U.S. And Jordan: An Alliance Against Violent Extremism

Alice G. Wells

The Ambassador of the United States to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

May 12, 2015
World Affairs Council
Remarks as prepared

Good evening.

Before I begin, I would first like to thank Your Excellency, Dr. Abdul Salam Al Majali for your years of dedication to advancing Jordan’s broad-minded foreign policy, including your support for U.S.-Jordanian relations over the decades.

I would also like to thank Secretary General Fadel Ali Al Sarhan for the gracious invitation to participate in this prestigious gathering, as well as our moderator, Dr. Walid Al Turk for taking on what must never be an easy task.

And especially, I would like to welcome tonight’s guests, distinguished members of the World Affairs Council, Your Excellencies, members of the media, NGO and civil society leaders, many others whom we consider honored friends of the United States in Jordan.

Before I begin a discussion on counter-terrorism and security cooperation, please allow me to acknowledge the brave men and women of the Jordan Armed Forces. Their superior performance, dedication, and willingness to sacrifice for their nation are an inspiration.

I also commend Jordan’s leaders, especially His Majesty King Abdullah II, for the strength and vision they have demonstrated in leading the coalition efforts to degrade and defeat Da’esh.

For the first time in over 40 years Jordanian soldiers and pilots are prosecuting a war – side by side with the United States and 61 coalition partners – to defend Jordan.

And the Jordanian people are demonstrating both resilience and determination… Determination not to allow extremists to call into question Jordan’s open, moderate, and modernizing way of life… Determination to choose their own future, rather than allow extremists to choose it for them.

Let us be clear from the start about the enemy we face – this so-called Islamic State, or Da’esh. They are criminals – violent, extremist criminals.

Some Da’esh terrorists are hard core Al Qaeda. These are the same people – cut from the same cloth and claiming the same legacy – as the terrorists who killed 58 innocents, many at a wedding party, on November 9, 2005. If able, they would commit this same crime, or worse, once again.

Another slice of Da’esh are Ba’athists and members of the former Iraqi regime. They seek violence, retribution, and power for their own sake, not for a caliphate and certainly not for the benefit of average Iraqis and Syrians.

As for the remainder, thousands are foreign fighters, who come not to defend Syrians or Iraqis, but to exploit them.

Today Da’esh is trying to spread beyond Iraq and Syria and is claiming new supporters from Southeast Asia to the Sahel. These groups seek the Da’esh name and flag to boost what for many are failed or failing campaigns of their own. And Da’esh needs these new affiliates so they can claim they are still ascendant – because in Syria and especially Iraq, Da’esh is on the defensive.

Da’esh’s membership – criminals, murderers, terrorists – is enough to tell any observer that their claims to have established a new caliphate are false. Islam is a religion of peace; Da’esh’s greatest boast is about the savagery they are willing to commit.

Muslim scholars – 126 of the most prominent from Al Azhar and around the Muslim world – affirmed in an open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that it is forbidden in Islam to declare a caliphate without consensus from all Muslims.

It is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent, to torture, to force conversion, to re-introduce slavery, or to deny women and children their rights,

But Da’esh has robbed Sunnis of their lives in Amman hotels. Da’esh has executed Sunnis – including children – one by one on the streets of Mosul, Hit, and Deir Al Zor. And Da’esh has murdered Sunni Muslims like RJAF pilot Captain Moaz al-Kasasbeh in the most despicable way.

As Da’esh kills fellow Muslims, we know from Da’esh’s own messages that they seek to attack and destroy Jordan. Since last June, Da’esh has threatened to invade Jordan — to “slaughter” the leadership and the brave soldiers of the Jordan Armed Forces.

But the threat Da’esh poses is not just rhetorical. It is having a tangible negative impact on Jordan every day.

First, Da’esh has pushed more Syrian and Iraqi refugees into Jordan and their savage rule and violence towards civilians makes the prospects for the refugees’ return even more distant.

