AMMAN, Jordan – Jordanian authorities have arrested 11 suspected al-Qaida-linked militants for allegedly planning to attack shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions in the country, the government said Sunday.
The plot is the first to be unveiled since a triple hotel bombing in Amman almost seven years ago, which killed 60 people. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the attack, citing its rejection of Jordan's alliance with the United States and its 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
Jordanian officials and Arab diplomats have been voicing concern over stability in the kingdom, which lies at a precarious corner in the Middle East, neighboring hot spots Syria, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
The officials and diplomats, insisting on anonymity because they are not allowed to make statements to the press, have warned of possible plots to destabilize the kingdom. They say militants seek to use its territory as they consolidate their foothold in Syria — which lies on Jordan's northern border.
Announcing the foiled plot, government spokesman Sameeh Maaytah told an impromptu press conference that the suspects are all Jordanian and are in police custody.
"They were plotting deadly terror attacks on vital institutions, shopping centers and diplomatic missions," he said.
"They sought to destabilize Jordan," he said. "They plotted against Jordan's national security."
Jordan's state TV broadcast the names and headshots of the suspects — all men in their 20s and 30s, most of whom wore long beards. It identified them as "militants."
A Jordanian security official involved in the investigation said some of the 11 are affiliated with Jordan's banned Salafi movement, which promotes an ultraorthodox brand of Islam that considers other Muslims who do not follow its hardline theology as infidels.
Cell members will be put on trial in the military court, a date has not yet been set for the trial, the official added, insisting on anonymity because he is not allowed to comment before the trial opens.
Abed Shehadeh al-Tahawi, who heads Jordan's Salafis, told the Associated Press that he "recognized at least half of the people shown on television."
"They are members of my group, but they have nothing to do with what is said to be a 'terror plot'," he said.
He called the Jordanian government announcement a "bluff to justify a looming crackdown on my group and other good Muslims seeking freedom through the rule of Sharia (Islamic law)."
A statement by Jordanian intelligence said an investigation showed that the group "adopts the ideology of al-Qaida" and that it nicknamed its terror plot as "9/11 the second" — a reference to the Amman hotel blasts, which happened on Nov. 9, 2005.
Since June, the suspects have been surveying targets across the country, bringing in rockets from Syria to use in the alleged plot, the statement said, adding that the group also planned to carry out suicide attacks using explosive belts.
The militants sought to carry out their attacks in stages, it added, with initial attacks on shopping centers and foreigners in Jordanian hotels, followed by more deadly strikes with powerful explosives and chemicals on Western diplomatic missions and unspecified "vital national sites."
One attack involved firing rockets at a district in the Jordanian capital that houses the U.S., British and other diplomatic missions as well as housing for expats and Western diplomats.
The statement said al-Qaida "explosive experts" based in Iraq and elsewhere have assisted the suspects with manufacturing home-made explosives.
The statement did not say when the suspects were arrested, but Maaytah — the government spokesman — said Jordanian intelligence apprehended them in the past few days.