The Troubling Dimensions of Attacks in Jordan and Lebanon

Attacks by Islamic State terrorists in Jordan and Lebanon in the past week reflect a troubling new angle to that group’s strategy as its heartland in northern Syria and Iraq increasingly shrinks in the face of coordinated military attacks against it.

Attacks by Islamic State (Daesh) terrorists in Jordan and Lebanon in the past week reflect a troubling new angle to that group’s strategy as its heartland in northern Syria and Iraq increasingly shrinks in the face of coordinated military attacks against it. These bombings are not dramatic new developments, as Islamic State has carried out similar attacks in both countries in the past few years, and other planned bombings were thwarted. Yet they are fresh cause for concern because they reflect apparent attempts by Islamic State—and its technical ability—to try to destabilize smaller states like Lebanon and Jordan that have played direct roles in the military fight to destroy it.

The two suicide attacks at the north Jordan border post of Rukban and the north Lebanon town of Al-Qaa left over a dozen dead and scores wounded, and these followed an earlier attack against a Jordanian intelligence post near Baqaa refugee camp near Amman. They are particularly significant because they took place in locations that are assumed to be heavily protected by both the military and security forces of Lebanon and Jordan; and in Lebanon’s case, the non-state power Hezbollah also plays a major role in securing Lebanon’s border region from attacks from Syrian territory.

The targets of the attacks are no surprise in themselves. Hezbollah has actively fought inside Syria against Islamic State, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and other militant Salafist-takfiri groups in Syria that are trying to bring down the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad, while the Jordanian armed forces and security services have actively supported rebel groups fighting for the same aim and also in some cases directly attacked Islamic State in Syria. In recent years Islamic State has also eyed Lebanon and Jordan as two targets for its expansion plans in the region.

The likelihood of Islamic State causing major damage or instability in either country is slim. The biggest danger in both places is not large-scale direct military attacks such as Islamic State used to expand its territory in Syria and Iraq. Rather, it is how perpetuation of the current status quo can lead to damaging conditions in several realms: panic among citizens who might fear their very able security institutions cannot stop such attacks in Jordan and Lebanon; worsening economic conditions especially due to declines in tourism, foreign investment, and exports; increased support for Islamic State and other such radical groups by small numbers of disgruntled locals who sense few if any prospects for their improved political or socio-economic well-being; and, emigration of the youngest and brightest citizens who might lose faith in their future prospects at home.

While acknowledging that Islamic State and other such movements appeal to very small numbers of Arab citizens, it is also important to recognize that this is how these extremist and militant movements traditionally gained support among local populations across the Arab World in the past quarter century or so. These movements identify real sources of pain, grievances, and unmet material and political needs among Arab citizens, over years slowly build a narrative and a set of actions that respond to those needs, and finally strike by activating their political, military, and social reconstruction programs in areas where they feel they have sufficient local support.

Those areas in fact have been few and far between, and have always been short-lived, because the mainstream Arab populace has always rejected such violent ideologies. When existing state, non-state, and international powers in the region finally coordinated their military attacks against it, Islamic State this year lost territory in several places in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The liberation of Fallujah in Iraq is the latest example of this, and is an important step on the path towards liberating Mosul and Raqqa cities.

These eventualities will badly damage the logistical ability of Islamic State to manage its so-called state and caliphate, which are likely to collapse, but they may not signal the end of the many stressful dynamics in Arab society that generate support for the group among desperate citizens. Islamic State knows this and therefore probably keeps carrying out attacks like this week’s in Lebanon and Jordan, mainly to appeal to small groups of increasingly desperate citizens in lands that over the past half a century have been unable to generate conditions that meet the basic life needs of all their citizens.

This is a futile cause and a battle that Islamic State will lose in the end, because its ways are so alien to the vast majority of Arab citizens. This week’s attacks, however, remind us of what we should expect until that final defeat occurs, and that the ultimate victory over Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other such extremists will emanate only from policies that provide Arab citizens with decent and dignified lives, rather than from any military prowess.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global