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Jordan Steps Up Fight Against Islamic State

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, greets Jordan's King Abdullah during an honor cordon at the Pentagon, Jan. 30, 2017.

As the Trump administration formulates its strategy on combating the Islamic State group, key U.S. ally Jordan appears to be stepping up its own fight against IS, according to media reports and analysts.

In what analysts say may signal a more aggressive plan against IS, Jordanian drones conducted several strikes against IS-affiliated targets in southern Syria during the past week. The Jordanian news agency Petra said the attacks destroyed ammunition warehouses, barracks and a facility that manufactured booby-trap weapons.

It was the first time since 2015 that Jordan — a partner in the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic extremist group — conducted air attacks on IS inside Syria. The aerial offensive came hours before U.S. President Donald Trump met with Jordan's King Abdullah in Washington.

The White House said the two leaders discussed the Syrian crisis. Abdullah also met with Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, as well as several U.S. lawmakers.

Increase in IS terrorism worries Jordan

A Jordanian army statement said the strikes represent a continuation of the country's effort to eradicate IS-affiliated groups in southern Syria near the Jordanian border. Several fighters tied to IS were killed or wounded in the operation, the government-owned newspaper Jordan Times reported.

Jordanian officials are said to have become increasingly concerned by terrorist activities of the IS-affiliated Khalid bin Walid Army in southern Syria.

Operating near the Yarmouk Basin on the Israeli-Syrian border, the group is an umbrella organization of Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, the Islamic Muthanna Movement, and the Army of Jihad — terrorist cells spun off from al-Qaida that attack both Syrian forces and Syrian rebels.

"Jordan is wary of this group," said Marawan Shihadeh, a Jordanian expert in terrorism and radical Islamic groups. "We heard this from the Jordanian army chief."

Terror cells close to Jordan's border

In an interview with BBC Arabic in December, Mohamad Fraihat, the Jordanian army chief, said the Walid Army is well-equipped and has tanks as well as anti-aircraft weapons. Analysts say its ranks number around 1,000 fighters.

"In some areas, it is a kilometer away from our borders. … We are dealing with it very carefully." Fraihat said.

The Jordanian strikes come as IS is losing ground in northern Syria and Iraq. Seeking to regroup elsewhere, IS could be eying southern Syria for expansion, analysts say.

“Jordan is worried that the heavy fight against IS in northern and western Syria might push the group down south, close to the Jordanian border,” analyst Shihadeh said.

Drones deliver a message

Last week's drone strikes may be a message to the new administration in Washington that Jordan is serious about fighting IS, and has the capability to do it. The kingdom is a close ally of the U.S in fighting IS, which burned alive a Jordanian pilot whose plane crashed in extremist-controlled territory two years ago.

The notorious public execution of the pilot occurred in Syria, but IS also has orchestrated terror attacks inside Jordan. The extremists claimed responsibility for a car bombing in June 2016 near the Syrian border that killed six border guards and wounded 14.

In December, 10 police officers were killed and over 30 were wounded in two days of armed clashes with an IS cell in southern Jordan.