While the United States has contributed nearly $600 million since 2012 to both Syrian refugees and Jordanian host communities – separate from the bilateral assistance we extend to Jordan — we know that the burden on the country’s water, health and education infrastructure is tremendous. I’ve seen this firsthand in places like Irbid, Zarqa, Mafraq, and Ramtha. I commend Jordanians for their hospitality and patience, and we also ask the international community to do more.

Second, Da’esh has cut Jordan off from its traditional markets. Exports to Syria dropped more than 72% from 2010 to 2014. And now trade with Syria is almost completely stopped. Similarly bilateral trade with Iraq has declined 52% since 2010.

Farmers’ losses this season alone are in excess of 150 million dinars. Truck owners estimate their losses at around 200 million dinars since the beginning of the unrest.

Third, the mere presence of Da’esh on Jordan’s borders has damaged Jordan’s critical tourism sector. Traditional tourists are avoiding travel to the region due to the news coming out of Syria and Iraq.

Visitors to Jordan declined from over 8 million in 2010 to around 5 million in 2013. Seven hotels have closed in Petra, Jordan’s tourism jewel. And in 2015 alone, visitors to Petra tumbled 42% over the first three months compared to last year.

And, fourth, Da’esh has imposed a fight on Jordan that diverts energy away from finding genuine, workable solutions to regional challenges. Jordan has endeavored for decades to maintain peaceable, mutually beneficial relations with its neighbors. It has been a leading contributor to peacekeeping operations.

And Jordan has played a critical role in promoting a fair and just Middle East peace. These undertakings continue of course, but the threat posed by Da’esh has shifted energy, resources, and attention to fighting extremists that could have been deployed elsewhere.

As a result, I would argue that Da’esh has given Jordan no choice but to fight back: fight for its safety and stability, fight for its economy and opportunity for the next generation, and fight for Jordan’s ideals of moderation, tolerance, inclusivity.

It is already clear that these extremists have failed to intimidate Jordan. Jordanians, by an overwhelming margin, recognize that Da’esh and other extremists pose a threat to their peaceful, moderate way of life.

Recent surveys by the Center for Strategic Studies found that 92 percent believe that Da’esh poses a threat to Jordan’s stability. And 87 percent support Jordan’s participation in the war against ISIL. It’s hard to find anything 87 percent of Americans can agree on, so I find this broad agreement among Jordanians remarkable.

Jordanians realize that their participation in the coalition is absolutely necessary. But participation is not enough. This coalition depends on Jordan’s leadership.

Jordan can and must lead because it represents everything Da’esh is not and will never be.

Jordan is a modernizing, outward-looking Arab state.

Jordan is a tolerant, inclusive, Muslim-majority country that accepts its non-Muslim minorities as full, equal citizens.

Jordan is a pursuer of peace. Led by the Hashemite custodians of Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian holy places, Jordanians have never turned away from their commitment to a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians living side by side.

Da’esh is – or should be –afraid of Jordan and all it represents.

Jordan can prove through its moderation and success that the Da’esh vision is a lie. Jordan has the ability to show that there is a better future, a better alternative for young Arabs, young Muslims, for all people of this region.

As King Abdullah said in early March, this is “not a Western fight. This is a fight inside of Islam where everybody comes together against these outlaws.” The United States government and people respect the fact that Jordan is at the forefront of that fight.

But even as Jordan leads, it does not stand alone. The United States stands together with Jordan, shoulder to shoulder, as do the 61 other coalition members.

President Obama, during King Abdullah’s visit to Washington last year, said it clearly: “We have very few friends, partners and allies around the world that have been as steadfast and reliable [as Jordan].”

Our commitment to Jordan comes not only in words, but in action.

Jordan is one of the top recipients of U.S. assistance, including security assistance, to better enable Jordan to defend itself.

