The Aqaba attack

ALTHOUGH they failed to hit their intended targets, last week’s triple rocket attack in Jordan’s southern seaport of Aqaba is a frightening development of terrorism — and not democracy — spreading beyond Iraq’s largely unguarded borders.

By Claude Salhani

Published: Fri 26 Aug 2005, 11:52 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:11 PM

It is also another sign that an unstable Iraq will continue to have a nefarious effect on its neighbours unless the political situation is addressed, and sooner rather than later. That means the Iraqis need to finalise their constitution, organise their military and security services, and as President Bush likes to say, the Iraqi military needs to stand up so the US can stand down. Not a short order by any means.

This new development in Aqaba is particularly worrisome for Jordan, where with rare exception the country has been one of the most security conscious, as well as one of the safest in the Arab world. Jordan’s security and intelligence services have prided themselves as among the most efficient in the Middle East. Since the 1970 clashes of Black September that pitted Palestinian guerrillas against the Hashemite army, the kingdom’s security services have been alert and largely successful, even if at times somewhat heavy-handed. Still, they got the job done.

The Aqaba attack was claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, one of several Islamist organisations to have taken responsibility for the bombings of three Egyptian resorts in the Sinai Peninsula earlier this year, and in which nearly 100 people lost their lives.

It was also claimed by Al Qaeda associate in Iraq, led by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, himself a Jordanian. In a statement carried on a web site and broadcast on Qatar’s AL Jazeera satellite television, the group said it had "planned and carried out the attack on Aqaba." The report said the group delayed getting their statement out so as to allow the perpetrators time to escape.

But despite the various claims and the fact that both groups are thought to be linked to Al Qaeda, the modus operandi of this attack leads one to dismiss that option and to search for clues elsewhere.

Jordanian officials believe the group responsible for the Aqaba attack may not be linked to Al Qaeda, but instead could be homegrown. "The firing of Katyusha rockets is not characteristic of what we know of Al Qaeda activity," a Jordanian government official told Israeli daily Haaretz.

Indeed, as the newspaper points out, the Aqaba attack was quite atypical of Al Qaeda and their affiliates. Traditionally, operations traced back to Al Qaeda are far better planned and have a greater rate of success. As examples one can cite the terrorist operations attributed to Al Qaeda starting with the attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, which was hit by a dinghy laden with explosives, and was "carried out with great accuracy."

Similar were the twin bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar as-Salam; And the same can be said about the attacks on Bali, Casablanca, Istanbul, Madrid, London, and of course, the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Three poorly fired Katyusha rockets in Aqaba stand out by their lack of "professionalism" and do not fit the traditional Al Qaeda modus operandi. The deduction is that the attack could have been the work of an "independent" local Jordanian group.

From Jordan’s perspective a domestic organisation rather than an Al Qaeda affiliate could be an indication that forces are at work trying to undermine the stability of the Hashemite kingdom. And just as worrisome, it could mean that despite its airtight security, a web of insurgency has managed to form itself, and to infiltrate past the kingdom’s close-knit intelligence network.

Still, for all its precautionary security measures, and its excellent track record, Jordan has not been spared the troubles of terrorism that has plagued the Middle East and the world in recent years. Jordan, too, had its share of Muslim extremism. In October 2002, Laurence Foley, a senior US diplomat, was gunned down outside his home in Amman. This was the first time a Western diplomat was killed in the Jordanian capital.

Though not as active as in other Arab states, political Islam remains present in Jordan. The Islamic Action Front, an offshoot of Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, has been active in the country’s politics.

Unlike other Middle Eastern countries where the Brotherhood has been either banned or in opposition to the governments, the Jordanian branch has had a rather effective cooperation with the kings of Jordan. They supported King Hussein through his early years, and later were permitted to have large influence on the national politics. But in 1993 fearing that the "Ikhwan" might become too powerful in parliament, King Hussein changed the electorate law. The Brotherhood went along with the changes, and still managed to come out ahead as the leading bloc in parliament.

Besides the Brotherhood, politicised Islamists have been active in the southern city of Maan, leading to a crackdown by Jordanian security forces over the last few years. And of course, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, as his pseudonym indicates, hails from Zarqa, in Jordan.

Claude Salhani is International Editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington

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