Zarqawi and Israel: Is There a New Jihadi Threat Destabilizing the Eastern Front?


Vol. 5, No. 12     December 15, 2005

  • For the first time, Israeli defense experts are noting that groups identifying with al-Qaeda – or the global jihad – are determined to acquire operational footholds close to Israel’s borders. The most dramatic sign was the November 9, 2005, suicide bombing of three Jordanian hotels in Amman by “al-Qaeda Mesopotamia” – the organization led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Militant Islamic websites immediately announced: “After the attack in the heart of Jordan, it will soon be possible to reach Jewish targets in Israel.”
  • Al-Qaeda operations around Israel are becoming more prominent. In August 2005, an al-Qaeda rocket strike at the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba also reached the Israeli resort town of Eilat. To Israel’s south, a growing al-Qaeda presence in Sinai led to attacks on Israeli tourists in Taba and other coastal resorts in October 2004, followed by a major bombing at a hotel in Sharm al-Sheikh in July 2005. Sinai has also served as a rear base for the beginning of an al-Qaeda presence in the Gaza Strip. Zarqawi’s terrorist network formally joined al-Qaeda in October 2004.

  • Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy head of al-Qaeda, has encouraged Zarqawi to extend his jihad in Iraq to neighboring states (i.e., Jordan and Syria), where there are already increasing signs of jihadi activity. In the next stage, Zawahiri envisions “the clash with Israel.” The head of Israeli military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Zeevi (Farkash), concluded recently: “We are not a high priority [for al-Qaeda], but our prioritization for them is increasing.”

  • Many Western sources are convinced that Zarqawi was training his recruits in the use of toxins, including poisons and chemical weapons, at the Herat training camp in Afghanistan. In 2004, a Zarqawi associate named Azmi al-Jailusi confessed to trying to set off a chemical explosion in central Amman, near the headquarters of Jordanian intelligence, which had the potential to kill 80,000 people. In April 2005, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned that recurrent U.S. intelligence reports indicated that Zarqawi was seeking to obtain a “radiological explosive.”

  • It would be a cardinal error for Israel to conclude that after the U.S. war in Iraq, the region to Israel’s east is moving in the direction of greater stability and, therefore, Israel can take the risk of conceding its strategic assets in the West Bank. Zarqawi now wants to destabilize Jordan, but clearly seeks to target Israel as well. Dismissing the value of Israel’s security fence, Zarqawi’s organization has declared: “the separation wall…will feel the might of the mujahidin,” hinting that Israel could face the same waves of insurgent volunteers that have entered Iraq. Were Israel to withdraw from the strategic barrier it controls in the Jordan Valley, then Israeli vulnerability could very well attract more global jihadielements to Jordan, who would seek to use the kingdom as a platform to reach the West Bank and then Israel.

For the first time, Israeli defense experts are noting that groups identifying with al-Qaeda – or the global jihad – are determined to acquire operational footholds close to Israel’s borders.1 The most dramatic sign of this development was the November 9, 2005, suicide bombing of three Jordanian hotels in Amman by “al-Qaeda Mesopotamia” – the organization led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian insurgency leader fighting the U.S. in Iraq. Militant Islamic websites immediately announced: “After the attack in the heart of Jordan, it will soon be possible to reach Jewish targets in Israel.”2 Dismissing the value of Israel’s security fence, Zarqawi’s website declared that the “separation wall…will feel the might of themujahidin.”3 This implied that his insurgent volunteers that had been used in Iraq might also be employed against Israel, as well.

Earlier, in August 2005, an al-Qaeda rocket strike in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba also reached the Israeli resort town of Eilat. To Israel’s south, a growing al-Qaeda presence in Sinai led to attacks on Israeli tourists in Taba and other coastal resorts in October 2004, followed by a major bombing at a hotel in Sharm al-Sheikh in July 2005. The al-Qaeda presence is based in central Sinai, which serves as the rear base for al-Qaeda’s entry into the Gaza Strip.

