Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Al-Qaeda, Zarqawi, and Israel: Is There a New Jihadi Threat Destabilizing the Eastern Front?

Filed under: Al-Qaeda and Global Jihad, Israel, Israeli Security, Radical Islam, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 538     1 Tevet 5766 / 1 January 2006

  • 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 announcement of “al-Qaeda Mesopotamia” – the organization led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – that it fired four Katyusha rockets from Lebanon on December 27, 2005, that struck northern Israel. On November 9, 2005, Zarqawi’s network attacked three Jordanian hotels in Amman. At the time, militant Islamic websites had 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. On January 1, 2006, the Israeli daily Maariv disclosed that the Israeli security establishment confirmed that al-Qaeda had succeeded in recruiting operatives in the West Bank as well.

  • 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.” Zarqawi’s terrorist network formally joined al-Qaeda in October 2004.

  • 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 jihadi elements 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 announcement of “al-Qaeda Mesopotamia” (Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidain) – the organization led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – that it fired four Katyusha rockets from Lebanon on December 27, 2005, that struck northern Israel. On November 9, 2005, Zarqawi’s network attacked three Jordanian hotels in Amman. At the time, militant Islamic websites had 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 the mujahidin.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. On January 1, 2006, the Israeli daily Maariv disclosed that the Israeli security establishment confirmed that al-Qaeda had succeeded in recruiting Palestinian operatives in the West Bank as well.

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

Indeed, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would become the deputy head of al-Qaeda, wrote in April 1995, “Jerusalem will not be opened until the battles in Egypt and Algeria have been won.”6 Yet this strategy of delaying any confrontation with Israel 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.7 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 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.8

But Zawahiri’s recommended strategy did not stop there. In the next stage, he envisions “the clash with Israel.”9 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.”10 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.11 The German Intelligence Coordinator for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Ernst Uhrlau, concluded, “The real goal of Zarqawi is to banish Israel from the region, or even annihilate Israel.”12 This predisposition is now receiving active reinforcement from al-Qaeda itself. 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.”13

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.14 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 1970.15

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 Medina in Saudi Arabia, where he maintained close ties with the Wahhabi establishment, despite some disagreements over ritual questions.16

When Zarqawi first went off to Afghanistan in 1989 in order to join the struggle of the mujahidin against the Soviet Union, the war had already come to an end by the time he arrived. He nonetheless remained until 1993. What was significant for his religious transformation was his meeting in Pakistan with Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who would become his most important spiritual mentor. Maqdisi was a Palestinian who emigrated from the West Bank to Kuwait, and as a young follower of Salafism he eventually made his way to Saudi Arabia. He was employed in Mecca by the Muslim World League, the great global Wahhabi charity.17 From Afghanistan, Maqdisi would not be able to return to Kuwait, whose Palestinian population of 250,000 had been expelled after the 1991 Gulf War. Over 150,000 of the Palestinian Kuwaitis moved to Zarqa, bringing to Jordan conservative religious traditions from the Gulf region and transforming the population.18

Zarqawi joined forces with Maqdisi in Jordan and sought to recruit Jordanian Afghan veterans: both were imprisoned in 1994 for possessing illegal weapons. After a royal amnesty was given by the newly crowned King Abdullah in 1999, both were released from prison after having erected a jihadi network in Jordan while they were incarcerated. But while they were in prison, Zarqawi was able to command greater support than Maqdisi from young Jordanian jihadis; Zarqawi would argue that he was a pure Transjordanian – and not a Palestinian like Maqdisi – and hence had more legitimacy in Jordan to challenge the Hashemites. Maqdisi would criticize Zarqawi for turning away from the Palestinian cause and preferring other jihadi priorities.19

Zarqawi did not stay in Jordan, but rather moved back to Pakistan and ultimately to Afghanistan in 1999. In 2001, he took an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden, but subsequently he seemed to have a major falling out with al-Qaeda on doctrinal issues.20 Al-Qaeda wanted to launch the global jihad against the “Far Enemy” – i.e., the U.S. In contrast, Zarqawi preferred to focus efforts against the “Near Enemy” in the Middle East, especially the Jordanian government. The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, asked Zarqawi to set up his own training camp near the Afghan city of Herat, which was close to the Iranian border, and a good distance from al-Qaeda’s training camps that were closer to Pakistan.

