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Attack in Jordan: Al-Zarqawi's Greener Pastures

9 MINS READAug 24, 2005 | 06:56 GMT
By Fred Burton Authorities in Jordan have arrested a Syrian national they say is their prime suspect in a series of rocket attacks Aug. 19, one of which narrowly missed a U.S. Navy vessel docked off the coast at Aqaba. Though the attacks did little damage — only one person, a Jordanian soldier, was killed — information surrounding the arrests of Mohammed Hassan Abdullah al-Sihly and other suspects makes it clear that at least one branch of al Qaeda remains intact and capable in this sensitive part of the Middle East. Brushing aside an early and rather questionable claim of responsibility from a little-known militant group, it was nearly certain from the start that the strikes were the work of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group in Iraq, which actually issued a belated claim of responsibility Aug. 23. Analysis at every level — from the weapons used to the circumstantial evidence to the political and historical context of the attacks — tells a story about al Qaeda's capabilities. And with this operational node apparently still intact, there are implications for corporations doing business in the region as well as U.S. war-fighting plans in the broad jihadist conflict. The Usual Suspects As with any criminal investigation, it is useful to begin with the nature of the attack, possible motives and likely suspects. There's little mystery here. Three rockets, described as Katyushas in initial reports, were fired from an industrial warehouse situated on a hilltop overlooking Aqaba. One of the rockets was fired in the direction of two Navy vessels — the USS Ashland and USS Kearsarge — in the Red Sea. Of the others, one struck a hospital in Jordan, killing a soldier, and the other hit in the Israeli seaside resort of Eilat. Authorities later found a launcher that was used to fire the rockets.
The choice of multiple, simultaneous strikes is an al Qaeda trademark. Indeed, considering the choice of targets — U.S. military assets and, even if inadvertently, Jews — one can immediately finger Islamist militants as suspects. The only question is: which ones? A little-known group, the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades of the al Qaeda Organization in the Levant and Egypt, quickly claimed responsibility for the strike, as it has (not always credibly) for other events, including bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh and the Sinai Peninsula. Al-Zarqawi's group issued its own, much more credible, claim Aug. 23. Yet even before that — and before Jordanian authorities announced on state television a day earlier that the attacks were carried out by an Iraq-based group (which they did not name) — suspicion had landed on al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who swore fealty to al Qaeda after launching his own terrorist campaign in chaotic Iraq. Al-Zarqawi has been tied to a number of attacks and disrupted plots in Jordan in recent years, including the murder of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman (the last attack targeting U.S. personnel in Jordan) and failed plots targeting Jordan's secret service headquarters in 2002, as well as rumors of plans for chemical attacks in 2004. (Intriguingly, in a tape acknowledging the plot targeting the secret service headquarters, al-Zarqawi denied possessing any chemical weapons, saying that if his group had them, they would not have hesitated to use them against targets like Eilat — where one of the rockets struck Aug. 19.) There is a high level of both strategic and tactical sophistication behind the Aug. 19 strikes which cannot be shrugged off, despite the fact that the rockets missed the Navy vessels. Jordan is a longstanding U.S. ally whose security and intelligence services are intricately linked to the CIA. The country also hosts a number of Western-based multinational corporations and contractors assisting with reconstruction projects in Iraq — making it a target-rich environment. And the strikes were carried out during a period of extreme political sensitivity in the region — as Israel withdrew from Gaza, which concerns Jordan's Hashemite monarchy, and as a new constitution was negotiated in Iraq. The potential for combined political and economic fallout from a single attack certainly would appeal to al Qaeda, even if the attack did not point to the group directly. As the investigation unfolds — particularly at the forensic level — the evidence paints an intriguing picture of al Qaeda's tactics and capabilities. Smuggled Rockets Jordanian officials have said that al-Sihly — the Syrian suspect arrested Aug. 22 — his two sons and an Iraqi accomplice smuggled seven rockets into Jordan from Iraq, concealing them in the modified gasoline tank of their Mercedes. If this is accurate, the size of the rockets suggests they were smaller than the 132-mm Soviet weapons that originally carried the "Katyusha" label (the term is now used to describe virtually any rocket used by insurgents, not just those of Soviet origin). Al-Sihly's two sons — one of whom reportedly was treated in Jordan last December for a shrapnel wound suffered in Iraq — entered the country with forged Iraqi