You know that a terrorist attack has backfired when the bad guys start blaming it on us. Rumors are spreading on the insurgent websites and chatrooms that last week’s hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan, were part of a CIA plot, a Mossad intrigue, or a take-your-pick conspiracy. Since al Qaeda has already admitted the attack was theirs, this line will have a hard time playing, but it shows that at some level the terrorist sympathizers know that this was a bad move.
As angry Jordanians poured into the streets to denounce hometown zero Zarqawi
, he rushed out a second statement seeking to justify the attacks. He explained that these hotels had been under observation for some time, and that they “had become favorite spots for intelligence activities, especially for the Americans, the Israelis, and some West European countries, where the hidden battle is fought in the so-called war against terrorism.” In other words, they were not seeking to kill civilians, but aiming at a legitimate military target. I doubt this argument will sway the masses, since many of the victims were attending a wedding at the time
. In p.r. terms it is probably the worst event a terrorist can bomb. Only the hard-core psychopaths will get a warm feeling from blowing up someone’s nuptials.
Attacks like this are not only criminal, they are foolhardy. They rarely benefit the terrorists, and often harm their cause. Recent history makes the case. The 9/11 attacks unified and motivated our country to unleash incalculable harm on al Qaeda. The 2002 Bali bombing had the principle strategic effect of making the Australians their implacable foes. The 2005 London bombings rallied British public opinion against the continuing threat. The 3/11 bombings in Madrid may have helped influence the Spanish elections to bring in a government with a less cooperative Iraq policy, but in other areas of the War on Terrorism Spanish policies have if anything gotten tougher. In Jordan, a researcher found that since the bombing, nine of ten people he surveyed who had previously held a favorable view of al Qaeda had changed their minds. This is no way to run a revolution.
King Abdullah has rightfully taken umbrage at statements, particularly from myopic Western pundits, that Jordan was attacked primarily because of its relationship with the United States. Al Qaeda has plenty of reasons to attack Jordan that have nothing to do with the U.S. or the war in Iraq. Those rushing to link everything to Iraq (and, by implication, U.S. policies) should remember that Zarqawi was jailed in Jordan from 1993-1999, and there is no love lost between him and the Jordanian government. Furthermore, Jordan sentenced him to death in absentia for complicity in the murder of American diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman in 2002. Zarqawi would be killing people whether Coalition forces were in Iraq or not. It’s his job, and he likes it.
Noteworthy in Zarqawi’s second announcement was his list of intelligence services working with the U.S., which includes those from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority. The last is significant because lately al Qaeda has been seeking to raise its profile in the Palestinian community. Al Qaeda has never had a high opinion of the Fatah faction (Yasser Arafat’s security forces opened fire on Palestinian demonstrators carrying pictures of bin Laden in October 2001) and as the government of the Palestinian Authority seeks to move towards a measure of respectability, al Qaeda is moving in to take over the market in violent resistance. They announced the formation of a franchise in Gaza and won praise from a local imam. Members of Hamas, frustrated at their organization’s drift away from violence, are already starting to defect to the more motivated al Qaeda. This is a development well worth watching.
Another lesson learned for the terrorists is that multiple suicide attacks do not always go off as planned, and when they fail they leave behind living bombers who make excellent intelligence sources. For example: In the May 2003 Casablanca bombings (which Zarqawi was allegedly involved in as well), one of the cell leaders chose at the last minute not to detonate his bomb and collect a trip to paradise. Instead, he was arrested and helped bring down what was left of the organization in Morocco.
So too with the Amman bombing; 35-year-old Sajida Mubarak Atrous al Rishawi suffered a wardrobe malfunction and now has become an invaluable asset in understanding the means, motives and methods of the suicide cell. Al Qaeda actually helped investigators by rushing out information on the bombers not knowing that Sajida was still alive and trying to go to ground. Zarqawi’s statement tipped off police that there was a woman involved, and she was the wife of one of the bombers. After quickly connecting some dots, she was in custody.
Early reports have it that Sajida is the sister of Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, said to be a Zarqawi lieutenant killed fighting Coalition forces in Fallujah. Her pseudonym for the operation was “Sajida Abdel Qader Latif,” which could be an homage to Latif al-Rishawi, head of the Abu Risha (or Al Burayshah) tribe of al Anbar, who was killed in Ramadi in a clash with U.S. troops in February 2005. The previous tribal leader, Sheikh Khamis Futaikhan, was gunned down in November 2004 in Ramadi by unknown assailants. It’s a tough gig. But if Zarqawi is sending members of the inner circle on suicide missions, you have to wonder how many people he has left.
Less is being reported about Sajida’s husband, Ali al-Shamari, though someone by that name helped lead a mutiny of 200 Iraqi soldiers in April, 2004, when they were ordered into action against insurgents in Fallujah. This could be a coincidence of names, but if not it adds to the picture; it illustrates the insurgent technique of penetrating the Iraqi security forces in order to sow various forms of chaos. I guess he ran out of missions and wanted to go out with a big one.
Incidentally: Back on September 14, 2000, an Iraqi national named Adil al-Rishawi hijacked Qatar Airways flight 404 as it was heading for Amman, Jordan. He surrendered to Saudi authorities after the plane made a forced landing in Hail. At his trial in Doha, Qatar, he said he was trying to draw attention to the plight of Iraqis under U.N. sanctions. One report stated that al-Rishawi took over the plane armed with “a sharp tool.” Sounds familiar. No word whether he ever visited Saddam’s terrorist training camp at Salman Pak, but if he is still being held in Qatar maybe someone should go talk to him.
It will be interesting in coming days to see if Zarqawi keeps trying to explain the Jordan bombings, and how al Qaeda’s limitless appetite for violence will affect public opinion in the Muslim world. People who think this attack is evidence of al Qaeda’s strength or momentum have it backwards. This is a sign of weakness, of rashness, of desperation. It has hurt their legitimacy and damage their movement. As the old saying goes: In politics if you are explaining, you are losing, and Zarqawi has a lot more explaining to do.
–James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and an NRO contributor.