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Elite Anti-Terror Squads From Around the World Battle it Out at Jordan’s Annual Warrior Competition

Soldiers compete in challenges such as the Airbus Seizure and 3-Gun Gauntlet at the contest in Jordan, which lies at the heart of the Middle East’s multiple conflicts and faces rising instability at home.
Photo de Harriet Salem

Snipers scramble up the dirt verge, take position, and aim. The sharp crack of automatic gunfire echoes through the desert valley, dust clouds flaring from the kickback. Below, soldiers dash through the streets of sandstone buildings. Shouts of "Allahu Akbar" ring out as the men burst into the building. Moments later they emerge, heaving a human-shaped weight on their shoulders.

The hostage release is not for real; it's a staged scenario in a fake desert cityscape, part of the four-day Annual Warrior Competition in Jordan. The competition brings together elite anti-terrorism squads from around the world in an attempt to build friendships and share knowledge, while the soldiers and officers test their skills.

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Held at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center on the outskirts of Amman, 38 teams from 18 countries including the United States, Afghanistan, Russia, Iraq, and China compete in theatrically-titled events such as the "High Angel Drive-By" and the "3-Gun Gauntlet," before reaching the grand finale, the "King's Challenge."

In the "Airbus Seizure," teams surround a grounded aircraft before storming it to take down militants and rescue hostages. Later, they scramble under nets, up ladders and over walls to reach sniper positions and hit targets, winning points for speed and accuracy in the "Desert Stress Shoot."

While the competition is pure sportsmanship, many of the events the teams compete in mimic deadly real-life scenarios that special units must be prepared for; perhaps none more so than host country Jordan.

A Palestinian and Chechen Russian contestant hang out together between events. Photo by Harriet Salem

Neighbored by Syria and Iraq, the Hashemite Kingdom has spent more than a decade with bloody sectarian war on its doorstep. There are few countries to which the threat of the Islamic State (IS) is a closer and more immediate threat, and counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency training is high up on the country's defense agenda.

'For Jordan this problem (the Islamic State) is not just a theoretical, it's existential, it's a knock at the door that's getting louder.'

In November 2014 IS, which has long controlled cross-border trade from Amman to Baghdad, surged out of its heartland in Iraq's Anbar province to attack six control posts across the Jordanian border. Last month, to the south, the final crossing from Jordan into Syria was declared indefinitely closed after Free Syrian Army rebels briefly supported by al Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, seized the post.

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A Jordanian Special Force unit prepare to storm a building at the Annual Warrior Competition. Photo by Harriet Salem

"For Jordan this problem [the Islamic State] is not just a theoretical, it's existential, it's a knock at the door that's getting louder," Patrick Skinner, special project manager at security intelligence consultancy Soufan Group, told VICE News. "Even where it's not IS at their border, it's militant groups where we have to use the word 'moderate" in quotation marks."

Standing at the sideline of a firing range where his team are competing in the "Desert Shoot Stress" event, Malik Khalab Al-Alwan, a lieutenant in the Jordanian Armed Forces, said that fighting IS and other jihadi groups was a hot topic among the contestants. "There is a lot of talk about these groups," he told VICE News. "They are fake Muslims using Islam as a cover for their actions, and [they are] a common enemy."

Related: Jordan executes two militants and vows 'earth-shaking' response to Islamic State. Read more here.

Lieutenant Malik Khalab Al-Alwan watched the teams competing. Photo by Harriet Salem

Alwan's elite unit has served in conflict and disaster zones across the world including in Afghanistan, Congo, and Haiti, but his men are now increasingly being trained to deal with threats closer to home. Events such as these are a chance to show off their training, but are also an important opportunity to learn and share experiences with peers in other countries.

"We live in a hotspot area, in all countries around us there has been revolution and wars," said the lieutenant. "There is a lot of experience… we see what is going on and prepare for how to counter it."

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A sniper from the Malaysian team takes aim during the "Desert Shoot Stress" event. Photo by Harriet Salem 

So far, direct spillover from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq has for the most part been swiftly repelled by the Jordanian Armed Forces. Security on Jordan's borders has been beefed up; cameras and hundreds of extra military personnel now monitor the hinterlands that stretch from the crossing into IS territory.

Yet while Jordan may have bolstered its defenses against external threat, within its borders internal pressures are mounting.

Two waves of refugees to Jordan have struck both ends of the country's economy. Wealthy Iraqis have driven real estate prices up, while poorer arrivals who came later, mainly from Syria, have forced wages down. Syrian and Iraqi refugees are now estimated to account for a fifth of Jordan's population and the remainder is split between Jordanians of tribal origin and Palestinians; the latter a legacy of another unresolved and simmering conflict on the country's borders. The growth in poverty and decrease in opportunities coupled with a crisis of national identity has created a real and growing risk of internal instability.

Related: Syrian refugees are stuck at the border with Jordan and can't get out. Read more here.

"It's an elephant in the room," said Skinner. "Jordan has been on the verge of crisis for a long time. On paper they're in a lot of trouble, they're squeezed between Syria and Iraq, they have longstanding water problems, a huge number of refugees. Something's got to give."

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Jordan's ability to weather the surrounding storms has to a large extent depended on outside support. Among the country's most important allies are Saudi Arabia and the US, both of which have poured billions over recent years into bolstering Jordan's economy and armed forces.

In the 2014 fiscal year the US alone gave $660 million in financial aid to Jordan, around two-thirds of which were spent on modernizing the country's military. This year the State Department announced the figure is set to increase to $1 billion in recognition of "Jordan's increased immediate needs resulting from regional unrest," and its position at the "forefront of the fight against ISIL [an alternative acronym for IS] and other extremist ideology and terrorism."

American marines practice shooting at the contest. The US is one of Jordan's closest allies. Photo by Harriet Salem

Despite the proximity of the threat, Jordan must be calculated in its response. The country's predominantly Sunni population has an inherent tendency to sympathize with their Syrian and Iraqi counterparts. Last summer rallies in support of IS were held in several east bank towns including Maan and Zarqa. Both are tribal areas that would typically be considered a stalwart of support for the monarchy, but poverty and perceived neglect has fueled anger at the regime.

While IS supporters in Jordan are a small minority in a country of nearly 6.5 million, the number of members of the the hardline Sunni Salafist jihadi movement is thought to have doubled to around 9,000 since the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. The protests are a stark reminder that the Hashemite Kingdom's monarchy must tread carefully to avoid fanning the flames of radical sentiment.

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Six Jordanian special units from the military and police competed at this year's competition. Photo by Harriet Salem

National unity in the face of a common enemy was a theme authorities were keen to emphasize at this year's Warrior Competition. Speaking at the game's flamboyant opening ceremony, Major General Hani Manaser, Chief of Operations Staff in the Jordanian Armed Forces, paid tribute to Moaz al Kasasbeh, a pilot captured by IS and apparently burned alive earlier this year. He called for "Jordanians from all walks of life" to rally around the hero's death.

In the backdrop, elite Jordanian paratroopers rappelled from helicopters as a canine unit stood to attention. "Some people may question, why [do] we have a Warrior Competition?" he continued. "The simple answer is, we are celebrating the warrior spirit, the camaraderie that grows within those who suffer together to protect their homelands and their people."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem