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Nearly 20 arrested in alleged plot against Jordan’s King Abdullah II

Jordan’s King Abdullah II speaks in Amman on Dec. 10, 2020. (Yousef Allan/AP)

Jordanian authorities on Saturday arrested as many as 20 people and sought to restrain the movement of a former crown prince amid what officials called a threat to the “security and stability” of a country long regarded as a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Prince Hamzeh bin Hussein, the eldest son of the late King Hussein and his American-born fourth wife, Queen Noor, was told to remain at his Amman palace amid an investigation into an alleged plot to unseat his older half brother, King Abdullah II, according to a senior Middle Eastern intelligence official briefed on the events.

The move followed the discovery of what officials described as a complex and far-reaching plot that included at least one other Jordanian royal as well as tribal leaders and members of the country’s political and security establishment. One official cited unspecified evidence of “foreign” backing for the plan.

Biden administration officials were briefed on the arrests, which come at a time of heightened economic and political tension in a country long regarded as a bulwark of stability and an essential partner in U.S.-led counterterrorism operations.

Additional arrests were expected, said the intelligence official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing security sensitivities surrounding the law enforcement operation.

In a formal statement late Saturday, the Jordanian Armed Forces confirmed that multiple arrests had occurred and that Hamzeh had been “asked to cease all movements or activities that could be employed to target Jordan’s security and stability.” The statement said that the former crown prince had not been arrested but that “comprehensive investigations” were underway.

In a video statement late Saturday, Hamzeh denied wrongdoing and said the actions against him were an attempt to silence him for speaking out against corruption in Jordan. In the statement delivered to the BBC by his lawyer, he confirmed that he was “not allowed to go out, to communicate with people or to meet with them, because in the meetings that I had been present in — or on social media relating to visits that I had made — there had been criticism of the government or the king.”

“I am not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance, for the corruption, and for the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years, and has been getting worse by the year,” he said. Hamzeh, whose relations with Abdullah have been strained since his title was stripped from him in 2004, has sparred with his half brother frequently over the years, though mostly in private.

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In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said U.S. officials were closely following the reports and were in touch with Jordanian officials. “King Abdullah is a key partner of the United States, and he has our full support,” Price said.

Hamzeh served as Jordan’s crown prince for four years before the title was transferred to the current monarch’s eldest son, Hussein, in 2004. He has held multiple positions within the monarchy, including in the army, where he holds the rank of brigadier. He commands a loyal following in Amman and, with his trim mustache and checkered headdress, often styles himself after the late King Hussein, a revered figure in Jordan.

The prince was informed of the investigation by Jordanian military officers who arrived at his house with an escort of guards, as arrests were getting underway elsewhere, the intelligence official said. Hamzeh was told to refrain from travel and from posting on social media, the intelligence official said.

It was unclear how close the alleged plotters were to carrying out the supposed plan, or what, exactly, was intended. The intelligence official described the plan as “well-organized” and said some of the plotters appeared to have “foreign ties,” though he did not elaborate on that point.

The arrests of other officials were reported by Jordanian news outlets. Among them was Sharif Hasan, who also is a member of the royal family, and Bassem Awadullah, a former senior official in Jordan’s Royal Hashemite Court. An investment banker and CEO of Tomoh Advisory, a consultant firm based in Dubai, Awadullah had also served as special Jordanian representative to the Saudi government, and held Jordanian and Saudi passports, the intelligence official said.

In Israel, where news of the possible coup plot emerged at the end of the Passover holiday, officials had no immediate comment. But Israel, which has had a peace treaty with Jordan since 1994, considers stability in Amman as vital to Israel’s national interest. The two share Israel’s longest border, and Israel looks to Jordan to provide a buffer against threats from Iran.

Israel’s relations in the Middle East, explained

“If this turns out to have been a serious attempt, it would be of a great deal of concern,” said Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser. “Israel takes the stability of the Hashemite Kingdom extremely seriously. They are a close security relationship.”

Jordan has been hit hard economically by the coronavirus pandemic as well as by the fallout from massive waves of refugees from Syria, its northern neighbor. Abdullah has ruled the country since King Hussein’s death in 1999, and cultivated close ties with a succession of U.S. presidents, while also clashing at times with U.S. officials over Palestinian peace initiatives. In recent years, he sparred with Trump administration officials over plans that would essentially bypass the Palestinians in seeking to redraw the boundaries of a future Palestinian state.

Under the king, the resource-poor kingdom of 10 million has been a major partner in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State and has assisted U.S. forces in security operations around the globe.

Warrick reported from Washington, Hendrix from Jerusalem and Dadouch from Beirut. Shira Rubin in Jerusalem and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.