Former Jordanian counterterrorism chief killed in Jordan

Jordan has been a key pillar of counter-terrorism efforts in the region. Reports indicate Maj. Gen. Habes Al-Hanini was a key figure in the struggle against extremist groups.

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October 24, 2018 13:20
4 minute read.
A protester holds up a Jordanian national flag during a protest in Amman, Jordan June 4, 2018.

A protester holds up a Jordanian national flag during a protest in Amman, Jordan June 4, 2018.. (photo credit: MOHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS)

 
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The former head of counterterrorism in Jordan was murdered on Tuesday in Madaba, a city near Amman. According to local reports, retired Maj.-Gen. Habis al-Hanini was shot by a gunman in front of his house in Madaba. Al-Hanini played a pivotal role in confronting terrorism and extremism in Jordan, which has been a key ally of the US in the war on al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

Police formed a special investigative team from the Directorate of Public Security and General Intelligence Department (GID) to find the suspects. On Wednesday morning, rumors circulated that a suspect had been detained and local websites said he had planned “for a while to kill Major General Al-Hanini because he believed he was behind his arrest in Russia.” The Jordan Times claimed the suspect was “a man said to be [a follower of] Salafist takfiri ideology.” Takfiri ideology refers to Sunni jihadists, such as ISIS members.

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Police spokesman Amer Sartawi initially downplayed reports of an arrest. “We are investigating the incident and following up on every lead. We will notify the public about the latest developments regarding this shooting incident.” The spokesman indicated that the killing might have been personal because the suspect had argued with the retired officer a week ago. However, according to Petra, Jordan’s News Agency, an arrest was made and the shooter said he planned to kill the major general because he had been arrested, confirming the Russia story.

Ali Younes at Al Jazeera wrote that Al-Hanini, 56, was shot three times in the chest and pronounced dead at Al-Nadeem Hospital in Madaba. In Jordan, locals have been sharing images of the former security chief online, but officials have sought to downplay rumors about the motive for the murder. A senior Jordanian intelligence officer spoke to Al Jazeera and said Al-Hanini’s death “was a tragic loss to Jordan and the counterterrorism community around the world.”

Younes also quoted a CIA analyst who described Al-Hanini as “extremely smart” and said he “really understood the underpinning of why individuals join extremist groups.”

Hanini retired from the GID, often known locally as the mukhabarat, over a year ago and had served as the head of the kingdom’s elite anti-terrorism unit. Younes said Al-Hanini was also known by the name “Abu Haytham” and was a famed intelligence officer in Jordan’s war on terrorism over the years.

IN HIS book, BLACK FLAGS: The Rise of ISIS, author Joby Warrick refers to Abu Haytham as an officer renowned for battling extremism. “He had famously broken some of the group’s top operatives in interrogation. [Abu Musab] Zarqawi himself had taken several turns in Abu Haytham’s holding cell.”

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According to Warrick, Abu Haytham had “tried to alter Zarqawi’s path” in 1999 when the extremist was in a Jordanian prison. Instead, Zarqawi left Jordan for Afghanistan and came to lead al-Qaeda in Iraq. Abu Haytham had been key in fighting al-Qaeda during the years after the terrorist group’s coordinated attacks on three hotels in Amman in 2005 killed 60 people and killed more than 100 others. Abu Haytham had been a captain in 2005 during the attacks and helped investigate them. According to this account, the Jordanian counter-terrorism chief provided the Americans with the intelligence that helped eliminate Zarqawi in 2006.

Jordan is a key link in counter-terrorism strategy and a close ally of the United States. The US State Department’s Antiterrorism Assistance program opened a Jordan Gendarmerie Training Academy near Amman in March. “The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a pillar of regional stability,” a press release said at the time, noting that the US provides key support for Jordan’s efforts. The Center for American Progress describes Jordan as one of America’s closest anti-terrorism allies and said the Kingdom hosted 2,800 US military personnel in 2017. Al-Hanini was key to this alliance.

Jordan’s GID was criticized by Human Rights Watch in 2006 for carrying out “waves of arrests of political dissidents, mostly Islamists, in response to alleged plots.” But Jordanians say they have become stronger in the face of terror and more unified in recent years due to the extremist threat, according to a recent piece in The Jordan Times.

ISIS and other extremist groups have carried out several attacks in recent years. If the killing of Al-Hanini turns out to be a terrorist attack, it will be the most high-profile killing in recent decades. In June 2016, terrorists attacked a GID post in the Baqa’a refugee camp. In August, an improvised explosive killed a Jordanian policeman in Fuheis. Days later the counter-terrorism unit that Al-Hanini played a key role in strengthening, assaulted a building held by the terrorists in Salt, engaging in a gun battle that left three extremists dead and four members of the security forces, including Cpl. Hisham al-Aqarbeh, from the GID’s anti-terrorism unit.

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