In February, the United States and Jordan signed a 3-year memorandum of understanding in which the United States underscored its intent to provide $1 billion in assistance each year, which includes $300 million in Foreign Military Financing – FMF. And in 2015 we plan to provide even more – a total of $385 million.

Jordan is also one of only a few countries for which the United States provides loan guarantees, which saves the country hundreds of millions of dollars in interest, while enabling it to achieve critical economic development and reform goals. We are finalizing a third, historic loan guarantee, on top of the $2.25 billion in loan guarantees already provided.

On Sunday, we also signed an agreement donating an additional $25 million in wheat, in recognition of the pressure placed on Jordan by the Syrian refugees – this wheat will be sold in Jordan and the proceeds will fund a critical water infrastructure project.

In addition to foreign military financing, over the last five years, Jordan has received more than $80 million worth of excess U.S. defense equipment, including mine resistant vehicles, air defense missiles, and two C-130 aircraft.

And we have provided almost $180 million in assistance through the Jordan Border Security Program to ensure that our Jordanian partners have the technology, equipment, and training needed to secure its border.

Another example of our commitment to Jordan’s security is Eager Lion – the largest annual military exercise in the Middle East.

Designed to improve the interoperability of our military forces, the 14-day Eager Lion exercise, taking place right now, includes around 10,000 troops from the United States, Jordan, and 16 partner countries – among them Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait. Even before last summer’s operations in Iraq and Syria began, Jordan and U.S. forces were training and planning side-by-side every day.

In all, we have provided over $2 billion in military assistance since 2009. Assistance that allows Jordan to obtain the equipment, material, and training the JAF needs to maintain readiness, modernize its forces, and counter Da’esh.

With Jordan’s leadership and enhanced military capabilities, I am optimistic that 2015 will be a turning point in our sustained fight to defeat extremists.

Already we are making real progress. With coalition help, Iraq security forces have already re-taken thirty percent of the populated territory once occupied by Da’esh.

Meanwhile, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have pushed Da’esh back to the outskirts of Mosul, and secured the important Mosul dam. In Syria, moderate fighters turned back Da’esh at Kobane with coalition help and are even now widening liberated areas.

We have proven that Da’esh is not the invincible force they claim to be.

As of late-April, the coalition had conducted over 3,100 airstrikes – 1,800 in Iraq and 1,300 in Syria. As a result, Da’esh cannot control the territory it used to control; it cannot concentrate forces on the battlefield the way they used to concentrate; it cannot communicate the way it used to communicate, it cannot move the way they used to be able to move, or collect money the way they used to collect. Slowly but steadily, Da’esh’s stranglehold is ending. We are forcing them to change tactics.

Jordan’s leadership again has been critical: participating in over 325 sorties against Da’esh targets, its pilots have flown more than all other regional coalition partners combined.

Body counts– especially by themselves – are not a good measure of success in a war. But Da’esh leaders have perhaps the lowest life expectancy on earth. One thing should be clear already to foreign fighters: if you go to Syria or Iraq, don’t count on returning…ever.

And more and more fighters are becoming disillusioned by Da’esh’s false promises. Young men go, thinking they will fight the Assad regime or Iranians, but instead find themselves cooking and cleaning – or worse, forced to murder innocent civilians who, incidentally, are often Sunni Arabs.

Our ability to degrade and destroy Da’esh is going to increase further as the United States and the coalition intensify the training and equipping of local moderate forces that can take the fight to Da’esh on the ground and liberate their own homes.

This means re-training and re-equipping the Iraqi Security Forces, and assisting the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Pershmerga.

So far, U.S. and coalition forces have trained two Iraqi Army brigades – 4,000 troops – and have three more brigades underway at five training sites. On April 14, in a joint statement with Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi, President Obama pledged continued U.S. support to Iraqi Security Forces and to tribal engagement initiatives.

As Prime Minister Abadi has stated, it is vital that Iraqi Sunnis, working side-by-side with Iraqi Security Forces, liberate Sunni-majority areas from Da’esh.

