Wearing a black robe and her defused bomb-belt tied around her waist, Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi confessed Sunday on Jordanian TV to trying to blow up the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman last week.
Mrs. Rishawi's detonator failed, and she fled after her husband and two other Iraqis - all from the terrorist group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - succeeded in killing at least 57 people by bombing three hotels in Jordan last Wednesday evening.
The bombings are the strongest evidence yet that Iraq is no longer simply a magnet for international jihadis. Like Afghanistan under the Taliban, say counterterrorism experts, Iraq has become a base from which Al Qaeda can plan and launch attacks against its designated enemies, shifting both operatives and weapons into neighboring regimes its leaders hate as much as the US.
The unusual airing of her confession appears to be part of a vigorous Jordanian government campaign to rally average citizens against Islamist terrorism and hopefully prevent repeats of the country's worst-ever terrorist attack. The country's monarch, King Abdullah, is a close US ally and national anger at the US invasion of Iraq has been almost universal.
Mr. Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the bombings on Thursday. Attacks on two other hotels - the Grand Hyatt and the Days Inn - wounded up to 100. The other bombers were identified as Safar Mohammad Ali and Rawad Jassim Mohammed Abed.
The Jordan-born Zarqawi has sought to rally global Muslim opinion to his side, but in Wednesday's choice of targets he appears to have miscalculated badly. The overwhelming majority of victims were Muslims, either native Jordanians or Palestinians.
Anti-Zarqawi demonstrations have been held in Jordan every day since the attack. "This is not the Jordanian custom and this is not the Islamic custom,'' says Jalileh Kareem, standing with her daughter and her sister amid a 1,000-person rally on the outskirts of Amman. "They are not human beings. They are animals."
Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher told reporters Sunday that the three attackers were Iraqi nationals from Anbar Province, an Islamist militant stronghold that shares a border with Jordan. He said Mrs. Rishawi's brother was a key Zarqawi lieutenant killed by American troops in Fallujah, and that the four crossed by car into Jordan on Nov. 4.
Though female suicide bombers are not unheard of, they are very rare, and Rishawi's presence in the car probably eased their passage across the frontier, since she didn't fit the usual insurgent profile.
The Jordanians "run a very, very tight ship in terms of security so they have been able to foil a number of attacks," says Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. "But particularly with the war in Iraq, there will be more spillover."
Though the attack in Jordan was the first major operation for Iraq-based jihadis, it was presaged by minor incidents in other countries and growing concern on the part of regional officials. In June, Kuwait caught militants trying to smuggle explosives into the country from Iraq; Germany last year arrested members of Ansar al-Sunna, which operates out of Kurdish Iraq; and in Syria, two shootouts in the past six months have involved militants with Iraqi ties.
Mr. Jenkins says until now Iraq has been a "net importer of jihadists" - drawing extremist sympathizers from other Muslim nations. But he worries the attacks in Jordan indicate Iraq will eventually become a net exporter of terrorists. That will have an impact on the jihadist movement worldwide, but particularly on countries like Jordan that are adjacent to Iraq and allied with the US, he says.
Jordan was a target for at least three related reasons. It's not only one of America's staunchest allies in the region but it has a peace agreement with Israel, and King Abdullah presides over a resolutely secular state that has dealt ruthlessly with domestic Islamist opposition for decades.
Zarqawi, a native of Jordan, spent much of the 1990s in jail for militant activity and fled into exile after a royal amnesty in 1998. His hatred for Jordan's regime is pronounced - as it is for states like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, all of whom Al Qaeda's sympathizers view as despotic and corrupt.
His Al Qaeda in Iraq has put out at least three statements since the blast that helped investigators track down Rishawi, since they mention four bombers, one a husband and wife team. But the Jordanians had only identified three suicide attackers. Zarqawi's organization apparently had no way of knowing one of the bombers failed.
Zarqawi, who lived in exile in Afghanistan before moving to Anbar Province after the US invasion, has always wanted to hit Jordan, and the invasion gave him the chance to come home again, says Evan Kohlmann, an Al Qaeda expert and author.
"Look at his success rate. He had succeeded in killing one US diplomat, just one, before the Iraq war," says Mr. Kohlmann referring to Lawrence Foley, who was murdered at his home in 2002. "Why is he successful now? Because he has an entire team of suicide bombers ready and waiting" in Iraq.
Last August Zarqawi's group took credit for a failed rocket attack on two US warships in the Jordanian port of Aqaba, and said the operatives and weapons in that case also came from Iraq.
Kohlmann points out, it's useful to be close to your strongest recruiting pool. "What's been effective for Zarqawi has been recruiting Sunni Arabs - Iraqi, Saudi, Jordanian, North African. These are the people who have been proven to be the most destructive, capable, and driven fighters," he says.
M.J. Gohel, the president of the Asia Pacific Foundation, a think tank that tracks militant groups, says that while the war in Iraq "certainly hasn't helped," the long-term presence of militant sympathizers inside Jordan should not be discounted. "It really was only a matter of time, given that terrorists have a support base inside the country, the entire network can be recruited locally."
• Staff writer Alexandra Marks contributed to this report from New York.