At the Herat training camp Zarqawi established his own group called Jund al-Sham (the Army of the Levant), whose name gave away the territorial focus of his interests.21 Unlike al-Qaeda’s training camps, which were mostly made up of Saudis, Yemenis, and Egyptians, Zarqawi’s recruits came from the countries of the Levant, namely Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian areas.22 Many of his Jordanian followers came from Zarqa or Salt. This became the core of the Zarqawi network. Its initial aims, besides overthrowing the Hashemite monarchy, were to attack Israel as well as Jewish targets in Europe.23

Non-Conventional Terrorism

Two other features of Zarqawi’s second period in Afghanistan are worth noting. First, many Western sources were convinced that already at the Herat training camp, Zarqawi was interested in training his recruits in the use of toxins, including poisons and chemical weapons.24 This point was reiterated by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on February 5, 2003, before the UN Security Council. According to Powell, with the U.S. defeat of the Taliban, Zarqawi transplanted his training camp – with its specialization in poisons – from Herat to Iraqi Kurdistan, where he joined forces with the radical Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam.

Powell specifically reported that the training camp was working with ricin, a poisonous biological agent. Powell added that another Zarqawi operative, caught at the Iraqi-Saudi border, admitted that he was trained in the Herat camp in the use of cyanide. Powell further argued that parts of the Zarqawi network fled from Afghanistan to the Pankisi Gorge and Chechnya; he explained that “their goal was to kill Russians with toxins.”25 While the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence would subsequently find fault with aspects of Powell’s presentation of U.S. pre-war intelligence on Iraq, it did not attack the terrorism portions of his speech.

There were good reasons why some of Powell’s key terrorism charges had to be taken seriously. In 2004, a Zarqawi associate named Azmi al-Jailusi testified in a Jordanian court: “At Herat I started training for Abu Musab. The training included handling high-level explosives and learning about poisons. I then took an oath of allegiance to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and agreed to work with him without asking any questions.”26

What made this statement particularly important was that al-Jailusi had just confessed to trying to set off a chemical explosion in central Amman on April 24, 2004, near the headquarters of the Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID). The blast was estimated to have had the potential to kill 80,000 people. In other words, Zarqawi’s interest in biological and chemical weapons, which began in Herat, would become a hallmark of his network years later.

Additionally, there was repeated evidence that Zarqawi’s network was seeking nuclear or radiological devices for terrorism. On April 20, 2005, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security published a “National Terror Alert” warning: “Recurrent intelligence reports say al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi has obtained a nuclear device or is preparing a radiological explosive – or dirty bombs – for an attack, according to U.S. officials, who say analysts are unable to gauge the reliability of the information’s sources.”27

Indeed, in January 2005, German security agents arrested two al-Qaeda operatives for allegedly planning a suicide attack with a “dirty bomb.” According to a German federal prosecutor, one of the terrorists was attempting to obtain uranium from a group in Luxembourg.28 Whether the operatives were associated with the global al-Qaeda organization or with Zarqawi’s network alone, however, was not specified.

In seeking to employ weapons of mass destruction, Zarqawi was operating in a manner consistent with the parent organization with which his network was affiliated – al-Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission Report, which was otherwise critical of some of the Bush administration’s assumptions in the war on terrorism, nevertheless warned: “al-Qaeda had an ambitious biological weapons program and was making progress in its ability to produce anthrax prior to September 11.” Similarly, the report on Britain’s pre-war intelligence by Lord Butler specifically echoed the concern of the British defense establishment that Zarqawi’s sleeper cells in Baghdad, established prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, would seek chemical and biological weapons.29 Zarqawi was clearly moving in the direction of employing non-conventional terrorism.

Zarqawi and Iran

There is a second feature of Zarqawi’s stay in Afghanistan until 2001 that is worth noting. Because he was situated specifically in Herat when U.S. and Northern Alliance forces defeated the Taliban regime, unlike many al-Qaeda operatives who fled eastward to Pakistan, Zarqawi made his way westward to the closest bordering country, Iran, presumably because he was determined to set up a new center of operations in the remote, mountainous regions of eastern Iraqi Kurdistan. This was not the first time that someone associated with the al-Qaeda network would receive safe passage through Iran; the 9/11 Commission Report disclosed that eight to ten of the nineteen hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks traveled through Iran between October 2000 and February 2001.30 Some also met with senior Hizballah members in Beirut.31 Thus, despite the wide ideological gulf that existed between Salafi terrorists and the revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran, some kind of coordination between them was possible.

