Behind the Amman Hotel Attack

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An injured man in front of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Amman

If an al-Qaeda group's claims are correct that it is behind the synchronized suicide bombings of three American-owned chain hotels in the center of Amman, Jordan, it would mark the first time that Abu Musab Zarqawi, who claimed responsibility less than 24 hours later, has pulled off a major atrocity in Jordan. The method and the targets bore the hallmarks of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization, whose franchise in Iraq, which specializes in suicide bombings and beheadings of kidnap victims, is headed up by Zarqawi. The bomber at the Radisson SAS hotel is thought to have walked into a hall where a wedding reception was in progress, where he blew himself up just before the bride and groom arrived. Another attacker blew himself up in the marble and glass lobby of the Grand Hyatt. At the Days Inn, it appeared that a suicide bomber inside a vehicle detonated his explosives prematurely when he was stopped for questioning by security guards.

Zarqawi, born Ahmad Nazzal Fadil al Khalayilah (his nom de guerre is an adaptation of Zarqa, his industrial hometown in northern Jordan) has been engaged in a long-running struggle with Jordan's King Abdullah II. Their duel began immediately after Abdullah ascended the throne in 1999, when he freed the Jordanian militant from prison in a general amnesty. Zarqawi, 39, had been jailed in the early 1990s on sedition charges after joining an Islamic fundamentalist group. He repaid Abdullah's royal gesture by starting a relentless terrorism campaign against Jordanian monarchy. In turn, Abdullah has stood firm against Islamic extremism and sought to bring Zarqawi to justice, cooperating ever more closely with the Bush administration's War on Terrorism.

The Amman attacks fit a now-familiar pattern of terrorism that began after the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003: simultaneous blasts against Western targets hit housing and office compounds in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2004, hotels in Morocco in May 2003, and tourist resorts in Egypt in October 2004 and July 2005. In each case, the targets were in Arab countries led by pro-American governments.

But Zarqawi had his sights on Jordan long before the Iraq war. Jordanian officials accuse him of directing the so-called Millennium Plot to hit tourist sites, including the Radisson Hotel in Amman, on New Year's Eve 1999. Last year, a Jordanian court sentenced Zarqawi to death for instigating the assassination of an American diplomat in 2002. In 2004, Jordanian officials said they foiled a chemical bomb attack directed by Zarqawi that could have killed up to 20,000 people; he is currently standing trial in absentia for the plot.

Wednesday's attacks suggest that Abdullah's worst fears about the Iraq war may be coming to pass. Though the King has been a staunch ally in the War on Terrorism, and provided key logistical support in the Iraq invasion, he strongly opposed the war on grounds that a conflict could further destabilize the Middle East.

The signs that the insurgency in Iraq was spilling on to Jordanian territory became apparent right after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, when Zarqawi's men launched a massive bomb attack on the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. Just over two months ago, Zarqawi claimed credit for shoulder-fired rocket attacks on U.S. warships in Jordan's port of Aqaba. The shots missed their targets, killed two bystanders and served as a warning that more Zarqawi attacks may be on the way. Another trend worrying Jordanian officials is the substantial numbers of the Kingdom's young men who have gone off to Iraq to join Zarqawi's cause—the jihad against the U.S.-led effort to build a new Iraq. The fighters often hail from well-known tribes that are otherwise loyal to the Hashemite throne. Another generation of young Zarqawis, Jordanian officials fear, may cause a new era of violence, undermining the moderate, prosperous and pro-American kingdom that Abdullah is desperately trying to build.