Jordanian television April 26 broadcast the videotaped testimony of Azmi al-Jayousi, the leader of a militant cell accused of plotting to attack the headquarters of the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, the prime minister's office, the U.S. Embassy and other public buildings in Amman. The testimony, and other details from the government's broadcast, shed new light on a plot Jordanian officials first reported a week earlier.
According to the initial reports April 18, a series of arrests in late March and early April allowed Jordanian authorities to foil at least two separate — though possibly simultaneous — attacks. Citing confessions from the plotters, officials said the plans included detonation of a large "chemical bomb" targeting the Amman headquarters of the Intelligence Services, which they claim could have resulted in 20,000 deaths and large-scale destruction over a half-mile radius. Another plot involved the use of "deadly gas" against public buildings in Jordan's capital. U.S. government sources confirm that the U.S. Embassy was a target.
Authorities cited by The Associated Press say they arrested the suspected militants while they were trying to enter Jordan from neighboring Syria in at least three vehicles filled with explosives, detonators and raw material that could be used in bomb-making. Police say that during those arrests, they found the primary materials to make a chemical bomb, though they have not given details on the chemicals themselves. Officials also reported that the mastermind behind the plots was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Islamist militant of Jordanian descent who is active in Iraq, claims to be connected to the top leadership of al Qaeda and regularly claims responsibility for large attacks within Iraq. The United States has offered a $10 million reward for al-Zarqawi's capture, claiming he is trying to build a network of foreign militants in Iraq. The televised confessions largely support those claims and shed further light on the suspected plots.
Here are some of the more interesting details from the program and al-Jayousi's testimony:
- Al-Zarqawi planned the operations, specified the targets and recruited the members of the group, starting with al-Jayousi, who pledged allegiance to al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan and met him once in Iraq before being dispatched to Jordan. Al-Zarqawi arranged for his entry into Jordan.
- Once inside Jordan, al-Jayousi and another plotter began purchasing chemicals for making explosives, as well as vehicles to transport them and for the operation itself.
- They eventually gathered 20 tons of (unidentified) chemicals, which were manufactured into explosives and loaded into several vehicles, intended to be driven by suicide bombers into the Intelligence Services compound.
- One van with a reinforced bumper was purchased to break down barriers and break into the Intelligence Services building, led by militants in another car armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades who would be responsible for killing any guards.
- Funds and forged documents provided by al-Zarqawi were funneled to the operation through one of his lieutenants in Syria, with messengers making payments in increments of $10,000 to $15,000. Total payments added up to $170,000.
- The same lieutenant dispatched militants through Syria to Jordan for operations. Al-Jayousi also recruited individuals inside Jordan for the operation.
- The cell maintained regular communication with contacts in Syria throughout the planning of the operation, using prepaid phone cards and messengers to communicate.
- The operation was designed to attack the ruling Hashemites and as a strike against "the crusaders and the apostates."
An expert cited on the televised program also upped the potential casualty count to as many as 80,000 killed and 160,000 injured, based on one conventional explosion and a chemical bomb that would have emitted poisonous gases beyond the radius of the primary explosion. Information coming out of Amman indicates that 10 individuals (six Jordanians and four Syrians) comprised the cell. Six of them are in custody, and the other four were killed in shootouts with security forces. However, a Jordanian government source indicates the group was actually larger, with 25 members (all radical Wahhabis), many of whom escaped the dragnet and are on the run.
In addition to Jordanians (including Jordanian Palestinians) and a few Syrians, the source said the group included Saudi Wahhabis who might have ties to militants who detonated a car bomb April 21 in front of the headquarters of the Saudi intelligence services building in Riyadh. That attack had hallmarks similar to the alleged Jordan plot. Logistical support also might have been supplied through Saudi Arabia. Amman is keeping the Saudi link quiet so as not to embarrass Riyadh, the source indicates.
Taped confessions must always be taken with a grain of salt, this one included. And as the source information indicates, the official reports likely tell only part of the story. Assuming that the statements in the confession and those reported by Jordanian officials are mostly true, they have serious implications for Jordan and the wider region. This raises the threat level in Jordan, which already was on the "A list" of intended targets for a large operation by foreign jihadists. A moderate Arab country, Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel and cooperates closely with the United States — both politically and economically — putting it squarely in the "apostate" camp. Likewise, the Hashemite monarchy is inherently vulnerable because of its minority position within Jordan's ethnic makeup. Jordan also has its own Islamist movement including Salafist (Wahhabi) networks, some of which have jihadist leanings and could provide support, sanctuary and recruits for operations.
This is not the first time Jordan has been the apparent target of an Islamist attack. Jordanian courts have convicted 22 Islamist extremists of plotting to attack U.S. and Israeli tourists during Jordan's millennium celebrations, and a U.S. diplomat was assassinated in the kingdom in October 2002 — an assassination some U.S. and Jordanian law enforcement officials say was connected to al-Zarqawi. The country's porous borders with Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia allow the infiltration of militants, supplies and funds. The ties linking this plot to Syria and Iraq indicate the regional nature of the threat and underscore the danger that unrest and instability in one country pose for its neighbors. The Syria connection is particularly significant. Whether by turning a blind eye or being genuinely unaware, the substantial logistical support from within Syria's borders could not have crossed into Jordan if Syria had control over its borders and general internal security. If Syria is found to have been complicit, it will give the United States further motivation to ramp up the pressure on Damascus. Alternatively, if Damascus's guilt is merely of omission, it is further indication — together with the April 27 attacks in Damascus — that Syria's internal security is breaking down.
In Jordan, increased security around hard targets could mean militants will shift their sights to softer targets such as hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools and residential areas with large concentrations of Westerners. In March, the U.S. Embassy released a warden message for Amman warning that, in mid-January 2004, unidentified suspects possibly had been planning attacks against hotels in Jordan. Hotels likely remain vulnerable in the country. Although the threat level in Jordan certainly appears higher, the interdiction and details from the interrogation should net some important details for enhancing security. Jordanian security will put even greater focus on securing the country's border with Syria. The fact that so much planning and support came from Syria also indicates the militants' support system inside Jordan might not be as substantial. This could explain why the same cell was responsible for surveillance, mixing the explosives and carrying out the attack.
That is dangerous from an operational security standpoint. An effective countersurveillance program would have identified the preoperational surveillance, potentially allowing authorities to interdict the operation and decapitate the cell. Also, the March warden message was part of some initial warnings and indicators that an attack was being planned. This suggests that — as in Saudi Arabia where U.S. government warnings have preceded actual attacks — local intelligence services are providing actionable intelligence to their U.S. counterparts.
Finally, there is reason to question the veracity of the Jordanian (and militant) claim that this would have resulted in a major chemical attack. One of the persistent problems with a chemical "dirty bomb" — using a large conventional explosion to disperse toxic chemicals — is that the blast can consume the chemicals. Moreover, the Jordanian government source indicates that only one of the interrogated militants made any mention of a chemical attack. According to the source, the Jordanian authorities are doubtful about the claims but have promoted the story in order to gain help and assistance from the United States and other Arab governments. Also, by their own accounts, the militants were not highly trained chemical experts, and it is unlikely they had experience testing such a device. While that is no guarantee that it would not have worked, the estimated casualty figures are likely inflated. On the other hand, it there was some chemical component to this plot, it would confirm that chemical attacks remain an area of interest for jihadists, including al-Zarqawi.