While information about these links is often fragmentary, some revelations about Zarqawi’s period in Iran have been reported in the Arab press. Thus, it has been suggested that during his stay in Iran, Zarqawi visited training camps run by Iran’s clerical army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and received logistical support from its Qods Force paramilitary unit. The revelations, which are said to have come from Omar Bizani, a key Zarqawi lieutenant apprehended by Iraqi security forces, also paint the Zarqawi network as a terrorist competitor to al-Qaeda, with its regional role, according to this analysis, actively being encouraged and nurtured by Iran.32 The German political magazine Cicero, using documents from the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) and other information from other intelligence services, backed this assertion when it determined that Iran “provided al-Zarqawi with logistical support on the part of the state.”33 Other investigations conducted in Spain, Italy, and Germany into the operations of the Zarqawi network in Europe several years ago have traced it back to Tehran, according to various court documents.34

After leaving Iran, Zarqawi joined forces for a time in late 2002 with Ansar al-Islam, the militant Islamist organization that was situated in a cluster of villages in the mountainous regions of Kurdistan, along the Iran-Iraq border. After U.S. special forces destroyed the Ansar al-Islam camps in March 2003, its members fled to Iran where they trained and planned operations over the Iraqi border. According to Kurdish intelligence sources, Iran continued to supply Ansar al-Islam and its ally, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, smuggling supplies for the insurgency against the U.S. and its coalition partners.35 In this way, the Zarqawi-Iran connection was maintained from his retreat from Afghanistan to his arrival in Iraq. A Jordanian analyst summed up the Iranian connection with Sunni Islamist militants in Iraq, stating that Tehran “supports fundamentalist elements and armed groups in the Sunni areas with the aim of confusing and threatening the American military presence in Iraq.”36

The critical point is that there is considerable evidence that Zarqawi may have developed an Iranian connection for financial and logistical support. It was not the first time Shiite Iran reached out to radical Sunni terrorist organizations. For years, Iran has sponsored Palestinian Islamist groups, particularly Islamic Jihad but also Hamas, as well. Iran had a constant interest to reach out beyond the Shiite Islamic communities of the Middle East to the much wider Sunni Muslim world, and Zarqawi had objective needs that could be met by Iran. Unlike Osama bin Laden, who could fall back on his own family’s wealth and the backing of both Saudi charities and individuals, Zarqawi came from a poor background in Jordan. To wage his terrorist campaign, he needed state backing from somewhere. Indeed, Al-Sharq al-Awsat wrote in May 2004 that the Iranians had offered Zarqawi about $900,000 and explosives.37 The same Arabic source reported in August that Brig.-Gen. Qassem Suleimani of the Revolutionary Guards was asked why Iran backs Zarqawi, given his attacks on Shiites. Suleimani reportedly answered that Zarqawi’s actions serve the interests of Iran by undermining the emergence of a pro-U.S. government in Iraq.38

Journalists were not the only ones asserting an Iranian tie to Zarqawi and the Sunni insurgency. In late December 2004, Hazim al-Shaalan, Iraq’s interim defense minister, also charged that Iran and Syria were aiding Zarqawi’s insurgent forces in Iraq.39 Al-Shaalan explained to Al-Sharq al-Awsat that the interrogation of one of the head operatives of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who had been captured, revealed that al-Qaeda recruits were undergoing military training in Iran by the Revolutionary Guards; the captured al-Qaeda operative claimed that he served as an intermediary between al-Qaeda in Iran and Zarqawi in Iraq, to whom he delivered messages.40 There was another underlying logic to the Zarqawi-Iranian link. The resupply line for the insurgency in Iraq’s Sunni triangle clearly came through Syria. Volunteers would arrive in Damascus and then be transported to the Syria-Iraqi border. How could one of the heads of the Iraq insurgency, Zarqawi, enjoy close operational relations with Damascus, but not have a similar working relationship with Syria’s major strategic ally – Iran?

It is difficult to ascertain the veracity of all the reports about the Zarqawi-Iranian connection. Certainly in the past, Jordan had been concerned about the connections between Jordanian Islamists and the Iranian Embassy in Amman; in 1994 the Jordanian government even asked the Iranians to reduce their diplomatic staff in Amman, as a result.41 But Zarqawi’s connections with Iran were even murkier. A November 15, 2005, Congressional Research Service report entitled “Iran’s Influence in Iraq” by Kenneth Katzman did not reach a decisive conclusion on the matter. On the one hand, the report read: “Iranian support to Sunni Muslim insurgents in Iraq, such as foreign volunteers commanded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, would not appear to fit Iran’s political strategy in Iraq.” But then the report suggests, “On the other hand, some believe that Iran might want to support Sunni insurgents for no other purpose than to cause harm to the U.S. military in Iraq.”

