strikes against ISIS positions, whatever the Egyptian population’s desire for revenge. Italy, the closest European power to the crisis, has increasingly emphasized the need for such a resolution.

Egypt’s allies in the Gulf, deeply concerned over the country’s stability, should use a March economic conference in Sharm al-Shaikh to channel effective investment into the country, rather than shoring up the Egyptian pound at the Central Bank or pouring investments into high-end desert apartments.   

If the Egyptian and Jordanian governments fear the looming threat of ISIS, they and their allies must work to undermine the very foundations of this group’s existence. Vengeance alone will not serve them well.