Terror in Amman: Studying the Tactical Text

11 MINS READNov 11, 2005 | 05:46 GMT
By Fred Burton On Wednesday, Nov. 9, the state security court in Amman, Jordan issued charges against six suspected terrorists — allegedly members of the "Khattab Brigade." The men are accused of having plotted attacks against American citizens, night clubs and liquor shops, and hotels in Amman and Aqaba. Mere hours after the six suspects were indicted, suicide bombers attacked three well-known Western hotel chains in the capital city, killing nearly 60 people and injuring more than 100. It was the first successful terrorist strike, despite many prior attempts, in Jordan. Though it is not possible to draw a firm connection between the two incidents, the timing certainly is striking. But even in the event that the "Khattab Brigade" had no connection to the suicide bombers who managed to carry out the hotel strikes, a review of the incidents, events leading up to them and the actors involved indicates that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al Qaeda — which by this time have claimed responsibility for the Amman attacks — are following a playbook that has been used and studied for quite some time. The indictments of the six "Khattab Brigade" suspects are certainly worth examining. The alleged plot, said to have stretched back to September, is merely the latest of about a dozen to have been discovered in Jordan during the past two years — since the war in Iraq and follow-on insurgency began heating up jihadist sentiments and bringing more militant traffic through the region. The targets mentioned in the indictment are so obvious and reflexive, in the mindset of a jihadist, as to be almost inconsequential — which would lend weight to the notion that the "Khattab Brigade" had no connection to the three men who attacked the Days Inn, Radisson and Hyatt hotels. On the other hand, a feasible argument could be made that there were connections: It could be that Jordanian intelligence got wind of the actual plot that was carried out on Nov. 9, or pieces of it, and simply didn't cast a wide enough net when the suspects got rounded up. Or it could be that al Qaeda (which has obviously been frustrated by Jordanian intelligence and security forces in the past) resorted to a very effective tactic it has been suspected of using before: not only deploying multiple cells to carry out attacks (as it obviously did on Sept. 11, 2001, and other occasions), but deploying decoys alongside the actual operatives. Depending on the level of intent, the Khattab cell either could have been throwaways — it didn't matter if some got caught because there was sufficient redundancy within the system — or "white noise," meaning their job specifically was to get caught in order to distract and tax security networks. In theory, that could open up just the opportunity that the actual operatives — three presumably nondescript men wearing suicide vests — would need to approach their targets. And those targets — even in a target-rich city like Amman, which is used as a staging ground by Western contractors, media and other businesses deploying personnel to Iraq and as a vacation spot by Israelis and U.S. military personnel on leave — were neither quickly nor randomly chosen. The Targeting Rationale We have been studying terrorist threats to hotels — which in our eyes stand out as the quintessential "soft" target — for quite some time, and stated in July 2004 that risks to Western hotels in Amman were among the most significant in the world. As noted at that time, one hotel popular among Westerners is located quite near the U.S. Embassy, adding to its political attractiveness as a target. Around the world, hotels have figured prominently in strings of attacks attributed to al Qaeda — both before and since our initial assessment was published:
  • Nov. 28, 2002 — The bombing of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, kills 13 people. An attempt to shoot down an Israeli charter jet with a surface-to-air missile at Mombasa airport is unsuccessful.
  • May 16, 2003 — Some 41 people are killed in a series of bombings targeting a Jewish community center, a Spanish restaurant and social club, a hotel and the Belgian consulate in Casablanca, Morocco.
  • Oct. 7, 2004 — A vehicle-borne bomb is rammed into the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Taba, Egypt — a resort town on the Sinai Peninsula — and a suicide bomber detonates explosives in the pool area of the hotel moments later. At least 22 people are killed.