What is clear is that Zarqawi and the Iranians have had many opportunities to communicate directly in the past, and could have established a strategic partnership if they found it in their interests. It is important to remember that historically, terrorist organizations and their state supporters are rarely true allies; their relationships are usually tactical and contain enormous mutual suspicion. Up until now, Iran has used the Shiite Hizballah and Sunni Palestinian groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas in order to wage a proxy war against Israel. True, back in 1995 Zawahiri firmly denied any al-Qaeda-Iranian links: “The media’s allegation that we are supposedly backed by Iran is a shameful fabrication.” His reasoning was theological: “We see the 12-Imam Shiites as a group who have brought about heresy in Islam.”42 Yet it would be a mistake to rule out the possibility that Iran may seek to open another front with Israel from the east, using the Zarqawi networks. Should such a situation develop, Israel would be facing a completely different strategic situation on its eastern border.

The Radicalization of Jordan and Its Implications

There are serious implications for Israel in the future from the growth of al-Qaeda-related terrorism, as exemplified by the attacks of the Zarqawi network in Jordan. After the November 2005 suicide attacks on three hotels in Amman, King Abdullah stressed that this was the work of Iraqis and not Jordanians. The Western press went out of its way to emphasize how Jordanian opinion had turned against terrorist groups that would kill innocent Jordanian civilians. This analysis, however, tended to paper over the radicalization that segments of Jordanian society had undergone as a result of the Iraq War.

For example, a poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in mid-2005 revealed that 60 percent of Jordanians expressed a lot or some confidence in Osama bin Laden.43 In comparison, in Morocco, only 26 percent responded the same way, and in Lebanon just two percent were willing to express support for bin Laden. More worrying was that Jordanian sympathy for bin Laden was increasing in comparison with Pew’s findings in 2003, while such sympathy was decreasing at the same time in Morocco, Lebanon, and Turkey.44

The radicalization of Jordanian opinion has many sources. Some attribute it to the Iraq War; if that is the case, then as the Sunni insurgency in Iraq persists, the process of radicalization is likely to continue, even if there was a discernable downturn after the November bombings in Amman. But even prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi was not a unique phenomenon in northern Jordan. In the late 1990s, it had been reported that 500 men from Zarqa and the adjacent Palestinian refugee camp were in Afghanistan fighting with the Taliban.45 Neighboring Salt has contributed even more mujahidin that have been killed in Iraq than Zarqa, including the suicide bomber who murdered 125 Shiites in one attack on February 28, 2005.46 Indeed, Zarqawi’s chief financier in Iraq, Bilal Mansur al-Hiyari, also came from Salt. What is striking is that many of these volunteers came from the same Transjordanian Bedouin background as Zarqawi.

In the past, radical challenges to the Hashemite regime emanated from the Palestinian population in Jordan. With the spread of Islamic militancy in Jordan, the Hashemites are now facing an added internal threat from the direction of those who had been its most important pillars of support. Of course, Transjordanians had been involved in the Muslim Brotherhood in the past, but they were primarily active in its pragmatic wing that worked with the Jordanian government.47 What changed was their entry into the world of Salafi jihadists. This began to be noticeable in June 1993, when Jordanian security forces uncovered a plot by Hizb ut-Tahrir to assassinate King Hussein. The plot involved cadets at the Mu’ta military academy, Jordan’s West Point.48 Radical Islamists also set off bombs in cinemas in Amman and Zarqa in 1994.49

But now there was a danger of this activity becoming more widespread. Jordanian security officials have estimated that recently 500 Jordanians have been arrested for links with al-Qaeda.50 Indeed, according to a report in the London Sunday Times, Jordanian security sources believed that the Iraqi suicide bombers who attacked in Amman received help from Jordanian soldiers.51 It would not be the first time this happened; as noted above, Hizb ut-Tahrir infiltrated Jordan’s West Point in 1993. If the Sunday Times report is true, it means that Zarqawi’s network had penetrated the Jordanian defense establishment in a manner reminiscent of al-Qaeda’s recruitment of members of the Saudi National Guard.

