The following is a script from “The King” which aired on Sept. 25, 2016. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Nicole Young, Amjad Tadros and Katie Kerbstat, producers.
The bombs in New York and New Jersey last week brought the specter of terror home, again. It seems no country is safe, but there is one that is beating fearsome odds. ISIS burned through Syria and Iraq until it hit a firewall, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The king, Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, is holding the front and sheltering millions of refugees despite his struggling economy, no oil wealth and precious little water. If the king can keep his balance, Jordan may prove that an Arab state can remain peaceful, tolerant, and modern. The arsonists torching the Middle East hope to see him fail.
This is not war. These are Jordanian forces sharpening theiredge on a make-believe town. Some of their weapons are antique. Attack helicopters designed originally for Vietnam. Surplus-armored cars that they found online. Jordan can’t afford the arsenals of its neighbors. Skill is its advantage. And, to hone it, they switched in training from blanks to live ammunition.
This is the soldier who ordered the switch. He’s the former head of Special Forces. He is Abdullah II, the king of Jordan.
Why live ammo we shouted? “Everyone uses blanks, makes no sense,” he yelled. There’s no sense in anything less than lethal because no king of Jordan has ever known peace.
Scott Pelley: This is the mosque that you built in honor of your father….
King Abdullah II: Yeah.
Abdullah became king in 1999 on the death of his father who ruled 47 years. We met the 54-year-old at his palace in Amman. He knows ISIS by its Arabic acronym, Daesh. But whatever you call it, he says the West doesn’t realize it’s in a Third World War.
King Abdullah II: I think this is the challenge that we’ve had over the past several years where people look at, you know, is it Iraq this year or Syria next year? Well, what about Libya? What about-- Boko Haram or Shabaab in Africa? We have to look at it from a global perspective.
Scott Pelley: All of these things need to be attacked at the same time. You can’t concentrate on Syria one year and then deal with Boko Haram in another?
King Abdullah II: Well, the prime example, it’s as you see certain military successes in Syria and Iraq against Daesh, the leadership, they’re telling their fighters either, “Don’t come to Syria or Iraq,” or moving their command structure to Libya. And so are we going to wait to get our act together to concentrate on Libya? And then, you know, do we wait a year or two to start helping the Africans deal with Boko Haram or Shabaab? So we’ve got to get ahead of the curve because they’re reacting much quicker than we are.
Scott Pelley: The American strategy in Syria and Iraq, as you know, is to use U.S. air power and to train forces on the ground to fight the battle. That has not worked. How do you move forward from here?
King Abdullah II: I think the problem with the West is they see a border between Syria and Iraq. Daesh does not. And this has been a frustration, I think, for a few of us in this area with our Western coalition partners, for several years. You know, the lawyers get into the act and say, “But there’s an international border.” And we say, “For God’s sake, ISIS doesn’t work that way.” So if you’re looking at it and want to play the game by your rules, knowing that the enemy doesn’t, we’re not going to win this.
Jordan says it has flown more than 1,000 missions against ISIS in Syria in coordination with the U.S. last year, pilot Muath Kasasbeh was captured. ISIS put him in a cage and made a video as they burned him alive. At the time, Abdullah had two terrorists in jail.
Scott Pelley: Within hours of that video you hanged two convicted terrorists here in Jordan. What does that tell us about you?
King Abdullah II: I think they had to understand that there was no messing around with Jordan. And a lot of those that were involved in killing Muath in that video and those that were responsible for detaining him and processing him through his captivity have been taken down since.
He’s taking down each and every one in the video.
Scott Pelley: You’re going to hunt them down.
King Abdullah II: They have been hunted down, quite a lot of them, and those that are still involved if it takes us another 50 years we will get them.
Those are the rules of his neighborhood. Abdullah reigns over a desert the size of Indiana. To his west, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, north, Syria’s civil war, east, ISIS in Iraq, and south, severe fundamentalist Islam in Saudi Arabia.
It is a collision of tribes and religions not confined by borders. Drawn with a British T-square and crossed by American tanks. In 1990, King Hussein warned George Bush to stay out of Iraq. In 2003, the son of the king gave the son of the president the same advice.
Scott Pelley: It seems like American presidents think they know this region better than you.
King Abdullah II: They seem to understand us better than we know each other. And as a result you can see the train on the track coming to the, to the wreck and we do advise that, if we keep going that way, it’s pretty obvious to some of us what’s going to happen. And you know, you can only express your views as much and as emotionally as you can.
Scott Pelley: You’re frustrated by that.
King Abdullah II: The ethnic makeup of the region is pretty glaringly obvious for us that live in the region, that advisers and think tanks in the West seem to know us better than we supposedly know ourselves. I mean, Syria, when it started, everybody was saying six months. And I said, “Look, you know, if you’re saying six months, I’m saying six years.” We’re in for the long haul, not only in Syria and Iraq, but for the whole region and for the world, unfortunately.
Scott Pelley: But isn’t there gonna have to be a Western army of some kind on the ground in order to take the territory?
