A jailed Jordanian cleric who is behind bars for promoting terrorist attacks appears to be the face of Al Qaeda’s newest recruitment campaign.
Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, who is influential in Jordan but little known elsewhere, has been the subject of recent widespread praise from suicide bombers and jihadist leaders. Experts say the attention he's getting from his fellow terrorists suggests an attempt by Al Qaeda to recruit his followers and turn his imprisonment into a flashpoint that can be channeled to open a new front in Jordan.
Al-Tahawi, also known as Abed Shihadeh al-Tahawi, is an influential local leader of Salafi Jihadism, an extremist, militant sect of Islam that prizes martyrdom, seeks jihad and provides the ideological basis for Al Qaeda. He is a close associate of Jordan’s most important Salafi Jihadist leader, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who served as a mentor to the future Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu-Mus'ab al-Zarqawi when the two were imprisoned together in Jordan.
Al-Tahawi's most notable fan was Himam al-Bilawi, the Jordanian physician turned triple agent who blew himself up in Khost, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30, killing seven CIA officers. Near the end of a 44-minute video interview that he taped in anticipation of his homicide attack, al-Bilawi addressed al-Tahawi:
“Before anything else, I send my Salaam to Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, I send my Salaam to Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, and I send my Salaam to all the Mujahideen in Jordan, and I tell them: be patient, for by Allah, we have seen Jordanian intelligence and its prisons, and we have seen how the intelligence officers would forbid brothers from reciting the Koran in an audible voice. Even reading the Koran is forbidden!
"So I tell them: be patient, but I also tell them: there is no solution to the situation in Jordan other than mobilizing to the land of Jihad to learn the arts of war and train in them, then return to Jordan and begin operations….
“O Allah, defeat American and Jordanian intelligence. O Allah, defeat them and shake them. O Allah, let us kill them…."
Al-Bilawi's exhortation, terrorism experts say, was no casual greeting to a friend. It was intended to send a message.
"When it comes to Al Qaeda media, nothing is random. Everything they say in these videos has multiple layers of meaning," said Jarret Brachman, former director of research in the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center.
"The fact that Al Qaeda's central media outlet sponsored this video where al-Tahawi was praised by name means that the highest levels of the organization approved the mention of al-Tahawi. If he’s mentioned by Al Qaeda, that’s a big deal. If you give a shout-out, it’s not random. Al Qaeda has to approve.”
It’s especially chilling, the experts say, because Bilawi was also Jordanian, and his diatribe could have an impact on young militants who are willing to do anything.
American intelligence agencies are monitoring jihadist Web sites and forums for mentions of al-Tahawi to gauge the reaction and temperament of his supporters, and to gain insight into the cleric himself, according to documents obtained by FoxNews.com.
Al Qaeda also reached out to al-Tahawi to offer praise in a jihadist book published by the Al-Ansar Mail group, an online version of which was posted to jihadist Web sites last month and which, like the Bilawi video, appeared designed to incite the online community of al-Tahawi followers.
In the book, "The Exalted Declaration of the Justness of Our Shaykh Al-Maqdissi," the author Abu Humam Bakr Abd-al-Aziz al Athari writes:
“Abu Muhammad Al-Tahawi addressed Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdissi along with Mullah Omar and Usama bin Laden, informing them that they will enter the White House and that the U.S. reign is over.”
Al-Tahawi's commitment to terrorism is well documented. In 2005, a Jordanian court sentenced him to three years in prison for masterminding a foiled terror plot against the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Amman. His leadership role involved mapping out and planning logistics of the attacks, raising funds, recruiting militants and sending men to Iraq and Yemen to receive jihadist training. Eleven others were convicted for their involvement in the attacks.
He was arrested again in November 2009, this time for provoking terrorist acts, inciting sectarian strife and belonging to an illegal group. The charges stemmed from a rally he held at his son’s wedding in 2008, videotaped portions of which were aired on Al-Arabiya, an Arabic-language news network.
Wedding guests comprised a who’s-who of Al Qaeda poets, preachers, leaders, followers of al-Maqdisi and al-Zarqawi, co-defendants from his 2005 case and at least one former Guantanamo detainee.
Footage of the wedding rally includes attendees singing jihadist songs, reciting poetry, giving impassioned speeches praising Usama bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks and spewing anti-American poetry -- including a poem that included the exact manner in which the group hoped to kill the family of then-President George W. Bush.
Al-Tahawi was sent to jail for a year and a half. But since his arrest, there have been posts on jihadist forums that suggest that he has been involved in more operational activities than previously thought. One forum contributor describes al-Tahawi as having provided support to the families of martyrs and prisoners, though it’s impossible to tell whether this is credible or propaganda.
“He isn’t a major international figure but he has conducive influence in Jordan because he’s one of the most major scholars,” said a leading expert in Salafi Jihadism in Jordan, Joas Wagemakers of Radboud University in the Netherlands. “He’s admired for his willingness to speak up against things.
"Most scholars are in prison for their beliefs, not what they’ve done, and he was probably chased by Jordanian authorities because of his beliefs, and that makes him a hero."
Wagemakers doesn’t foresee al Tahawi becoming a sudden important presence in the international terrorism scene.
“I imagine that U.S. intelligence thinks that he’s in prison and has radical ideas and they need to look out for this guy. From that context it makes sense, but from the American point of view, in terms of being a direct threat, I think he’s not that important,” Wagemakers said.
But others aren’t so sure.
"Al-Tahawi is the perfect figure for Al Qaeda to latch on to in Jordan," Brachman said. "He's beloved by the jihadis in that country as a religious heavyweight, has an extensive network of devout followers and has been found guilty in Jordanian courts for trying to actually take his network operational.
"Will Al Qaeda's attempt to whip up a generation of young Jordanian supporters of al-Tahawi work? It's hard to say. The fact is that Al Qaeda has identified al-Tahawi as a key figure, which means the Jordanians will need to pay very close attention to him, his students and his supporters. They have become Al Qaeda's new recruiting targets in Jordan."