Yesterday, November 9, a series of explosions at international hotels in the Jordanian capital appears to have claimed 50-60 lives and wounded over 100. The Grand Hyatt, Radisson SAS and Days Inn hotels were struck, as the Radisson was hosting a wedding reception with some 300 guests. Early reports suggest that the bombs were detonated by suicide bombers walking among the guests. A fourth hotel, the Meridian, was also targeted, judging from the discovery of a car with explosives found in the parking lot.
The targeting and modus operandi of the bombings immediately led security authorities to suspect al-Qaeda involvement. The target rich environment of the international hotels—filled with American, British and Iraqi “collaborationist” officials and, in the case of the Radisson SAS, a popular lodging for Israeli tourists—made them an obvious choice. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was an immediate suspect, given the methodology of walk-in suicide bombers, the organization of a series of coordinated attacks, and for his known animosity toward Jordan. The following morning, al-Qaeda in Iraq was quick to claim the attacks. The text (translated by Jamestown) of the posting by al-Zarqawi’s media chief, Abu Maysara, explained the action:
“In these blessed times, where the lions of monotheism are contending against the tyranny of Crusader unbelief and Shi’ite treachery in the Land of the Two Rivers [Iraq] … a squadron of the lions of the finest and noblest of battalions, the Battalion of the al-Bara bin Malik, coming in aid to its faith and to raise the word of monotheism, undertook a new raid on some of the dens implanted in the land of the Muslims in Amman. After studying the targets and keeping them under surveillance, the choice of site for the operations to be carried out was made on some hotels which the Jordanian tyrant has made into the back garden for the enemies of the Faith—the Jews and Crusaders, a filthy resort for the traitorous apostates of the [Islamic] Nation, a safe refuge for the infidel intelligence services who are directing from there their conspiracy against the Muslims, and springs of fornication and debauchery [designed] as a war against God and His Prophet.
“Despite the security precautions implemented by the treacherous son of a traitor [i.e. Jordan’s King Abdullah II] to protect these dens, the soldiers of al-Qaeda were able to reach their targets and carry out [the operation], as far as we can ascertain from the news. We shall publish details of the raid and of those who carried it out shortly, so that the Tyrant of Amman will know that the protecting walls for the Jews built in the east of Jordan, and the rear camp for the Crusader armies and the government of the Scions of Ibn al-Alqami , are well within range of the Mujahideen and their attacks.”
While a claim of responsibility is not the last word, the current of jihadi opinion is firmly in favor of al-Qaeda authorship of the bombings. Postings on the forums reacting immediately to the attacks noted how al-Qaeda vowed to attack the “American Zionists” in acts of revenge for the offensive on the Iraqi city of al-Qaim, and that “al-Qaeda had tricked the Americans into believing that vengeance would be wreaked in Baghdad” (www.tajdeed.org.uk).
In addition, there is a long history to al-Zarqawi’s animosity toward Jordan. From his origins as a petty criminal, al-Zarqawi developed his Islamist-mujahid persona during his imprisonment (1992-1999), where he came under the influence of the radical Palestinian cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Freed in 1999, at the amnesty on the occasion of the accession of King Abdullah, he allegedly took part in the 1999 attempt to blow up the same Radisson SAS Hotel. Subsequently, his activities took him to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and after 9/11, to northern Iraq, where he established a jihadi training camp. During this time, al-Zarqawi maintained strong interest in his native country. In 2000 he was involved in a plot to target hotels in Amman during the millennial celebrations. In February 2002 he organized a failed assassination attempt on a Jordanian secret police official. In October of the same year, he planned and facilitated the assassination in Amman of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley. For this, al-Zarqawi was sentenced to death in absentia by a Jordanian military court. Furthermore, in August of 2003, al-Zarqawi’s group bombed the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad and in April the following year his most ambitious plan, a massive operation against the Prime Ministry, the intelligence center and the U.S. Embassy in Amman was foiled at the last minute. For this operation, Jordanian experts estimated that the amount of explosives confiscated could have accounted for massive fatalities.
