Zarqawi's Amman Bombings: Jordan's 9/11

Report Middle East

Zarqawi's Amman Bombings: Jordan's 9/11

November 18, 2005 4 min read
Visiting Fellow, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
James Phillips is a visiting fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

The November 9th bombing of three hotels in Amman is Jordan's 9/11. The simultaneous attacks, claimed by Abu Musab Zarqawi's "al-Qaeda in Iraq" terrorist network, killed 57 people, most of them Jordanians. Despite speculation about Jordan's continued stability, the attacks, and the widespread revulsion that they have triggered among Jordanians and other Arabs, may actually bolster King Abdullah's government. In Jordan and perhaps elsewhere, this may be a turning point in the war against terrorism. By indiscriminately attacking fellow Muslims, al-Qaeda may have stripped the sheen from its image, lessening the appeal of extremism among younger Muslims.

The Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, led by the Jordanian militant Zarqawi, has claimed responsibility for the bombings. Although Zarqawi's organization has roots in Jordan, it recruited four Iraqi suicide bombers, including a husband and wife team, to execute the attacks, perhaps to preserve its Jordanian members for future attacks inside that country. The woman's bomb failed to explode, and she was later captured after al-Qaeda's statement claiming responsibility for the atrocity alerted Jordanian authorities to her participation.

The operational shortcomings of the bombings were accompanied by political miscalculations. Many Jordanians have long supported suicide bombings against Israel and against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. Zarqawi was a local hero to Jordanian Islamic militants and even to some Jordanians who did not share his radical ideology but were impressed by his high profile attacks inside Iraq.

But the Amman bombings, which slaughtered dozens of Jordanian men, women, and children who were celebrating a wedding, have outraged Jordanians of all stripes. Jordan's Palestinian majority, which might have reacted with schadenfreude toward an attack that targeted King Abdullah's government (resented since its 1994 peace treaty with Israel) were shocked by the deaths of many Palestinians who perished in the bombings. Among the dead were the head of the Palestinian Authority's military intelligence and the brother of the speaker of the Palestinian National Assembly. For several days after the bombings, Jordanians took to the streets to participate in large demonstrations, shouting, "Burn in hell, al-Zarqawi."

The death of a prominent Syrian-American film producer also roiled Syrians, another reservoir of potential recruits for Zarqawi's organization. The deliberate targeting of Jordanian Muslims reportedly dismayed even al-Qaeda supporters in Iraq. A relative of one of the bombers complained to a Washington Post reporter, "We were shocked when we saw on TV the number of civilians killed in the operation because we thought the killed would be Americans and Jews, but they were Muslims, regretfully."

Several radical Islamic websites that normally celebrate al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks are now replete with criticism of the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent Muslims. This criticism echoes the gentle reproach of Zarqawi's brutal tactics delivered in a July 2005 letter to Zarqawi from Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant. Zawahiri cautioned Zarqawi that popular support is important for realizing al-Qaeda's long-term goals and that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media."

Zarqawi clearly has disregarded Zawahiri's advice. Like many of the "Afghan Arabs" who returned from the jihad in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and unsuccessfully tried to import the jihad into their home countries, Zarqawi's bloodthirsty zeal, when inflicted on fellow Muslims, has undermined the appeal of his revolutionary ideology. Similarly overzealous mistakes triggered a popular backlash that led to the defeat of radical Islamic movements in Egypt and Algeria in the 1990s.

Zarqawi's cold-blooded attacks in Amman may be a turning point in the war against terrorism, inoculating impressionable young Muslims in Jordan and elsewhere against the virus of Islamic extremism. But outside of Jordan, Islamic extremists and their allies will likely continue to applaud Zarqawi's cold-blooded callousness-so long as it targets Americans or Israelis.

Some critics of the Bush Administration have argued that the Amman bombings are spillover or blowback from the war in Iraq. This argument ignores the fact that Zarqawi and his followers posed a threat to Jordan long before the Iraq war. Zarqawi grew up in a suburb of the Jordanian city of Zarqa as Ahmad Fadhil Nazzar Khalaylah and took the nom de guerre Zarqawi ("the man from Zarqa"). He was involved in the failed millennium bombing plot in Jordan in 1999 (which targeted the same Radisson hotel bombed last week and other tourist sites). In October 2002, Zarqawi's group murdered American diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman. In April 2004, Jordanian authorities averted Zarqawi's planned bombing of Jordan's intelligence headquarters and other buildings. That attack reportedly would also have included the use of poisonous chemicals, one of Zarqawi's specialties.

Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan in 1989, where he met bin Laden. Although he had much in common with the Saudi millionaire, Zarqawi considered bin Laden too moderate. He retained his independence from al-Qaeda and set up a separate training camp in Afghanistan for his own terrorist group, Tawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Holy War). After the Taliban's 2001 defeat, he fled through Iran, apparently with the cooperation of the Iranian government, and set up operations in Iraq before the war, with the suspected support of Saddam Hussein's regime. In 2004, Zarqawi merged his group with bin Laden's and was named the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Although he still has ideological differences with bin Laden, including a fierce hostility to Shiites that has led his group to bomb Shiite mosques in Iraq, Zarqawi now ranks second only to bin Laden in the eyes of many Sunni Islamic extremists.

Zarqawi has developed a strong network among Arab Muslims living in Europe, particularly in Germany, Britain, Italy, France, and Spain. This network may have been involved in the May 2003 bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, and the November 2003 bombings in Istanbul, Turkey. Zarqawi's followers, many of whom hold European Union passports, pose a growing threat to the United States. If allowed to establish a sanctuary in Iraq, Zarqawi's branch of al-Qaeda will become a much bigger threat. The latest bombings in Jordan underscore again the importance of helping the Iraqi government to defeat the terrorists that threaten not only Iraq, but increasingly Iraq's neighbors and the United States.

James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.


James Phillips

Visiting Fellow, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies