Judged by the casualties, the terrorist attack Wednesday in Amman belongs in the middling range: With 59 dead, the carnage is more like London (56 dead) than Madrid (191), more like Bali II (26) than Bali I (202). The significance of the attack, however, will likely be more than a matter of statistics. Nov. 9 (9/11 as most of the world writes it) could soon be remembered as the day that the spillover of violence from Iraq became a major affliction for the Middle East.
That prediction hinges on responsibility for the attack being laid at the doorstep of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the jihadist leader in Iraq whose organization, al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, has already claimed authorship of the atrocity. Though it is possible that homegrown terrorists acting without direct guidance carried out these bombings, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Zarqawi was behind the explosions at the Amman Radisson, Grand Hyatt, and Days Inn.
After all, the Jordanian-born terrorist has spent much of his adult life trying to bring the jihad to Jordan. A near-veteran of the Afghan jihad of the 1980s—he missed most of the fighting against the Soviets but was around in the early 1990s for some of the intramural slaughter among Afghan forces—he returned to Jordan eager to bring the jihad home. He was arrested in 1994 with a large cache of weapons in his house and spent the rest of the decade in prison. After King Hussein died in 1999, he was released in an amnesty, relocated to Pakistan, and soon worked on the millennium plot to blow up the Amman Radisson and kill visiting American Christians and Israelis at tourist sites. He made a point of staging one of his early Iraq bombings at the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad in 2003.
Zarqawi has been implicated in a number of other failed plots in his homeland, including some that would have been spectacular. (His biggest “achievement” in Jordan was planning the assassination of American diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman in 2002.) As this week showed, he seems to have overcome the difficulties that plagued his past work in Jordan.
More important, the Amman bombings make real the predictions about spillover or blowback from Iraq. It has been predicted that veterans from the Iraqi insurgency will return to their home countries and form the core of an energized global jihad, much as the veterans of the Afghan fighting two decades ago established the core of al-Qaida. Most concern has focused on Europe, which has seen several hundred young men head for Iraq, where, if they are not killed in suicide attacks, they are acquiring proficiency in urban warfare. European law enforcement and intelligence services are deeply worried about this and are watching closely the tiny number who have returned so far and anxiously waiting for more.
However justified European fears are, the blowback is likely to be felt first in Iraq’s immediate neighborhood. A number of near misses and small attacks have occurred already: The best-known was in August, when three missiles believed to have been smuggled out of Iraq were unsuccessfully fired at American warships moored in Jordan’s port city of Aqaba.
The Iraqi insurgency is inspiring jihadists all over the region. So, for example, earlier this year in Kuwait, a country with little history of jihadist activity, government forces fought five gunbattles with radicals who were planning attacks. Eight suspected terrorists were killed, and 30 were arrested. More ominously, in another crackdown, eight members of the Kuwaiti military were arrested for planning attacks on U.S. forces in the country. In March, the small Persian Gulf country of Qatar had its first vehicle bombing outside a theater where expatriates were watching Twelfth Night.
Syria’s radical Islamists, who were slaughtered wholesale by the regime of the Hafez al-Assad in 1982, have clearly been emboldened by events next door. Islamist preachers have been more active and critical of the regime than at any time in 20 years, and last year, a new online magazine appeared, Message of the Mujahedeen, which is dedicated to promoting an extreme brand of Islamism and opposition to the “Christian Baathist” government of Hafez’s son Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi volunteers comprise the largest group of foreign jihadists in Iraq, a fact that has officials in Saudi Arabia worried about returnees. The kingdom’s jihadists already appear to be learning from the insurgency in Iraq. According to Roger Davies, the former head bomb technician for the British army in Northern Ireland, Saudi jihadists traditionally relied on bombs using ammonium nitrate and aluminum. However, in an early 2004 car bombing at the Interior Ministry, home of the kingdom’s counterterrorism operations, the terrorists used artillery shells as the core of the bomb, just as is typical in Iraq. According to Davies, “A lot of incidents in Saudi Arabia—and there have been more than are reported—are being blamed on terrorists who gained experience in Iraq.” (There have also been reports of Iraqi-style bombs being found in Kuwait.)
For the near term, though, Jordan will probably remain the region’s most endangered state. Although its intelligence service is among the best around and has long experience with terrorism, the country is still seen by jihadists as the low-hanging fruit of the Muslim world. The government doesn’t have the cash to buy off potential foes the way Saudi Arabia or Kuwait can.
Jordan is also a juicy target because Amman has a relationship with Washington that is probably closer than that of any other Arab country, and, compounding its “apostasy” in the eyes of its opponents, it has signed a peace treaty with Israel. Bin Laden is extremely popular, and Islamism has plenty of adherents. The ability to operate within Jordan would also enhance the possibility of orchestrating attacks against Israel, which jihadists have found increasingly attractive because it would give them a role in the conflict that commands the most interest in the Muslim world. An additional draw for Iraqi-trained terrorists is that Amman has become Iraq’s effective offshore capital. Numerous international institutions and nongovernmental organizations have based their Iraqi operations there because of the dangers of locating in Baghdad.
After Wednesday’s bombings, Taher Masri, a former Jordanian prime minister, told the Los Angeles Times that the attacks demonstrated that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had begun to seriously destabilize the Middle East. “Iraq was not the source of terrorism [before the invasion],” Masri said, “but now it has become exactly that.”