WASHINGTON — Last week’s suicide attacks on three Jordanian hotels has undercut Muslim support for Al Qaeda and the insurgents in Iraq, but also heightened concerns about their ability to strike Israel and other countries, experts said.
“Unintentionally perhaps, the United States, through its actions in Iraq, has created a fertile zone where these militant extremists are sowing instability against some of the very governments we are trying to protect, such as Jordan,” said Scott Lasensky, a Middle East scholar with the United States Institute of Peace, a government-funded think tank in Washington.
“It is quite ironic that there is this regional blowback now,” he said. “It is fair criticism of the Bush administration that it didn’t think this through. It is one of the many costs that are now being realized from the poor follow-up” to the war.
The American invasion of Iraq — and its prolonged presence there — has strengthened the hand of those in Al Qaeda who say that in order to effectively fight a global jihad, all Muslim countries have to be liberated from the influence of the West and from the rule of pro-Western leaders, said Yoram Kahati, an expert on Al Qaeda at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
According to this school of thought, only a liberated, re-Islamized Middle East can serve as a base to fight the United States and its allies. The most outspoken leader of this school within Al Qaeda is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the commander of Al Qaeda in Iraq who claimed responsibility for the hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan.
“Iraq, in fact, is becoming the ultimate regional battleground for jihadists, which not only attracts Muslim militants from around the world but also sends them out to neighboring countries,” Kahati said, adding that Israel is bound to suffer from this development. “It is an alarming unintended consequence of the war in Iraq, and it perfectly serves the ideology of Zarqawi.”
Supporters of the Bush administration have argued in recent days that the decision to target hotels in Jordan reflects Zarqawi’s weakness inside Iraq. But, several critics of the administration countered, the bombings are actually a success for the insurgency leader.
“What we see is the poisons of Iraq spilling over to Jordan, which is exactly Zarqawi’s strategy,” said Judith Kipper, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. His objective, she said, is not only to use the occupation of Iraq as a cause by which to energize the global jihad movement, but also as a physical base from which to launch attacks in the region.
Still, Kipper said, the bombings do reveal weaknesses in Zarqawi’s overall strategy, including his general inability to recruit Jordanians to carry out successful attacks against their country’s Hashemite regime. The bombers who struck the hotels last week are believed to have come from Iraq.
Kipper noted that the Jordanian intelligence agency, known in Arabic as the mukhabarat , has foiled many attempted attacks in recent years.
She also argued that the main impact of the bombings was to galvanize support in Jordan for King Abdullah and his foreign policy. A recent poll found that the bombings had turned much of the Jordanian public against Zarqawi’s forces.
The backlash appears to extend into Al Qaeda’s circles of support.
In the week since the bombings, Web sites known to be sympathetic to Al Qaeda have been filled with critical comments by religious leaders, as well as laymen, blasting Zarqawi for killing innocent Muslim civilians, many of them Jordanians and Palestinians celebrating at a wedding.
Kahati, who routinely follows these sites, said that the barrage of criticism is unprecedented. It shows, Kahati said, that Zarqawi’s strategy has operational limits.
“It’s going to be a very delicate balancing act for him, if he wants to continue attacking in Arab states, to be killing innocent Muslims while maintaining popular support,” said Kahati, who is also a senior researcher at Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a think tank run by former intelligence officers. “Once you lose this kind of support and credibility, you’re going to have a difficult time recruiting suicide bombers,” he said.
This debate over the moral and theological merits of the Amman bombings has deeper roots within Al Qaeda. Several of the group’s leaders — most notably Abu Muhammad al-Makdisi, Zarkawi’s mentor — have taken issue with Zarqawi’s wanton killing of Muslims in Iraq. Zarqawi gathered religious rulings to justify the killing of Muslims as “collateral damage” in a war against foreign invaders. But the attacks in Amman were targeted against fellow Muslims, and took place in a land not occupied by non-Muslims.
In that sense, the Amman attacks were a “paradigm shift,” Lasensky said, and they are causing an uproar in the Arab world. Not only the Arab print media but also the pan-Arab satellite television channels ran critical coverage of the attacks.
“If there is any silver lining here, this is it,” said Kipper, of the Council on Foreign Relations. “This is the first time ever that you see Arab masses demonstrating on the streets against terrorism.”
It is too early to tell whether the demonstrations will create a sea change in Arab public opinion, she said. In many Arab states, including Jordan, Al Qaeda is still seen as a legitimate force. A 2004 Pew poll found that 55% of Jordanians had “confidence” that Osama bin Laden would “do the right thing” in world affairs.
For now, Kahati said, the world is forced to depend on Arab regimes “to thwart most potential attacks.”
“We saw attacks in Saudi Arabia, in Sinai and now in Jordan,” he said. “This is a regional epidemic that may spread further in the region into other countries. It achieves the goal of spreading terror and could cause instability. We have to count on the Arab security services and on Arab public opinion to keep it at bay.”