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Analyzing the Jordan Bombings

November 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


LINDSEY HILSUM: Jordan’s peace has been shattered. Iraqis and foreigners based in Baghdad stay in these hotels in Amman to get a rest from violence and terror. Israeli tourists also request the reticence, but the victims of last night’s bombs were mainly Jordanians, including those attending a wedding.

ASHRAF AKRAS, Bridegroom: Myself, I lost my father. I lost my father-in-law and a couple of a friends as well. My friend, he lost his mom and dad. It is a mess, what happened tonight. This is not Islam. Islam is not like this.

LINDSEY HILSUM: This woman being treated in hospital lost all her children. This three-month-old baby escaped with a fractured wrist and is now an orphan because both parents were killed.

King Abdullah rushed back from a state visit to Kazakhstan to tour the damage. His father, King Hussein, made peace with Israel. And while his government criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Jordan remains an American ally.

The militant group al-Qaida in Iraq posted a claim of responsibility on a Web site, saying the hotels were used by American and Israeli spies. The leader of the group, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is Jordanian; he spent 15 years in prison in Jordan. Now he’s based in Iraq; his group also claimed the bombing of a Baghdad restaurant today in which more than 30 people were killed.

Amman is home to about 400,000 Iraqis, some of whom fear this day may be blamed for violence spilling over the border in Jordan.

MAN (Translated): We consider ourselves exiles; we’re always blamed to some extent. We expected this.

MAN (Translated): With Jordan located between four countries including Israel and Iraq, Iraq is partially at war. So it is not surprising that Jordan is targeted. Also, Jordan supports the government in Iraq.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The Jordanian government says it will hunt down the killers.

FAROUK QASRAWI: Jordan will fight terrorism and determined to carry through with the policies, our policies will not change.

LINDSEY HILSUM: This afternoon, several hundred Jordanians came on to the streets of the capitol to express outrage about the bombs and support the king. Previous terrorists have been thwarted by the Jordanian security services. The threat to the country’s peace is a shock.

Tonight, survivors of the wedding party held a candlelit vigil outside the Hyatt. In recent years, Jordan managed to avoid the turbulence that has hit other countries in the Middle East. Tonight Jordanians are in mourning, not just for the dead but for the security they lost last night.

JIM LEHRER: And to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: In a television address to his nation, King Abdullah vowed to confront the terrorists. He said: “Jordan is not scared and will not accept blackmail, or turn away from our role in fighting terrorism.” Why Jordan, and why now?

For more on those and other questions we turn to: Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit and author of “Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror”; and Shibley Telhami, a professor of politics and government at the University of Maryland, who conducts opinion polling in the Middle East.

Michael Scheuer, why do you think Amman was a target now?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, I think the claim from Zarqawi’s group that they had surveilled the targets probably is just — is honest and they were ready to stage an attack.

I think most importantly, al-Qaida went back to a place where it had failed previously. The hotels in Amman were to be a target during the millennium attack in 2000, and that was broken up by the Jordanian services. Al-Qaida has a habit of going back and finishing the job. I think that’s why they did it.

I think you also need to look at the letter Zawahri sent to Zarqawi in July of this year saying you should expand your operations, Iraq is not the only important place; expand out into Jordan, into Syria, into Lebanon, into the Levant, so I think that’s kind of, we are seeing the beginning of the bleed-through from Iraq into the Levant area.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I’m surprised to hear you cite the Zawahri letter because in that same letter the al-Qaida number two says to al-Zarqawi, you know, maybe you shouldn’t be killing as many civilians and targeting soft targets like places where civilians gather.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, I think what you really read in the letter, Ray, is Zawahiri is very concerned with the beheadings and the kind of willy-nilly killing of Shia just for being Shia; Zarqawi has pretty much stopped that. We haven’t seen beheadings recently. But the attacks in Jordan were against three foreign targets; all three of the hotels were owned by foreigners and frequented by foreigners. I think the letter is exactly the motivation behind – at least part of the motivation behind this attack.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Telhami, up until now, what was the attitude of Jordanians on the street toward the Iraq war and toward the insurgency led in part by Zarqawi?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, first, I have just conducted a survey that ended on Oct. 24. And most Jordanians, of course, had opposed the war, 90 percent of them opposed the war passionately and were very upset with the United States over it with the governments — supported the United States afterwards.

But when you ask them about whether Iraqis are better off today or not, the majority say Iraqis are worse off today. The attitude toward al-Qaida specifically is interesting and that’s not only Jordanian attitudes but attitudes of the other Arabs that I have measured. When you ask them what aspects of al-Qaida do you sympathize with most, only about 6 percent say they sympathize with the aim of an Islamic state; only about 4 percent in Jordan say they sympathize with the methods of al-Qaida.