So the President welcomed the Iraqi government decision to supply thousands of rifles and other equipment to tribal fighters in Anbar. Thousands of Sunni tribal fighters across Iraq have been mobilized. Off the battlefield, Sunnis in Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq express genuine and deeply felt grievances that must be addressed so they can participate fully in the future of their country.

In the same joint statement in April, Prime Minister Abadi outlined his vision for a more decentralized model of governance, as called for under the constitution of Iraq, which will empower local Sunni and other minority communities. The Council of Ministers has approved a National Guard bill, currently before the Iraqi parliament, that will augment a restructured, multi-sect and multi-ethnic federal security force.

Finally, in Syria, where we do not have the same type of organized ground forces to work with, we are helping to stand up a train and equip program that will produce 5,000 Syrian opposition members a year, who are prepared to take the fight to Da’esh in their own territory. Our partners in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan have agreed to host these training facilities.

I have said a great deal about airstrikes and training, but the fight against extremism is much more than a military struggle.

We need to understand who is – or could become – a Da’esh supporter.

Foreign fighters who travel to Syria and Iraq to fight for Da’esh come from all walks of life – rich and poor, secular and religious, including many who have virtually no understanding of Islam. They also come from as many as 100 countries, including the United States.

Some experts cite poverty or socio-economic exclusion as an explanation for why young people join Da’esh. Certainly, but that cannot be the only reason. We know of educated, wealthy people who have joined Da’esh, Al Qaeda, and other extremist groups.

Religious motivations also seem an insufficient explanation. We know that Da’esh is not a true representation of Islam, and we have found that many recruits to Da’esh are not particularly religious – in fact they are more likely to have been criminals in their past lives.

So one of the tasks still before us is to better understand why and how a small proportion of Jordanians, Americans, Europeans, and others believe the lies that Da’esh peddles and become terrorists themselves.

King Abdullah laid out the task when he said “Humanity must arm itself with ideas, with justice, and with economic and social inclusion.”

We need to take every step available to immunize today’s youth from Da’esh’s lies.

As we know, Da’esh’s lies can be alluring to some: they offer the false promise of giving meaning to one’s life, the false promise of recognition, the very false promise of duty to one’s people or faith.

Parents, teachers, religious leaders, officials all play a role in ensuring that the pathways to extremism are severed.

It means giving young people more and better opportunities to work, so they can have a positive impact on society. It means empowering young people with critical thinking skills so they are ready to reject extremists’ lies. Schools need to teach students to think, not just memorize and repeat back what they have heard. Thoughtless acceptance and repetition is exactly what Da’esh is counting on to spread its warped ideology.

And it means turning off – or inoculating young people against – extremist recruiters’ best hiring tools, whether online, in mosques, or in prisons.

The internet, in particular, is a blank canvas. It can convey the highest ideals and best aspirations of society, but it is also a platform for extremists to make their false promises sound reasonable or even alluring. The internet is a fact of life – and the United States places a high premium on freedom of expression – but we must watch more carefully and confront those recruiting online.

It is critical that we not let our battle against extremism undermine efforts to make our societies more tolerant and our governments more representative and responsive to the people. That would only hand Da’esh a backdoor victory.

The United States learned this lesson after the attacks in New York and Washington on 9/11. In our rush to respond to a very real set of threats, our government engaged in practices that contradicted our values.

We must maintain our ideals and momentum to improve our societies.

In Jordan, King Abdullah has called reform a “strategic choice” and said that he will not permit regional instability and the war against Da’esh to de-rail reform.

In the long run, reform – as much as bombs dropped on terrorist targets – will help defeat Da’esh and other extremists.

For instance, a vibrant and free media is crucial to exposing Da’esh lies. Reporters and online activists need the freedom to report the truth – about Da’esh, but also about their leaders’ successes and failures. Traditional and social media should be places of free and open debate; Da’esh cannot win in a free and open debate.