Aside from al-Zarqawi’s personal revenge against Jordan, the country represents a rich target for the mujahideen for its active role in the war on terrorism. A considerable number of militants have been sentenced to death in absentia, al-Zarqawi included, and the courts are actively preparing for the repatriation, from the United Kingdom, of leading al-Qaeda religious ideologue Abu Qatada. This past July, prosecutors indicted five Jordanians in an alleged conspiracy to carry out the very acts witnessed on November 9—attacks on tourists and hotels in Amman. Jordan’s counter-terrorism forces have also registered notable successes, including the suppression of burgeoning Islamist activism in the southern city of Ma’an in November 2002, and the arrest of scores of militants. Jordan’s position as close ally of the United States also raises its target profile. The country serves as a transit point for U.S. forces crossing into Iraq and hosts training facilities for the Iraqi police force, schooled by American staff. In addition, the U.S. military has been increasing the pressure on insurgents in Iraq, and the attack on Jordan acts as a signal for the opening up of a new front.
This was certainly the message given by the attacks on the port city of Aqaba last August, when three Katyusha rockets were launched against U.S. navy ships docked there. Although the damage inflicted was very limited for such a risky venture—one Jordanian soldier killed and some light physical damage—and the attribution of the attack was confused by conflicting claims of responsibility, the event triggered a spate of excited analysis in the Arab press concerning the possible expansion of the jihadi insurgency beyond Iraq. The common theme to the commentary was that the role Jordan plays in aiding the coalition forces in Iraq was placing it firmly in harm’s way, and that the country, according to the pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi, “could not rule out the possibility that it was to be the next Saudi Arabia or Egypt.” The Saudi al-Sharq al-Awsat, meanwhile, commented that the attacks demonstrated al-Qaeda’s program “to complete the ‘zone of violence’, embracing Iraq, Kuwait Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.”
An important aim of the attack, as part of the broader al-Qaeda program to “extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq,” according to al-Zawahiri’s recent alleged letter to al-Zarqawi, will be to inflict terminal damage on Jordan’s economy. Both the Aqaba attack and the Amman bombings were against high-profile economic symbols, with a potential for a high casualties among Westerners, the aim being to destroy Jordan’s status as a beacon of stability in the region. This reputation has to date served to promote the country as a safe haven not only for business geared to Iraq, but also for aid to NGOs and even Iraqi government organizations unable to function properly in Baghdad. The attack against Jordan is therefore a logical extension of targeting the Iraqi government.
The text of the above al-Qaeda claim clearly attempts to link together in the minds of jihadist sympathizers the issues of the US invasion of Iraq, the collaboration of the Shi’a, the war in defense of Islam against the neo-Crusaders and the Jews, with the role of Jordanians in servicing and supporting these enemies and the decadence of their civilization.
However, the reality of the Amman bombings, al-Zarqawi’s largest-scale attack outside Iraq, may prove to be counter-productive. The callousness of the targeting—which included large numbers from a wedding party—may be nothing new in the record of al-Zarqawi’s somewhat broad brush approach to bombings in Iraq, but it disastrously failed to net Western victims in any significant numbers. The potential public relations damage to the jihadi cause from these indiscriminate attacks, in a country crucially placed in terms of its geographic location and levels of at least passive social support for the insurgency in Iraq, is precisely the point made over the last 18 months by critics of al-Zarqawi such as his erstwhile mentor Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the noted jihadist ideology Abu Baseer al-Tartusi, and indeed Ayman al-Zawahiri himself, judging from his reportedly intercepted last letter. While the Aqaba attack, for all its limited damage, made some political inroads when the Islamic Action Front in Jordan (the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) demanded assurances from the government that it take the country out of harm’s way by closing its facilities to the United States, the level of indiscriminate Muslim casualties at Amman will make a repeat of this political resonance impossible. If, as some are stating already, the Amman bombings constitute Jordan’s 9/11, it may mark a turning point that points to al-Zarqawi’s decline.
1. Ibn al-‘Alqami, the Shi’ite vizier of the last Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, was accused of opening the gates of Baghdad to the Mongol armies.