Mixing Action and Ideology
Jordanian Brig. Gen. Aref Al-Zaben has spent three decades combating terrorism
Brig. Gen. Aref Al-Zaben likes to express a sentiment attributed to His Majesty King Abdullah II Bin Al-Hussein of Jordan: Terrorists have formed networks to promote murder and mayhem around the world, yet special operations forces, troops specially trained to confront those very terrorists, often lack a corresponding unifying principle.
“We have to understand that there is a concept called international terrorism, but we as units of special operations all over the world have not been internationally cooperative until now. The bad guys are always working with each other, always coordinating. But the good guys were not working together,” King Abdullah said.
“Our philosophy in Jordan is to share everything we have with our brothers and friends in the Middle East region and beyond. At the end of the day, if our partners are strong, we are strong.”
Gen. Al-Zaben has spent a career exemplifying that philosophy.Immersed in counterterrorism since the 1980s, when he graduated from the Royal Jordanian Military Academy, the general rose to command Jordan’s elite 71st Counter Terrorism Battalion. The multilingual Al-Zaben served proudly in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force, winning the hearts and minds of Afghans by promoting a vision of Islam that rejects terrorism and hatred.
For the general’s outstanding service, U.S. Navy Adm. William McRaven awarded him the United States Special Operations Command Medal in 2012.
Today he’s best known as military commandant and chief executive officer of the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC), where he helps train forces from around the world in a 6-year-old military complex carved from an old stone quarry outside Amman.
The center offers terrain, targets and tools to hone the skills of special operations and other Soldiers, including the fuselage of an Airbus A300 passenger liner to practice hostage rescue and a village of 67 buildings to simulate urban commando assaults. KASOTC’s Annual Warrior Competition, held in the spring before the peak heat of summer, attracts elite troops from all over the world.
“The center is one of the most important training centers globally, but all Jordanian security services can receive training at the center to enhance their capacity,” the general said. “We also receive international forces from all Arab countries as well as from Europe, America, Asia and Africa.”
Promoted by Gen. Al-Zaben, lessons in ideological security complement more aggressive traditional training of the military. Central to this ideological debate is the Amman Message launched by King Abdullah II in 2004 with the goal of correcting misrepresentations of Islam at the hands of self-serving terrorists.
When he served in Afghanistan, Al-Zaben accompanied imams from village to village as they promoted a message of peace and nonviolence. What his men learned on the ideological battlefields of Afghanistan is now taught back at KASOTC.
“You need to fight the ideology with the ideology,” the general said in an interview with an American reporter in early 2015. “When we’re talking about the nonkinetic, we’re talking about the lectures, the ideology and how to counter the ideology,” he said. “It’s a package.”
The general’s advancement of the theme of counterterrorism took him to the FIKR 13 conference in Morocco in December 2014. He called for the creation of a regional Arab strategy to thwart terrorism, mentioning how the 2005 terrorist bomb attack in downtown Amman that claimed the lives of 63 innocents was planned in distant Herat, Afghanistan.
“At the security level, we should build an Arab force that’s able to counter various challenges in our region equivalent to the African peacekeeping forces responsible for security issues in the Horn of Africa,” he told regional security leaders.
Based on the example in Syria, Da’ish arose on the ruins of persecution, offering vulnerable minds psychological, social and ideological explanations to justify violent extremism, the general said. He noted that Jordan provides no such fertile ground for Da’ish and that the Jordanian people stand united behind the Army in the fight against terrorism.
“I can say that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is ready to respond by all means if anyone tries to undermine the security and stability of the kingdom. Jordan and its society will be a solid rock for the international coalition against terrorism,” he said. “We are part of the civilized international community. Religious and moral duty requires us to address these killers, especially when they try to distort the tolerant message of Islam to justify their abhorrent crimes.”