For the second time in two years, Jordanian officials say they have halted an Islamist plot against the United States. The arrest of 11 suspected militants who are said to have Al Qaeda ties may have short-circuited plans to attack a variety of US and Israeli targets in the area.
The arrests were confirmed to the Monitor by the state prosecutor, Mahmoud Obeidat, who says the men are accused of "conspiring to carry out terrorist actions against US and foreign targets in Jordan, and possessing automatic weapons and explosives for illegal use."
Arab countries including Yemen, Tunisia, and Morocco have all recently arrested Arab fighters fleeing Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime. Diplomatic observers say the Jordanian arrests are part of a clear pattern: Arab veterans of the Afghan conflict are returning to their homelands to work with small, loosely coordinated groups dedicated to promoting a strict version of Islam through violent action.
Militants like these have made lawyer Mohammed Duwaik a prosperous man. With evident pride, he flips through a scrapbook of legal reports about his clients, including Al Qaeda conspirators and stabbers of suspected Israeli spies.
"It's a duty to defend these boys," says Mr. Duwaik.
"Why doesn't America understand that its policies are just breeding more and more violence?"
His latest case, he says, is that of the recently arrested 11 suspects. The men are said to be led by Emir Wail al Shalabi, a Palestinian-Jordanian fighter from the Arab camps in Afghanistan.
According to Duwaik, Mr. Wail was arrested this April after fleeing the Taliban fortress of Tora Bora during America's bombing, and his 10 acolytes were detained in raids on their homes two weeks ago.
US diplomats in Amman were unavailable for comment. But informed sources said four of the men were understood to be planning attacks on the American and Israeli Embassies, and on leisure centers believed to be frequented by Americans recuperating during military exercises in the kingdom. A second six-man cell, says Duwaik, was supposedly planning to hit unnamed Israeli targets across the Jordanian border in the West Bank. He says the men are accused of belonging to a hitherto unknown group known as Al Ashara, or "The 10," and are now being held in Al-Juwaydah Prison, south of Amman.
Jordanian officials are understood to have shunned going public with the case up until now for fear the news could further damage a tourism industry battered by the 20-month old Palestinian intifada, as well as fears it could spark an outcry in a country where the US "war on terror" is widely perceived as a means to extend US and Israeli power in the region.
But analysts say some officials are pressing for Jordan to follow the example of Morocco, which recently unveiled an Al Qaeda catch, to save Jordan from sacrificing its status as Washington's closest ally in the Arab world.
Jordan was the only Arab state to send peacekeepers to Kabul, and it conducts frequent military exercises with the US. A third of its $450 million US aid budget goes to military aid. But on Saturday, the Jordanian Foreign Minister denied reports in a Lebanese newspaper, Al Safir, that 2,000 US troops were based in Jordan to prepare for an attack on Iraq.
Jordanian officials say popular anger at perceived US support for Israel's onslaught against the Palestinians and America's active role in isolating Iraq has turned to helpless resignation.
But the rise in militant Islam still alarms the king's men. Friday prayers in some mosques are accompanied with celebrations for the martyrs of the previous week's suicide bombings on Israelis, and the anti-American mood is partially fostered by dozens of Arab Afghans who are reported to have returned home to Jordan since Sept. 11.
While they remain under surveillance, the Arab Afghans are said to have integrated easily into Palestinian refugee camps and the cities of Ma'an and Salt, locally known as Jordan's Tora Bora. Tanks have taken up positions outside the US Embassy in the normally relaxed capital, and American Peace Corps volunteers stationed in the country's hinterland have been cautioned against visiting Amman.
In an attempt to curb the spread of Al Qaeda splinter groups since Sept. 11, the authorities have introduced a wave of authoritarian laws, confiscated thousands of books of jihadi literature from publishing houses in Amman and made a spate of arrests, reportedly including that of Abu Mohammed Al Makdisi, the spiritual mentor of Jordan's oldest militant group, the Islamic Liberation Party. Late last year a 17-year-old boy, Suleiman Fanatseh, died in custody after he was arrested for carrying a photo of bin Laden in a pocket notebook.
Observers also express the fear that the crackdown could erode what commentators say is Jordan's long-standing but tacit alliance with activists of political Islam advocating nonviolent reform. "Since the 1950s, Abdullah's father, King Hussein, worked with the Muslim Brotherhood to root out leftists, communists, and Nasserites," says Basil Rafa'iyah, a journalist at Jordan's Al Rai newspaper.
Jordan remains one of the rare Arab states where Islamist parties are not banned, but there are signs that the relationship is fraying. In February this year, suspected militants blew up the car of a key terrorist investigator, Lt. Colonel Ali Burjak, in central Amman, killing two foreigners.
The incident followed the death sentence passed on a Jordanian-American, Raed Hijazi, for conspiring in 1999 to act against American and Israeli tourists on the eve of the millennium celebrations. The authorities said the plot was funded by Al Qaeda, and linked it to further alleged attempts to assassinate King Abdullah while on his summer holiday, and to attack the tourist facilities at the site of Jesus' baptism near the Jordan River.
Despite the state crackdown, many jihad warriors in Jordan's southern Islamist heartlands have declined to remove the photos of bin Laden that decorate their homes.
Hero-worshippers in the southern town of Ma'an eagerly recall how the Saudi-born militant acknowledged his Jordanian support in a recent videotape by reciting a poem by Ma'an's best-loved poet, Yussef Abu Hileleh, who got to know bin Laden while an Islamic teacher in Saudi Arabia.
In response, Abu Hileleh has penned a poem dedicated to bin Laden entitled "The Lion of the Gulf." It hails bin Laden as a great and free man whose "good deeds are innumerable."