The majority say they only sympathize with the aspects of standing up to the U.S. or championing causes like the issue of Palestine. So the support for them — the sympathy for them among public at large is really by default. It is a function of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. No one in Jordan that I know would want Zarqawi to be the ruler. Maybe there are a few but certainly majorities don’t.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the demonstrations that you saw, today big demonstrations in the streets of Amman, signal a rank and file change in attitude toward what’s going on in their next door neighbor?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, we don’t know if this is a real change in attitude. We know that typically after such an attack there’s a backlash and you see it in every country. In Egypt, for example, when the Islamists strike the state, inevitably they hurt innocent civilians; when locals get killed people react and the government has an upper hand in going after them.

The problem, of course, it is a double-edged sword. What happens is, these groups, while they, in fact, don’t want to lose the public, they want to try to get maximum support. That’s why they target westerners or foreigners or the state if they can. But at the same time, what happens is that they try to show the state to be weak. The main thing is to show that the state is not this very powerful entity to make it vulnerable to create economic vulnerability, political vulnerability and, in so doing, to inspire others to follow suit. So it is a double edged sword for the state.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Michael Scheuer, you heard what the professor had to say about attitudes toward the war, al-Qaida and al-Zarqawi. Is there a split between rank and file citizens of the country and their own leadership?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: I’m not sure if there’s a split. But the one thing I would say is that once the backlash is over, the motivation for bin Laden and those who support him remains the same. We are still, the Americans are still in Iraq. The Americans are still in the Arabian Peninsula; the Americans are still supporting police states across the Middle East.

So when this backlash stops, which it will, it always does, the main drivers of dissatisfaction in the Middle East will be there, which is American policy.

RAY SUAREZ: And what about King Abdullah’s standing in all of this? He has come back from Kazakhstan, surveyed the damage. Was he someone who was unpopular inside his country for his support of the United States?

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Oh there is a certain dissatisfaction with the king and with his predecessor. I think the problem the new king has, he is very young; he is very westernized and he is very — seen as very pro-American as the professor said.

And I think there’s a great deal of sympathy for the monarchy in Jordan, but I don’t think that it nearly as strong as the resentment of Jordanians toward their government support for the war in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Telhami, you wanted to say?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Yes. I say the king has been a very weak, had a very weak hand and he has been working with it. Strategically he has done well at the international level. He has kept the U.S. happy. He has kept his peace with Israel stable; he has managed affairs with the neighbors, even with Iraq under very difficult circumstances.

His vulnerability is at home and he knew that from the beginning. And that’s is why he has been advising the U.S. very strongly against the war but found himself having to go along with it knowing very well that he would be in this state.

And that is where he has got a lot of work to do. He has got a lot of work to do because this passionate opposition to American policy, Jordan is an American ally; there’s passionate opposition to what’s happening in Iraq; Jordan is trying to repair its relations with the current government in Iraq; he’s got a lot of work ahead of him.

RAY SUAREZ: But do events like this create a “rally around the flag” moment in a small country like Jordan?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: You know, they do temporarily and I think they will and the king will use it. But let’s think about this for a minute. This is a time when we say we are spreading democracy in the Middle East. And so how is the king going to address this security threat? What does it mean for him to tighten more than he has since the Iraq war? He is going to have to unleash his security service. He is going to have to be much more tough on many things that the Jordanians supposedly are trying to open up.

And so in the end that is why when you ask people in Jordan is there more democracy in the Middle East broadly today than before the Iraq war, most say there’s less democracy than there was and that is the dilemma that we find ourselves in.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: I think in the long run our invasion of Iraq, whatever the threat from Saddam probably is a death warrant for Jordan.

RAY SUAREZ: Explain that.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, Jordan — as the professor said, there’s a great deal of sympathy toward what bin Laden opposes, toward American activities in the Middle East and toward our policies in the Middle East and for bin Laden and his like, people who follow him, we regard Iraq as a magnet where we can fight them there instead of here.

Al-Qaida has always been searching for contiguous territory in the Middle East from which they could attack what they view as apostate governments: the Jordanians, the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Lebanese, and finally through the Levant into Israel.

So, in essence, what our invasion did was give al-Qaida the first opportunity it had to establish a geographic continuity, a safe haven from which they can operate into another country and come back to safe haven into Iraq.

Jordan is probably the least stable society in the Levant, and I would think that the longer we are in Iraq, surely the more internal destabilization will occur in Jordan.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Scheuer and Professor Telhami, thank you both.