And while extremists peddle their wares online, the Internet is also a place where their deceit becomes apparent; pictures, videos, and tweets about Da’esh executions and other abuses make clear to the world who and what these criminals really are.

A fair judiciary, meanwhile, draws the starkest distinction between a state governed by the rule of law, and a state governed by arbitrary violence and force. Citizens need to know they will be treated justly. And while terrorists should be tried as terrorists, simple critics and journalists should not.

Finally, responsive, representative government – as envisioned by King Abdullah – will ensure that Jordanians are owners of their country’s politics and government. As President Obama has underscored, it is not enough to build defense capabilities against external threats; instead, the challenge is how to convince Sunni youth that they’ve got something other than [Da’esh] to choose from.

I have spoken a great deal about Da’esh and other extremists. But terror groups do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they the only security challenge for Jordan, the United States, and the region.

Terrorists feed off of instability. They attempt to justify their actions by pointing to long running grievances, even if they offer zero solutions to the genuine problems in the region.

Let us be clear. Da’esh has done nothing for the Palestinian cause. At Yarmouk Camp, they have shown their disregard for Palestinian lives, just like any others.

And Da’esh offers no solution to the challenge posed by Iran or the Assad regime, other than a bloody sectarian war that would engulf the region and world. Yet the lack of solutions to these broader regional challenges all aid Da’esh because they create instability and despair that extremists need to survive.

So, even as we fight Da’esh militarily and ideologically, we cannot turn away from the other challenges before us.

We need to maintain and increase the pressure for a negotiated transition from Assad’s rule to a legitimate, government in Syria.

Having murdered over 200,000 of his own citizens, Assad long ago lost all legitimacy. Videos of barrel bombs landing among unarmed civilians, stories of children denied food and medicine in besieged areas, or the thousands of pictures of emaciated prisoners shot in the head, are proof enough of its inhuman cruelty.

But we know that Assad is not alone – aiding him are Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. Iran continues to play a destructive role in the region. We see that every day in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, and in Yemen.

Seeking a deal to constrain Iran’s ability to obtain a nuclear weapon — a deal that will benefit every country in the region — does not mean that we will turn a blind eye to Iran’s attempts to destabilize the region, lighting the fires of Sunni-Shia conflict, and empowering proxies.

Finally, it is impossible to talk about Jordanian and regional security without addressing the goal of a comprehensive and just Middle East Peace. The United States remains committed to working together with all parties to achieve a negotiated, just and fair solution.

Peace will empower moderates and demonstrate that dialogue and compromise produce better results than demagoguery and terror.

We will hold all parties to their words. As White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough recently stated: “We will look to the next Israeli government to match words with actions and policies that demonstrate a genuine commitment to a two-state solution.” But we understand that the status quo is unsustainable and that settlements are illegitimate.

King Abdullah has battled constantly for a fair and dignified resolution of this conflict and we agree that a two-state solution is the only path to peace.

We cannot allow our dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs to cause us to abandon our efforts. With the formation of a new Israeli government, I am confident that Secretary Kerry will continue his endeavors to create an environment that is conducive to negotiations. But the United States cannot want this more than the parties involved.

In conclusion, the United States and Jordan face threats that are dynamic and determined – Da’esh first and foremost among extremist groups, but also Assad’s brutality, Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism, and the despair of almost 50 years of occupation.

But we face these threats together. As President Obama recently stressed, “the U.S.’s core interests in the region are not oil, are not territorial. … Our core interests are that everybody is living in peace, that it is orderly, that our allies are not being attacked, that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements aren’t taking place. Our interests in this sense are really just making sure that the region is working.”

The region works when a country like Jordan prospers and modernizes. While the road ahead to defeat Da’esh, and accomplish our other vital regional security objectives, will be neither easy nor short, I am optimistic that we will prevail, in no small part because of the ability of the Jordanian people and its leadership to take up this challenge.

Thank you very much.