King Abdullah II: Enablers. Enablers. Because, at the end of the day, you can’t have Western troops walking down the street of Syrian cities and villages. At the end of the day, you need the Syrians to be able to do that.
We were on the Syrian border in 2014 as the king’s soldiers reached out to refugees. He welcomed them even though there were already more than two million Palestinian refugees who’ve been in Jordan for decades.
Scott Pelley: Why did you allow nearly a million and a half Syrians to come into your country?
King Abdullah II: Well we really didn’t have much choice. I mean they were flooding across the border, being shot by the Syrian regime. And you know Jordan has always been a place that opens it arms to refugees from many countries, unfortunately. But then it got to a point where, you know, we’re now at 20 percent increase of our population. And the huge burden on our country we’re in dire straits.
Most of them are in Jordanian towns, looking for work, driving up rents, 160,000 Syrian kids are in Jordan’s schools.
Scott Pelley: What’s the breaking point for your people?
King Abdullah II: About a year or two years ago. Unemployment is skyrocketing. Our health sector is saturated. Our schools are really going through difficult times. It’s extremely, extremely difficult. And Jordanians are just have had it up to here. I mean we just can’t take it anymore.
They’ve had it with unemployment near 15 percent. And, that’s the “official” rate. It’s probably higher. There are more than nine million people living in Jordan, and half are under the age of 24.
King Abdullah II: If anything keeps me up at night, it’s giving the younger generation an opportunity at life. And on the flip side of that, if radicalization is going to imbed itself anywhere in the world or in this region it’s going to be disenfranchised youth. And so if young people in this country are not going to have an opportunity because of the pressure on the economy again, that’s my concern.
He showed us his concern at a multimillion dollar campus built to be his new military headquarters. The king, who drives his own car by the way, took this campus away from the generals and converted it to a citadel of software—a business park for technology. Imagine these logos on the Pentagon.
King Abdullah II: I believe the world has a stake in the Jordanian economy, because we are the success story of stability in the region. If there wasn’t a Jordan, we would have had to have created one. So I think the story of Jordan is bigger than the borders of our country.
His borders began in 1916 when Abdullah’s great-great grandfather led the revolt depicted in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia.” The king traces his bloodline directly to the Prophet Muhammad. Islamic extremists, he told us, are outlaws that the faith has dealt with before.
Scott Pelley: When you do interviews in Arabic on this subject, you call ISIS the Khawarij. What does that mean?
King Abdullah II: Well in Islam us traditional Muslims it is not our right to call people heretics. God decides at the end of the day. The jihadists take it upon themselves to call the rest of us heretics, us Muslims, you’re in a completely different and worse category. And so in our traditional history, the outlaws, the Khawarij, appeared, really, in the early part of Islam.
Scott Pelley: They were a sect that splintered from Islam in the first century.
King Abdullah II: Yes. And they did horrible atrocities. And as a result the Muslim communities rose up against them and exterminate them. So they appear throughout history from time to time. And they always meet their end. But as extremists throughout all of our religions you know, they appear from time to time.
Scott Pelley: Well, in the United States, many people ask, “What has gone wrong with Islam?”
King Abdullah II: Well, so if you look at the spectrum and understand that 90 percent of us are traditionalists and have an affinity for Christianity, Judaism, I mean we’re all the three monotheistic religions, us being the younger one, and that our faith decrees the understanding of Judaism and Christianity, then we understand where we all are. It’s that misperception with the takfiri jihadists, that’s where the fight is. And they represent probably two percent of Sunni Islam. That’s where the problem is. And if we’re being pushed into the corner through Islamophobia, that’s where the danger is, where we as allies, are not understood.
Scott Pelley: Your concern is that, if Islamophobia takes even greater hold, Muslims who are not radicalized today will be forced into that corner.
King Abdullah II: Well, they’re going to feel isolated. They’re going to feel marginalized. They’re going to feel that, victimized. Which is exactly what ISIS, al-Qaeda want. I mean, you know, why fly two aircrafts into the Twin Towers in New York? It’s to create hatred from the West towards Islam so that you can panic the majority of Muslims to feel that they’re victimized and push them over into the extremist camp.
Pressure on the king is rising. That explosion, an ISIS bomb in June, killed seven Jordanian soldiers. Abdullah closed the Syrian border. In 2014, it looked like this.
Now, with the crossing closed, only the long arm of the U.N. is lifting aid over the line to nearly 100,000 trapped refugees. Jordan says that ISIS has infiltrated the camp on the Syrian side. But, even so, the kingdom has just agreed to set up food and water distribution for those who are stranded.
After obliterating that mock town, with his former unit, the king whispered to us, “God, I miss my old job.” The crown of a prince was lighter when he only had to deal with ancient armor.
He told the men, “Our equipment and vehicles are lacking. We will develop them as soon as we can.”
“Long live the king!” They yelled. “Long live the king.” You wonder how the kingdom has lived so long with peril on every side. But maybe that’s the key. Treacherous borders are like live rounds in training, they raise the stakes. Jordan endures because the price of failure is much too high.