When Islamic State militants launched a fatal attack in the center of Karak, Jordan, on Sunday, storming a centuries-old Crusader castle and overwhelming police, residents responded in a way rarely seen in this region.
They took up arms and confronted them.
While waiting for nearly an hour for special forces to arrive in the southern Jordan city, and facing an indiscriminate hail of bullets from the castle’s walls, dozens of ordinary citizens took up their own licensed guns, clubs, and stones in an effort to draw the IS fighters out.
The Karak residents’ fight was not quelled with the arrival of special forces. Several videos circulated on social media of citizens storming the castle gates alongside security forces, pleading with police to share the burden of the fight, yelling “[our lives] are not worth more than yours…. Let us face them!”
Security sources say police had to physically restrain dozens of civilians from attempting to enter the castle, at times unable to hold them back.
“When we saw gunmen take the castle, we only had one reaction: We did not want to become another Mosul,” Karak resident Mohammed Sarayreh says, referring to the city in northern Iraq that has been an IS stronghold for more than two years.
Clashes between the IS militants and security forces have continued sporadically this week in and near Karak, and 13 Jordanians and a Canadian tourist have been killed. The fighting reportedly has seen civilians take up their arms again, and Jordanians say they have responded with their greatest asset: social cohesion.
After watching cities, villages, and vast regions in neighboring Iraq and Syria fall to the jihadist group as their residents turned on each other, Jordanians instead reached for national unity to confront IS.
Putting community first
“ISIS made a mistake by not reading up on the history of Jordan,” says Hussein Mahadeen, a sociologist and professor at Mutah University and a resident of Karak, noted for its mixed Christian and Muslim community.
“Karak, and Jordan as a whole, has a shared experience of different faiths and backgrounds living together in harmony,” he says. “Anything that threatens that harmony is seen as a threat to all and will be confronted.”
Jordanians say it is this national pride and willingness to put their community first that is preventing ISIS from gaining a foothold and imposing a reign of terror.
“Unlike in Syria, Iraq, and even Libya, where there are deep social divisions ISIS takes advantage of, Jordanians of different backgrounds have a national unity and duty in times of crisis,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, a Jordanian expert on extremist movements.
“Even though some individual Jordanians may join ISIS, the society as a whole comes together to fight it.”
As Jordan teeters towards a state of war with ISIS on its own soil, experts say this solidarity will be key in defeating the group.
Jordan’s relatively small population of 9 million and the intermarriage among various tribes and families from both the east and west banks of the Jordan river – including various minorities who fled to the country in the 20th century – make much of the country act like a cohesive family unit in times of crisis.
“If the family is threatened, then all of the family rises up to face the threat,” says Nabil Sharif, an analyst and former Jordanian information minister.
“This is what we saw in a very noble and heroic manner in Karak, where people were ready to put their lives on the line to protect their city.”
Civilians on the front line
Jordan’s interior minister, Salameh Hamad, has warned citizens not to take part in operations, and to allow “specially trained forces” to carry out “very difficult operations.”
The sense of solidarity in the face of the IS jihadists was first shown in February 2015 after the group burned alive a captive Jordanian pilot, Muath Kassasbeh, spurring thousands to protest against IS and plunging the country into a state of national mourning.
The sense of civic duty – citizens acting as a community watch and alerting authorities to any suspicious behavior – has made Jordanian civilians an active and effective front line in the fight against terrorism.
Planned IS attacks have been foiled repeatedly this year.
It was the tip from a landlord and his sons who smelled gunpowder that led police to uncover the Karak-area militants at their rented apartment 20 miles east of the city on Sunday.
Investigators say the militants were concocting large-scale explosives and compiling a stockpile of explosive belts and weapons that Mr. Hamad said would have “threatened all of Jordan … not just Karak.” By all accounts, the tip from the landlord prevented a larger attack and tragedy.
In the northern city of Irbid in March, a tip about a group of suspicious young men who moved into the neighborhood in a rented flat exposed what Jordan says was an IS-aligned cell. After a several-hour shootout that led to the deaths of one policeman and seven militants, authorities uncovered a cache of weapons and explosives likely designed for a large-scale operation.
In June, an off-duty forest ranger in a mosque tackled and captured a gunman who killed five intelligence officers earlier that day.
“The civil society time and time again has acted as a spoiler – in Karak, Irbid, and Baqaa, all these plots were uncovered by citizens, not security agencies,” says Mr. Abu Haniya.
“This cooperation between the society and security agencies is something you don’t see in other countries in the region and has placed civilians on the front lines in the fight against ISIS.”
Stigma of terrorism
Jordanians have proven to be driven in their fight against IS – even when those militants are their own brothers, sons, and cousins.
Around 3,000 Jordanians fight under the banner of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, according to various official estimates, making Jordan home to the highest number of IS fighters per capita in the world.
Some are driven by a lack of job opportunities or a sense of duty to protect Sunni Muslims.
Yet the stigma of terrorism and extremism repels families and tribes across the country, who see it as a stain on their honor as a collective whole. This has led many tribes and families to disown sons and daughters who have joined IS.
According to leaks in the local press, confirmed by family members, four gunmen who stormed the Karak castle are from the city themselves or have relatives in the area.
In a statement, the family of one of the alleged IS fighters, Karak resident Mohammed Khatib, refused to receive and bury their son on Tuesday, denouncing his terrorist affiliation.
“We, sons of the Khatib tribe, denounce the criminal act … which has no relation to religion or our tribe,” the family said in a statement published in local press Tuesday.
“In 150 years we have known nothing but loyalty and allegiance to this homeland even before its establishment … so we refuse his body.”
The stigma of terrorism and an outpouring of genuine support for security services have made hardline Salafists and jihadists largely unwelcome in Jordan – with hardliners themselves saying it is the “most hostile” atmosphere in the kingdom they have ever faced.
“The atmosphere does not allow supporters of ISIS to meet, to talk, to even think about doing something in Jordan,” says Mohammed Shalabi, a leader of Jordan’s hardline Salafist jihadist group, which is ideologically aligned with Al Qaeda but is a critic of IS.
“It has put anyone who ideologically supports Salafists under suspicion by the state and the people.”