passports on Aug. 6 through the eastern desert border stop at al-Karama. According to a statement read on Jordanian state television, the cell rented a warehouse in Aqaba, where the rockets were mounted and connected to a timing device. The site of the attack reportedly was chosen on the strength of its "touristic significance" and potential for media visibility. (In addition to being the site of one of King Abdullah's vacation palaces and numerous international hotels frequented by U.S. soldiers and other foreigners, Aqaba has tremendous historical significance for the Muslim world: Here, the people of Medina pledged their support to the Prophet Muhammad prior to the establishment of the first Islamic polity in history in 622.) Authorities also claim the cell "was in constant touch with its leadership in Iraq" as it prepared for the attack. Investigators found four rockets at the warehouse following the attacks, and authorities say the cell may have had additional targets in Aqaba in mind. But it seems logical that the devices simply misfired and were discarded. Had they been operational, they would have been used on the spot; the risks of leaving live materiel behind and returning to the attack site for it later would have been far too high. The rockets could have failed for numerous reasons — if they had been improperly stored, were poorly wired, if the solid propellant inside them got wet or initiators used in the firing chain were improvised or faulty, for example. Having analyzed other attacks using such weapons, it's certainly statistically feasible that half of the rockets failed. Whatever the situation, the cell left behind valuable forensic evidence for investigators, who say the rockets were similar to weapons that insurgents in Iraq have used against U.S. forces. Disturbing Implications At the forensic and tactical level, then, the case against al-Zarqawi is relatively easy to make. But the implications for the future are disturbing for U.S. policy-makers and planners, as well as for corporations doing business out of Jordan. On one hand, the notion that al-Zarqawi is now attempting to break out of Iraq and find a new base of operations and new targets in the region — or returning to old ones, in this case — could be viewed as evidence of a strategic success for Washington in its war against al Qaeda. The jihadists have been piggybacking on the Sunni nationalist insurgency in Iraq, creating an extremely complicated security dilemma and adding fuel to calls for the United States to withdraw its forces. However, al-Zarqawi's operatives are not synonymous with the Sunni insurgents, and the movement toward some manner of participation in the new political system by the Sunnis throws the jihadist position in Iraq into doubt. In other words, if the Sunnis buy into the new government in Baghdad, it would not be in their interests to support a militant group that is wreaking havoc and carrying out attacks against other Iraqis and U.S. forces alike. Al-Zarqawi's haven in Iraq could quickly become unwelcoming, prompting him to set his sights on greener pastures for both a base of operations and targets. It's feasible that his group might find shelter in a neighboring country, such as Syria — though that is not the same as saying it would be easy. At the very least, it's worth noting that after being forced to leave Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi operated primarily in three countries: Iran (mainly as a transit point between Afghanistan and Iraq), Syria (according to intelligence sources) and Iraq's Kurdish regions (where he worked with Ansar al-Islam prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003). For political, operational and personal reasons, Jordan is an obvious choice of targets for al-Zarqawi. And that could affect the broader U.S. war against jihadists: As already noted, Jordan is a key staging point for Western expatriates and others who need access to Iraq. And it is a political powder keg in its own right — with sensitivities regarding Palestinian repatriation and borders shared with other key Muslim states, including Egypt. Touching off the right fuse in this part of the world could generate unexpected explosions elsewhere. Jordan's intelligence and security services are top-notch agencies, but the ability of al-Zarqawi's group to pull off even the limited strikes of Aug. 19 raises questions about the future. Taking a pessimistic view of the situation, one must consider whether Jordan will find it difficult to control al-Zarqawi's men, who are now battle-trained jihadists with a clear focus and — if one believes the reports issued by government officials in Amman — intact operational and communications capabilities. The war in Iraq has spawned a large number of bomb-makers and other skilled operatives — many more "mujahideen" than the CIA trained in the battlegrounds of Afghanistan — who apparently have sufficient operational support to infiltrate target countries to the east, and easy geographic access to them. The question now is whether those who carried out the Aug. 19 strikes left behind enough evidence that future al Qaeda plans can be detected and pre-empted, or whether they amount to a harbinger of things to come.

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