Arabs Recoil from Suicide Sister

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Sajida Rishawi confesses on Jordanian TV

Sajida Rishawi was meant to become a poster girl for suicide terror. But she is inspiring revulsion, not veneration, in Jordan and beyond. The 35-year-old Iraqi woman from the restive Sunni city of Ramadi had traveled to Jordan intending to be the fourth bomber in last week's suicide attacks on hotels in Amman. Instead, Jordanian sources tell TIME, she was arrested Sunday morning in the historic city of Salt, after fleeing the Radisson SAS hotel and making her escape by taxi. The sources say that she headed for the western Jordanian city, known for its radical Islamists, in search of shelter with the kin of her sister, whose Jordanian husband—an al-Qaeda explosives expert—was killed in a U.S. strike on the Iraqi city of Falluja in 2004. Bad move: The Jordanian sources say a member of the clan snitched, alerting police to her whereabouts.

In a chilling performance aired on Jordan's Channel 1 only hours later, Rishawi twirled her body around as she modeled the hand-made explosives belt that she tried but failed to detonate in the hotel's ballroom on November 9. As if in a trance, she then coldly recounted the plan. "There was a wedding at the hotel, with children, women and men inside," she said, explaining the choice of target. Her husband then took one corner of the ballroom, she took another. "I tried to explode [my belt] but it wouldn't," she said. But Rishawi's husband managed to detonate, causing the massive blast that killed dozens of wedding guests. The three coordinated hotel attacks left 58 people dead and about 100 wounded.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq apparently expected the bombers to be celebrated for their deeds. Jordan's largely Sunni Muslim population, after all, has been strongly sympathetic to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, which it has viewed as leading the resistance against American and other foreign forces. (After the bombings, Kuwaiti commentator Ahmed Rabi scolded the Jordanian media for its past "defense of the black violence in Iraq.") In justifying the slaughter, a statement from Abu Musab al Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's Jordanian-born leader in Iraq, explained that the Amman hotels were targeted because they were "used as a garden for the Jews and a base for infidel intelligence forces who are conspiring against Muslims."

This time, however, Jordanians weren't buying the propaganda. The hotel attacks, says Ali Shukri, a longtime advisor to the late King Hussein, were "not a rude awakening, but a bloody awakening" for the many Jordanians who have shown sympathy for Zarqawi's gruesome acts in the past. "It's come back to haunt them," says Shukri. "Most people will swing 180 degrees."

There's no poll data yet to back up Shukri's assessment, but anecdotal evidence is adding up: Thousands of Jordanians took to the streets over the weekend, waving Jordanian banners, rather than burning American and Israeli flags, and voicing outrage against Zarqawi's terrorism. Among the first to condemn the hotel attacks was the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan's most influential fundamentalist group. "What jihad is this," asked Jordanian columnist Taher Adwan, "when a young Arab man enters a hall where a wedding of Jordanian citizens is taking place to inflict the heaviest losses in life?" A similar local backlash against terrorism occurred when al-Qaeda attacks killed civilians in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Egypt.

King Abdullah II, in a nationally televised address, warned Zarqawi's network that Jordan would "pursue them wherever they are and smoke them out of their holes." In parading Rishawi before the cameras, Abdullah also showed that he intends to go head-to-head with the terrorists in the battle for Jordanian hearts and minds. Rishawi has an extremist pedigree—not only her brother-in-law, but also her own brother, another Zarqawi acolyte, died at Falluja. But before a TV audience of millions throughout the Arab world, she struck a pathetic figure. It turns out that she was married only two weeks ago during an Islamic holiday, embarking not on a honeymoon, but on a dance of death with her own groom. Zarqawi's group lauded Rishawi as one of "the lions from our best and most honored brigade." But to Amman writer Nasuh Majali, and many other Jordanians, she is one of "the enemies of the Arabs and Muslims."

--With additional reporting from Saad Hattar/ Amman

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