AMMAN, Jordan – Jordan's capital has long been a prime target for Al Qaeda terror strikes, both because it serves as a gateway to Iraq for U.S. workers and because terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi holds strong hatred for his homeland's rulers.
Until Wednesday night, though, the comfortable, hilly city of white stone villas and glitzy high-rises had mostly avoided large-scale attacks, remaining a sanctuary of stability in a troubled region.
Suicide bombings at three hotels ended that, killing dozens and wounding more than 100. The bloodshed almost certainly will deal a blow to the country's tourism industry.
Suspicion immediately fell on al-Zarqawi; Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher said al-Zarqawi was a "prime suspect."
A counterterrorism official in Washington said previously that U.S. intelligence indicated Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been in contact with al-Zarqawi urging him to conduct attacks outside Iraq.
Al-Zarqawi is most known for devastating suicide bombings in Iraq that have been staged by his group, Al Qaeda in Iraq. But he has been accused of terrorist activities elsewhere, especially in Jordan.
He was sentenced to death in absentia by a Jordanian military court for the 2002 slaying of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman. He also is accused of involvement in a plot to blow up an Amman hotel in 1999 and of this August's rocket attack on a U.S. Navy warship in the Jordanian port of Aqaba that killed one Jordanian soldier.
The son of Palestinian refugees, al-Zarqawi was born in Jordan, grew up in the Jordanian town of Zarqa and traveled to Afghanistan in 1989. He was arrested in Jordan in 1992 for trying to overthrow the monarchy and spent seven years in prison.
On his release, he allegedly took part in the 1999 attempt to blow up the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman — one of the hotels bombed Wednesday. He fled Jordan and returned to Afghanistan, where U.S. officials say he set up terrorist training camps.
Other Islamic extremists also are angry with Jordan's leaders, however.
As a strong U.S. ally, the Jordanian government has arrested dozens of militants in recent years for allegedly plotting attacks in the moderate Arab kingdom.
Amman has become a gateway to Iraq for Western contract workers and officials who fly to Baghdad and use the Jordanian capital as a rest stop.
Many of the international charities and other organizations that fled Baghdad as violence worsened have offices in Amman, using the city as a base to supervise operations in Iraq staffed by Iraqi employees.
Thousands of Iraqis also have fled to Amman to escape the turmoil in Iraq, helping fuel an economic boom in Jordan, a country with few natural resources. Affluent Iraqis have bought apartments and flocked to shopping malls.