Even though King Abdullah had stressed that the November attacks in Amman were the work of Iraqis, and not Jordanians, nevertheless, the Jordanian government seemed determined to address radical Islamic trends inside Jordan itself. Speaking to the Jordanian Parliament in mid-December 2005, Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit stated that the bombing attacks in Amman “only made us more determined to move forward in our preemptive war against terrorism and the ‘takfiri’ culture.” (“Takfiri” designates other Muslims who don’t adhere to their version of Islam as infidels, who may be killed.) Al-Bakhit had been appointed by King Abdullah to launch an all-out war on Islamic militancy in Jordan.52 In December, Abdullah appointed a new head of the General Intelligence Department (GID); Jordanian security sources admitted to the Western media, “The threat by al-Qaeda against Jordan has never been as grave and deadly as in these times.”53 Indeed, at the end of December, Jordan announced an unprecedented “state of emergency” throughout the kingdom in response to new threats from Zarqawi’s network.54

Jihadi Networks in Saudi Arabia and Syria: Destabilizing the Eastern Front

In short, Jordan faces multiple challenges to its security. It hosts nearly half a million Iraqi refugees, some of whom could be recruited for jihadi activities. Its border with the Sunni portions of Iraq is relatively porous.55 In addition, Jordan will undoubtedly be affected by developments within two other neighbors – Syria to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south. Saudi clashes with local al-Qaeda cells have become a regular occurrence since May 2003. Syria, which serves as the main conduit for the mujahidin fighting for the insurgency in Iraq, is paying a price for this role. Reports of clashes between Syrian security forces and Islamist groups like Jund al-Sham are becoming more frequent.56 Jund al-Sham was recently singled out by the head of Israeli military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Zeevi (Farkash), who described it as “al-Qaeda-Syria.”57 It may not be a coincidence that this was the exact name of Zarqawi’s organization at his Afghan training camp in 2000.

Indeed, Zarqawi had spent several months in Syria between May and September 2002, setting up jihadi networks and using it as his rear base for regional operations.58 The 2002 murder of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley appears to have been organized by the Zarqawi network from Syria, which was also the source of repeated infiltration efforts into the Jordanian kingdom by extremists transporting explosives and weapons; Syrians from Zarqawi’s network were involved in the attempted chemical attack in Amman in April 2004. By August, Jordan’s prime minister was openly charging the Syrians with creating an “unacceptable” situation.59 As the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad becomes further isolated and embattled by the pressures of the international community due to its involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, it cannot be ruled out that militant Islamic elements, that have grown with the Syrian involvement in Iraq, will become emboldened. All this will have implications for Jordan.

Jordan has one of the best intelligence services in the Arab world, particularly in response to domestic challenges. But as the threat to its domestic stability comes from outside its porous borders with Iraq or Syria or even Saudi Arabia, Jordan will have a far more difficult time contending with the threat of terrorism. In the past, Israel could be certain that if there was a violent organization determined to attack it from Jordanian territory, the Hashemites would not permit their kingdom to be exploited for such purposes. With the spread of al-Qaeda-related terrorism throughout the countries neighboring Jordan, the kingdom’s capacity to block such attacks may be reduced.

Israel’s national security doctrine for decades viewed the Jordan Valley as critical for Israel’s security from threats along its Eastern Front. Were Israel to make a territorial withdrawal from the strategic barrier it controls in the Jordan Valley (which it once considered at Camp David in 2000), then Israeli vulnerability could very well attract more global jihadi elements to Jordan, who would seek to use the kingdom as a platform to reach the West Bank and then target Israel’s civilian infrastructure. Those advocating such a withdrawal take for granted that Jordan will remain a stable buffer that can thwart threats to its own security and to the security of Israel, as well. Jordanian stability is a global interest of the entire Western alliance. It can only be hoped that this beleaguered state will be provided the resources it needs by the U.S. and its allies to contend with the new threat environment it faces.

The Zarqawi story indicates that the stakes involved in failing to block terrorist attacks are increasing. Terrorism in the past involved roadside bombs and occasional explosive devices in crowded markets. Israel has endured repeated attacks of suicide bombers on coffee shops, discos, and hotel dining rooms. Zarqawi’s strategy is based on a significant escalation of the destructive power of terrorist attacks: from bringing down UN headquarters in Baghdad to trying to destroy whole hotels elsewhere. Of greatest concern has been his readiness to employ even the crudest weapons of mass destruction. The sophistication of his network is bound to increase. It becomes a paramount interest for Israel to recognize the changing threat of terrorism as Zarqawi’s network threatens to become active in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

Al-Qaeda’s global strategy has been to seek the weakest link in any region it hopes to penetrate. Al-Qaeda thrives in weak or failed states like Sudan, Afghanistan, remote Iraqi Kurdistan prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion, or Chechnya. If the state structures are in a process of being built up, al-Qaeda is seeking to destabilize them by increasing insurgent activities. That has been the primary goal of Zarqawi’s network in Iraq and is likely to become his chief political strategy in Syria and Jordan. All of this indicates that the region to Israel’s east is likely to enter a period of greater instability.

