The Amman bombings on November 9 were widely condemned by the Islamic world, particularly that many victims were civilians celebrating a wedding. This condemnation has again raised questions about support for al-Qaeda among Muslims, especially in a country like Jordan, an ally in the war against terrorism, but which, at the same time, has previously recorded high levels of support for al-Qaeda among its population. The bombings and their ramifications have drawn a number of observations regarding the future of the Salafi-jihadist movement in the region.
The bombing appears to indicate that the mujahideen from Iraq can act freely throughout the Levant. Clearly, the mujahideen constitute a security problem for countries neighboring Iraq, just as the Arab volunteers did, or “Afghan Arabs,” returning from Afghanistan in the nineties. Many from the latter were from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait and Jordan, meaning that their return to their countries, or transferring their activities to other recruits, will be accompanied by heightened security problems, especially given that they believe in the ideology of the “near enemy” and the “far enemy.”
There has been much speculation about Zarqawi’s objectives in carrying out the Amman bombings. The targeting of hotels and tourist attractions is a hallmark of the Salafi-jihadists. Since September 11, 2001, jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda have targeted tourist attractions throughout the Islamic World, such as Bali, Casablanca, Istanbul, Sinai, Sharm el-Sheikh, Aqaba, and even Saudi Arabia, where the attacks targeted foreign residents. Two possible objectives in these target selections are: 1) attempting to show that the governments of those countries cannot protect themselves or tourists in their countries, which in turn undermines their authority; and 2) forcing Westerners to return to their countries or leave the Islamic World, thus setting the stage for a broader confrontation. Another indication is that the targets in the West, whether in Madrid on London, were civilian ones, further demonstrating that jihadists are targeting Westerners while making life difficult for Muslims in the West in order to achieve their ultimate goal of a confrontation between the two sides.
The facts surrounding the Amman bombings shed light on the jihadist movement in Iraq; most importantly, that those in Iraq are third-generation Salafi-jihadists who are unknown to security agencies and have adopted a closed-cell strategy in order to avoid infiltration in their ranks. Despite the limited information she gave, the confessions of Sajida Atrous Rishawi, the Iraqi woman whose explosives belt failed to detonate in the Amman attacks, have given authorities significant information about al-Qaeda in Iraq. Her brother, Thamer Atrous, was Zarqawi’s right-hand man and was killed in Fallujah. Moreover, Sajida was captured in Salt while looking for the house of her sister’s father-in-law, Nidal Arabiyat, who was described as an explosives expert and was Zarqawi’s aide until his death in northern Iraq.
This generation of Salafi-Jihadists appears to be following the pattern of their predecessors in establishing closed circles through marriage and kinship relations. Zarqawi’s second wife is the daughter of one of his followers, the Iraqi “Yaseen Jarad” of Palestinian origin, whom reports indicate was the suicide bomber in the attack that targeted Shi’ite cleric Mohammad Baqir Hakim in Najaf in 2003 (al-Hayat, December 14, 2004).
A Pew public opinion poll released in July 2005 noted that there was a regression in the support of violence against civilians in “the defense of Islam” among the majority of Islamic countries included in the survey . In Morocco, support went from 40% in 2004 to 13% in 2005. In Indonesia, it did not exceed 15% in 2005, compared to 27% in 2002. This indicates that the Bali bombings (2002) and Casablanca bombings (2003) resulted in a decline in support in the Muslim world for the use of violence to achieve political goals. Ironically, in Jordan support had increased, as opposed to other countries, from 43% in 2002 to 57% in 2005. Another survey conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies in the University of Jordan in the second half of the year indicated that 70% of the Jordanian public considers al-Qaeda an armed resistance organization and not a terrorist group.
Yet, following the November 9 bombings, a public opinion poll conducted by Ipsos Stat for the Jordan-based al-Ghad Newspaper revealed that 64% of the respondents have adopted a negative view of al-Qaeda, compared with 2.1% who have adopted a positive view. In the answer for the questions: “Do you think al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization,” 87.1% answered with “yes,” 7.4% with “no,” and 4.6% with “I do not know.” (See the Jordan-based al-Ghad newspaper, November 16, 2005, front page).
There is evidence that the brutality of terrorist acts in the Muslim world does lead to a decline in support for jihadist movements in general, as was seen in the demonstrations in Morocco protesting the abduction of two Moroccan diplomats at the hands of al-Qaeda. Those who follow Islamist forums on the Internet also noted a regression in support for al-Qaeda following the al-Muhayya, Saudi Arabia bombings in November 2003, where the majority of victims were civilians, as they were in Amman.
1. “Support for Terror Wanes Among Muslim Publics, Islamic Extremism: Common Concern for Muslim and Western Public”, the PEW Global Attitude Project, July 14, 2005.