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Nov 16, 2005 | 01:32 GMT

4 mins read

Attacks in Jordan: Al Qaeda in Iraq's Questionable Capabilities

In the days since the Nov. 9 suicide attacks against three Western hotels in Amman, Jordan, it has come to light that at least half of the bombs known to have been used in the attack failed to function properly — indicating that al Qaeda in Iraq could be struggling to support suicide attacks. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it targeted the hotels because American, Israeli and European intelligence personnel used them. In its Internet-posted statement, the group also called the hotels "training camps" set up by "crusaders" on Jordanian land. Al Qaeda in Iraq posted a second statement Nov. 11, claiming that three men and a woman staged the bombings, and saying that the woman "decided to accompany her husband on the path to martyrdom." Mention of a fourth, female bomber was revealing because only three bombs had exploded Nov. 9, none carried by a woman. That means that at least one device failed to detonate. Upon learning that one of the attackers remained at large, Jordanian security forces arrested Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi during a Nov. 13 raid on a safe-house in western Amman. She was the wife of Ali Hussein Ali al-Shamari, who successfully detonated his explosives-packed vest at a Jordanian-Palestinian wedding reception at the Radisson SAS hotel, killing at least 20 people. In addition to the bomb carried by Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi, which failed completely, at least one other bomb did not function properly. Rawad Jassem Mohammed, who was assigned to hit the Days Inn hotel, had trouble detonating his device on command. He initially attempted to blow himself up inside the hotel's coffee shop, but his suspicious behavior — he was seen tugging at something under his coat — was noticed by hotel staff, who escorted him out of the hotel. His fidgeting likely indicated that he could not get the device to detonate. The bomb finally blew as Mohammed stood in the hotel parking lot, possibly as he attempted to fix or reset it, killing several people. If he had been able to detonate the bomb inside the crowded coffee shop, Mohammed could have killed many more people than he did. The devices might have failed to function properly either because they contained faulty components or the bombmaker lacked skill. The bombs, which used approximately 22 pounds of RDX, also contained ball bearings to act as shrapnel — and increase casualties. Mohammed's actions in the coffee shop indicate that there was a problem with the firing chain. This could be caused by a faulty detonator or other component, which failed to detonate the explosive charge. Many bombmakers use a technique known as double-priming to guard against this. Double-priming is the practice of using two detonators, each with its own firing chain, and activating both simultaneously. The idea, in theory, is that if either the detonator or the firing chain fails on one, the other will still trigger the explosion. Even if the bombmaker uses military- or commercial-grade components, malfunctions do occasionally happen, due either to mistakes in assembly or to a faulty component such as a blasting cap. If the bombmaker for the Amman attack did not double-prime the devices, he not only lacked skill, but also failed to understand the importance of the practice. Double-priming is featured in al Qaeda instructional videos on making suicide vests, so it is possible that the devices were, in fact, constructed with two detonators and two firing chains. If one double-primed device failed completely and another malfunctioned, al Qaeda has a serious problem with its bombmaking components. In addition to the failed devices in Amman, several rockets intended for use in al Qaeda in Iraq's Aug. 19 attack against the Jordanian port of Aqaba failed to launch because of problems with the firing chain. Since spring, al Qaeda in Iraq has been the target of near-constant military offensives in Iraq, making it more difficult for the jihadist group to plan and carry out suicide bombings. Moreover, several experienced bombmakers have been killed or captured during the operations. Because the Amman attack marked the further expansion of al-Zarqawi's group out of Iraq, the jihadists likely would have put forth their best effort, using the finest materials and personnel available to them. If that is the case, then the group's current capabilities are lacking.

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