Another high-profile attack involving a hotel — the JW Marriott in Jakarta — was credited to Jemaah Islamiyah in August 2003. If we were to compile a timeline of thwarted plots involving hotels, the list would be much longer. One notable example would be the so-called Millennium Bomb Plot, in which several attacks were planned in Jordan — including a bombing of the Radisson hotel in Amman, which was hit this week — as well as Los Angeles International Airport, in order to strike at both American and Israeli tourists. There are numerous factors — both strategic and tactical — that make hotels enticing targets. These range from their often well-known locations to the fact that, particularly when speaking of well-known hotel chains, they draw large crowds of people (frequently celebrities, diplomats and foreigners) and are semi-public gathering places (and thus, are easily accessible). Some of their attractiveness as targets stems from the nature of the hospitality industry itself, in which any means of making patrons feel not only safe but celebrated and pampered is considered a competitive advantage. Consider the issue of stand-off distance, for example: Following the Murrah building attack in Oklahoma City, barricades and stand-off perimeters were quickly erected around practically all federal buildings within the United States and elsewhere as a protection against truck bombings. But for a hotel operator, taking steps that would force limousine drivers and taxis away from the entrance — and require their all-important passengers to get out and trudge up the drive, baggage in hand, on foot — is not something to be considered lightly. It is not that protecting hotels against attacks is impossible — since the Marriott bombing in Jakarta, hotels in Indonesia have substantially strengthened both their overt and more subtle security systems — but due to the nature of the industry, some of the most effective measures require investments in resources and a psychological shift that can be difficult to bring about. Al Qaeda, we believe, is well aware of this — particularly given evidence that the organization has been studying hotels as targets for well over a decade. The New York City Bomb Plots Following the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, investigators uncovered several al Qaeda attack scenarios that centered around the U.N. Plaza Hotel and the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Extensive surveillance of the hotels had been conducted both inside and out — and various attack scenarios were outlined by Ramzi Yousef, who planned the first World Trade Center bombing, and the local militant cell. It is useful to review some of these scenarios, since al Qaeda has a pattern of returning to past targets and plot scenarios. In the New York cases, operatives had devised the following scenarios:
  • Using a stolen delivery van, an attack team would drive the wrong way down a one-way street near the Waldorf "well," where VIP motorcades arrive. A hand grenade would be tossed as a diversionary tactic by a lone operative from the church across the street. A four-man assault team (a tactic recently used in Saudi Arabia) would deploy from the rear of the van and attack the protection cars and then the VIP's limousine.
  • Another scenario involved militants in gas masks infiltrating the hotel after midnight — when they knew protection levels were lower — moving up to the VIP's floor via the stairwells with assault weapons, hand grenades and tear gas, then attacking the VIP in his room.
  • Yet another plan involved stealing hotel uniforms and infiltrating a banquet via the catering kitchen, which is always a busy and chaotic location.
Intelligence gathered by U.S. agencies later indicated that jihadists associated with al Qaeda had planned to detonate car bombs at hotels where high-value targets were staying. And there is still an entire jihadist history, wholly separate, that offers lessons about the efficacy of individual suicide bombers, who — barring an effective head shot — can be almost impossible to interdict once they have entered the attack zone. Triangulating in Amman It would not be surprising if al-Zarqawi, from his bunker somewhere in Iraq, were aware of al Qaeda's hotel plot history, considering that jihadists use the Internet and other channels to communicate with and learn from each other. But of greater relevance to the recent attacks in Amman is the fact that al-Zarqawi has his own history of planning attacks against hotels, far predating his pledge of allegiance to al Qaeda: In 2000, a Jordanian court charged him in absentia with planning to blow up a hotel and attack tourist destinations. Earlier today, a statement purportedly issued by al-Zarqawi was posted to a jihadist Web site, claiming responsibility for the Amman hotel strikes. The statement provides a rationale for the attacks that is strategically in keeping with strikes against Western hotel chains in other parts of the Muslim world, including the notion that they are a "garden for the enemies of the religion — Jews and crusaders" — a reference to hotels as places that serve alcohol or cater to the flesh trade. The claim contains several other references that are specific to Amman, including the notion that the hotels are "a safe haven" for foreign spies — and here we must note reports that the head of the Palestinian intelligence services was among those killed in the attack at the Hyatt. There also is an intriguing sentence: "Despite the security measures provided by the traitor to protect those dens, the al Qaeda soldiers were able to reach their targets and carry out the duties." There could not be a much clearer indication of the surveillance al-Zarqawi's men would have carried out prior to the bombings. This points up another tactic in the playbook, and one of the ways in which al-Zarqawi is playing to his strengths in Jordan: extensive area knowledge. Not only were al-Zarqawi and numerous other veterans of his extant Jund al-Sham organization born and raised in the kingdom — giving them a working knowledge of safe places and byways that can be shared with allies who have greater freedom of movement — but al Qaeda operatives have been scoping out various targets in and around Jordan, such as the U.S. naval vessels that were fired on with a rocket in August, for quite some time. Taken together, this all tends to add incredible weight to the failed strikes and potential plots that Jordanian intelligence says it has uncovered. If any conclusions at all can be drawn from al Qaeda's history or al-Zarqawi's own, it would be that a plot disrupted does not necessarily equate to a dead-end street: Both have demonstrated persistence and a dedication to certain strategic target sets and tactics, to which they return repeatedly. Nor do we find in their public statements a tendency to issue hollow threats (though a will to strike and the capability to do so are not always perfectly matched). As a militant and a zealot, al-Zarqawi has his own reasons for wanting to strike out at the government of Jordan, which has lined up against al Qaeda with the United States. And with support for the jihadists within Iraq beginning to tighten, al Qaeda has further reasons to seek to expand its theater of operations in the region. How wise it might be for al-Zarqawi to strike within Jordan is, from a strategic standpoint, debatable, but there can be little doubt — even following the hotel strikes in Amman — that he still intends to do so. Or, as the author phrased it in claiming responsibility for Wednesday's attacks: "Let the tyrant of Jordan know that … the backyard camp for the crusaders' army is now in the range of fire of the mujahideen."

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