Al-Qaeda’s Changing Priorities

Until recently, Israel was not a high-priority target for al-Qaeda and its affiliate organizations that have embraced its goals of worldwide jihad. Al-Qaeda was formed in Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat in 1989 by the various mujahidin groups who were emboldened by their victory over a superpower and hence sought to carry their war to other arenas. Given its geographic location, however, the early al-Qaeda was more involved in militant Islamic struggles in Chechnya, Kashmir, and against the Taliban’s Afghan rivals in the Northern Alliance – but not in the war against Israel. As Arab rulers in the heartland of the Middle East succeeded in suppressing Islamic militant movements, al-Qaeda began to plan to strike at the “Far Enemy” (i.e., the U.S.), since the “Near Enemy” (the Arab regimes) was still too strong.4 With Osama bin Laden obsessed in the 1990s with the idea of evicting the U.S. from Saudi Arabia, America very quickly became his primary target. Israel, according to Bernard Lewis, was at best a third priority.5

A New Al-Qaeda Focus on Israel

This began to change as al-Qaeda perpetrated a hotel bombing and a missile attack on an Israeli Arkia airliner in Mombassa, Kenya, in November 2002. But the greatest factor behind the new focus of the global jihad on Israel has been the war in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which has created a new center for radical Islamic militancy in the Middle East itself. Thus, Zarqawi wrote in 2004: “Among the greatest positive elements of this arena [Iraq] is that it is jihad in the Arab heartland.” For Zarqawi, the main battle of Islamic militancy was to be fought here and not in the Hindu-Kush mountains bordering Pakistan, India, China, and Afghanistan: “the true, decisive battle between infidelity and Islam is in this land, i.e., in [Greater] Syria and its surroundings.” A U.S. counterterrorism official has concluded that Zarqawi’s real goal is to establish a single Islamic state throughout the Levant, from Turkey down to Egypt.6 Like other radical Islamist groups, he is part of the movement to destabilize and then replace present Arab regimes with a new caliphate. Zarqawi’s goals merged with those of al-Qaeda when he pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden in October 2004 and formally made his Jama’at al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad part of the global al-Qaeda network.

Zarqawi’s shift of focus to the heartland of the Middle East has received the full blessing of the al-Qaeda leadership. On October 11, 2005, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Ambassador John D. Negroponte, released an intercepted letter dated July 9, 2005, from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy head of al-Qaeda, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Praising this relocation of the global jihad to the Arab heartland, Zawahiri lays out for Zarqawi the next desirable stages of the jihad in Iraq, from the standpoint of al-Qaeda. After defeating the U.S., Zawahiri wants to see Zarqawi “extend the jihad to the secular countries neighboring Iraq (i.e., Jordan and Syria). Indeed, Jordanian authorities were told a few months later in October 2005 that documents found on a dead Zarqawi operative in Iraq indicated that orders had been given to begin to move into neighboring countries.7

But Zawahiri’s recommended strategy did not stop there. In the next stage, he envisions “the clash with Israel.”8 From Zarqawi’s own past behavior, this newly emerging focus on Israel was already being implemented in mid-2001 when, according to the U.S. Treasury, Zarqawi received funds apparently from Hizballah “for work in Palestine,” including “finding a mechanism that would enable more suicide martyrs to enter Israel.”9 It should have come as no surprise when on February 15, 2002, Turkish police intercepted two Palestinians and a Jordanian who had been dispatched by Zarqawi to conduct bombing attacks in Israel.10 Additionally, at the global level, al-Qaeda has intensified its interest in attacking Israel. As the head of Israeli military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Zeevi (Farkash), concluded recently: “We are not a high priority [for al-Qaeda], but our prioritization for them is increasing.”11

Zarqawi the Jordanian

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as his name implies, was born in 1966 in the Jordanian town of al-Zarqa, some fifteen miles northeast of Amman. His real name was Ahmad Fadhil; he took on the name al-Zarqawi during his second stay in Afghanistan. His family belonged to the al-Khalailah tribe, a branch of the Banu Hassan, a large Transjordanian Bedouin tribe known for its loyalty to the Hashemite Royal Family.12 He was not a Palestinian, as some initial reports suggested. The radicalization of the pro-Hashemite East Bank Bedouin in Zarqa and nearby Salt with militant Islam has been attributed by Arab observers to the control of the Jordanian Education Ministry that King Hussein granted to the Muslim Brotherhood, as an expression of his appreciation for their support of the Hashemite monarchy during the Black September clashes with the PLO in 1970.13

This helped set the stage a decade later for the spread of Salafi groups in northern Jordan, with their rigid rejection of any innovations in what they thought was the purist Islam of the seventh century and their deep anti-Westernism, and spawned the adoption of violence by many of their offshoots. Salafism is the more generic term for all such movements including the Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and similar North African organizations. Zarqa, for example, became a base for radical preachers like Sheikh Nasr al-Din al-Albani, who was educated in Syria but became a prominent scholar at the Islamic University of

Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi

Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd.

Amb. Dore Gold

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.