Al Qaeda Backfires in Jordan

Terrorist acts generally backfire.

For example, Afghanistan’s Taliban government supported Usama bin Laden until the 9/11 attacks. In the aftermath of those strikes, the American military swiftly overthrew the Taliban with the help of many Afghans who were fed up with its harsh rule.

On Nov. 9, Jordanians were outraged by Al Qaeda’s latest atrocity. On that day, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's “Al Qaeda in Iraq” terrorist network bombed three hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing 57 people. By indiscriminately attacking fellow Muslims, Al Qaeda may have stripped the sheen from its image, lessening the appeal of extremism among younger Muslims, at least in Jordan.

Zarqawi’s organization has roots in Jordan, but it recruited four Iraqi suicide bombers — including a husband-and-wife team — to execute the attacks, perhaps to preserve its Jordanian members for future attacks inside that country. The woman’s bomb failed to explode, and she was later captured.

The operational shortcomings of the bombings were accompanied by political miscalculations. Many Jordanians have long supported suicide bombings against Israel and against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. Zarqawi was a local hero to Jordanian Islamic militants. Even some Jordanians who did not share his radical ideology were impressed by his high profile-attacks inside Iraq.

But the Amman bombings, which slaughtered dozens of Jordanian men, women and children who were celebrating a wedding, outraged Jordanians of all stripes. Jordan’s Palestinian majority, which might have reacted with schadenfreude toward an attack that targeted King Abdullah’s government (resented since its 1994 peace treaty with Israel) were shocked by the deaths of the many Palestinians who perished in the bombings. For several days after the bombings, Jordanians took to the streets to participate in large demonstrations, shouting, “Burn in hell, al-Zarqawi.”

The deliberate targeting of Jordanian Muslims reportedly dismayed even Al Qaeda supporters in Iraq. A relative of one of the bombers complained to a Washington Post reporter, “We were shocked when we saw on TV the number of civilians killed in the operation because we thought the killed would be Americans and Jews, but they were Muslims, regretfully.”

Several radical Islamic websites that normally celebrate Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks are now replete with criticism of the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent Muslims. This criticism echoes the gentle reproach of Zarqawi’s brutal tactics delivered in a July 2005 letter to Zarqawi from Ayman al-Zawahiri, Usama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant. Zawahiri cautioned Zarqawi that popular support is important for realizing Al Qaeda’s long-term goals and that “more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”

Zarqawi clearly has disregarded Zawahiri’s advice. Like many of the “Afghan Arabs” who returned from the jihad in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and unsuccessfully tried to import the jihad into their home countries, Zarqawi’s bloodthirsty zeal, when inflicted on fellow Muslims, has undermined the appeal of his revolutionary ideology. Similarly overzealous mistakes triggered a popular backlash that led to the defeat of radical Islamic movements in Egypt and Algeria in the 1990s.

This isn’t the first time Zarqawi has attempted to attack a site in his home country. He grew up in a suburb of the Jordanian city of Zarqa as Ahmad Fadhil Nazzar Khalaylah and took the nom de guerre Zarqawi, “the man from Zarqa.” He was involved in the failed millennium bombing plot in 1999 (which targeted the same Radisson hotel bombed this month).

In October 2002, Zarqawi’s group murdered American diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman. In April 2004, Jordanian authorities averted Zarqawi’s planned bombing of Jordan’s intelligence headquarters and other buildings. That attack reportedly also would have included the use of poisonous chemicals, one of Zarqawi’s specialties.

In 2001, he fled Afghanistan through Iran, apparently with the cooperation of the Iranian government, and set up operations in Iraq with the suspected support of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In 2004, Zarqawi merged his group with bin Laden’s and was named the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Although he still has ideological differences with bin Laden, including a fierce hostility to Shiites that has led his group to bomb Shiite mosques in Iraq, Zarqawi now ranks second only to bin Laden in the eyes of many Sunni Islamic extremists.

Zarqawi has developed a strong network among Arab Muslims living in Europe, particularly in Germany, Britain, Italy, France and Spain. This network may have been involved in the May 2003 bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, and the November 2003 bombings in Istanbul, Turkey. Zarqawi’s followers, many of whom hold European Union passports, pose a growing threat to the United States.

If he can establish a sanctuary in Iraq, Zarqawi’s branch of Al Qaeda will become a much bigger threat. That’s why it’s so important to help the Iraqi government defeat terrorists that threaten it, its neighbors and even the United States.

The only silver lining in the dark cloud of Al Qaeda’s Nov. 9 bombing is that it has awakened Jordanians and possibly a few other Muslims about the urgent need to defeat al Qaeda.

James Phillips is a research fellow in Middle Eastern studies in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.