It was supposed to be a long overdue vacation, away from the dead of Stockholm's freezing winter. Abdullah (not his real name) had traveled to see friends and family in Amman, where he had lived before moving to Sweden and becoming a Swedish citizen. It turned into a nightmare instead. Jordanian security officials detained, tortured and disappeared him for 10 days, holding him in a cold, windowless basement without informing anyone, in apparent punishment for his ties to Jordanian democracy activists abroad. They deported Abdullah only after the Swedish government intervened. Jordanian authorities never charged him.
Jordan's intelligence services have long had a notorious reputation for surveilling, monitoring and punishing Jordanians advocating for any kind of reform in the country, but Abdullah's abuse in February of this year was one of the first signs that they dared to take such harsh measures against activists living abroad. And he was not alone. DAWN has uncovered at least 10 other cases just this year of transnational repression by Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate (GID), which directly reports to King Abdullah II, one of America's closest allies in the Middle East. The GID, which has a dedicated division to spy on Jordanians, has been harassing, intimidating and punishing activists abroad, whose numbers in exile have increased in the face of the country's spiraling domestic repression. Hundreds of teachers, journalists, academics, lawyers and even truck drivers who protested against corruption and government mismanagement have been arrested in recent years. Jordanians abroad thought they had found freedom and space to advocate for change in the kingdom and establish democracy and human rights organizations like the Gathering of Jordan's Sons in Exile and the Democratic Platform.
King Abdullah is terrified of activists abroad because they can say out loud what millions of Jordanians cannot: that they deserve respect for their basic human rights and to be governed by a democracy.
- Sarah Leah Whitson
One would have imagined that after the international uproar over Saudi Arabia's murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, autocratic governments in the Middle East would have realized that the costs of such transnational repression outweighed the gains. But Jordan's government has apparently learned the opposite lesson.
DAWN recently documented the cases of several Jordanian activists targeted abroad by the GID. They are citizens or residents of the United States, Canada, Turkey and Sweden, and we interviewed the activists and their family members and reviewed evidence supporting their claims. DAWN identified two officials at the GID, Raed Samama'ah (known as Abu Walid) and Assem al-Dhmour (known as Abu Hashem), who together with the GID's director, Maj. Gen. Ahmad Husni, supervised the officials involved in these abuses.
These activists described how they have been contacted by GID security agents incessantly pressuring them to quit their pro-democracy efforts in Jordan. The agents have alternately tried to bribe them with money or jobs, or threaten them with prosecution on bogus terrorist-financing charges. The security officials even threatened to retaliate against their family members still in Jordan if they did not stop their activism abroad. According to one Jordanian activist in Canada, one of his own employees based in Toronto, who had no ties to political activism in the kingdom, was arrested in Jordan when visiting for vacation. Since DAWN released its report in late June on Jordan's transnational repression, at least a half dozen other Jordanians have come forward to share their own terrifying experiences dealing with Jordanian intelligence agents, and their fear that their family members at home will suffer as a result.
King Abdullah is terrified of these activists abroad because they can say out loud what millions of Jordanians cannot: that Jordanians deserve respect for their basic human rights and to be governed by a democracy, not an unelected monarch who has broken every single promise he's made to democratize the country. King Abdullah gave eloquent speeches about the new guarantees for free speech and assembly in the Jordanian constitution that he was forced to revise in 2011 in the wake of the Arab uprisings, but then he promptly ignored them. He later amended the constitution again to further concentrate power in his own hands.
No doubt, the Jordanian government will try to spin its abuses using the tired, old claims of unspecified ties to "terrorism," in hopes of deflecting criticism from its chief benefactor in Washington. Jordan is now the second-largest recipient of U.S. military and economic aid, to the annual tune of $1.45 billion. This aid owes overwhelmingly to Jordan's friendly relations with Israel, as well as Jordan's security cooperation with Washington. Jordan's GID works closely with the CIA, sharing intelligence. (The GID also infamously operated as a proxy jailer for the CIA's secret "rendition" program after 9/11, interrogating and likely torturing suspects at its own detention centers.)
For too long, the U.S. government has treated King Abdullah with kid gloves, going along with his public relations mirage as an enlightened reformer.
- Sarah Leah Whitson
Unlike other abusive but oil-rich monarchies in the region like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that rebuff any criticisms from Washington, tiny and aid-dependent Jordan really isn't in a position to push back if the State Department were to insist on meaningful reforms, like ending the use of counterterrorism funding to persecute peaceful activists. The only question is whether the White House is actually committed to such reforms, beyond its superficial USAID funding of various Jordanian organizations—typically backed by the royal court—that pretend to promote independent civil society, democracy and human rights.
For too long, the U.S. government has treated King Abdullah with kid gloves, going along with his public relations mirage as an enlightened reformer. While his agents have been rounding up, detaining and abusing Jordanians in the kingdom, and harassing activists abroad, including in the U.S., the king organized a lavish wedding for his son, the crown prince, in Amman, attended by Jill Biden and other global dignitaries. Congress should recognize that U.S. military and economic support for this absolute monarch represents a far more important gift: political support for his increasingly repressive regime.
If we don't want King Abdullah to subject people here in the U.S. to his brand of Jordanian rule, Congress must act—at the very least, ending its silence, which is perceived as a blessing for his abuses. Congress should also support Jordan's vibrant if long-suffering democracy activists, who alone will be able to pave the path for reforms in a country that could become a model for democracy in the Arab world.