*     *     *


1. Reuven Paz, “Al-Qaeda’s Search for New Fronts: Instructions for Jihadi Activity in Egypt and Sinai,” Project for Research of Islamist Movements (PRISM) Occasional Papers, Vol. 3, No. 7 (October 2005); See also Margot Dudkevitch, “Al-Qaida Strike on Israel Coming,” Jerusalem Post, November 10, 2005.
2. Jacky Hogi, “Al-Qaeda Threatens: We Will Attack Israel, We Established a Base in Jordan,” Maariv (Hebrew), November 13, 2005.
3. “A Statement from Al-Qaeda in Iraq Providing Additional Details of the Attacks in Amman,” Site Institute, November 11, 2005;
4. Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 65.
5. Bernard Lewis, “License to Kill: Usama bin Ladin’s Declaration of Jihad,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 1998).
6. Montasser Al-Zayyat, The Road to Al-Qaeda: The Story of Bin Laden’s Right-Hand Man (London: Pluto Press, 2004), p. 62.
7. Douglas Jehl, “Bombing in Jordan: Intelligence: Iraq-Based Jihad Appears to Seek Broader Horizons,” New York Times, November 11, 2005.
8. “One Thousand Foreign Fighters in Iraq,” United Press International, October 2, 2005;
9. See
10. Matthew Levitt, Testimony before the Joint Hearing of the House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Europe and Emerging Threats, April 27, 2005, Washington Institute for Near East Policy,
11. Matthew Levitt, “Networks of Relationships Case Study: Abu Musab al Zarqawi,” SAIS Review, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Winter-Spring 2004):38-40.
12. Craig Whitlock, “Amman Bombings Reflect Zarqawi’s Growing Reach,” Washington Post, November 13, 2005.
13. “IDF Intelligence: Al-Qaeda Already Operating in Gaza,” Maariv (Hebrew), October 17, 2005.
14. Loretta Napoleoni, Insurgent Iraq: Al Zarqawi and the New Generation (London: Constable and Robinson, 2005), p. 30.
15. Nimrod Raphaeli, “‘The Sheikh of the Slaughterers’: Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and the al-Qa’ida Connection,” MEMRI, Inquiry and Analysis Series – No. 231, July 1, 2005;
16. International Crisis Group, “Jordan’s 9/11: Dealing With Jihadi Islamism,” Middle East Report, No. 47, November 23, 2005;
17. Jean-Charles Brisard, Zarqawi: The New Face of Al-Qaeda (New York: Other Press, 2005), p. 18.
18. Raphaeli, “Sheikh of the Slaughterers.”
19. International Crisis Group, “Jordan’s 9/11.”
20. It remains a matter of debate among experts whether the Zarqawi network is part of al-Qaeda or is a separate entity. Funding for the Herat camp, according to some analysts, came from al-Qaeda. Others contend that the Taliban initially funded Zarqawi. The debate has largely political connotations with respect to the question of an al-Qaeda/Saddam link existing when Zarqawi fled to Iraq after the fall of Afghanistan to the U.S.
21. Raphaeli, “Sheikh of the Slaughterers.”
22. International Crisis Group, “Jordan’s 9/11.”
23. Ibid.
24. Matthew Levitt, “The Zarqawi Node in the Terror Matrix,” National Review, February 6, 2003;
25. “U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell Addresses the U.N. Security Council,” February 5, 2003;
26. Brisard, Zarqawi, p. 77.
27. “Reports Reveal Zarqawi Nuclear Threat,” Terror Alerts Newsletter, National Terror Alert Resource and Information Center, April 20, 2005.
28. Ben Aris, “Germans Hold Two Suspected of Dirty Bomb Plot,” Guardian, January 24, 2005.
29. According to the Butler Report, Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) “made it clear that Al-Qaida-linked facilities in the Kurdish Ansar al-Islam area were involved in the production of chemical and biological agents, but that they were beyond the control of the Iraqi regime.” The Butler report uncritically adds JIC’s analysis from March 12, 2003, that “senior Al Qaida associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has established sleeper cells in Baghdad, to be activated during a U.S. occupation of the city. These cells apparently intend to attack U.S. targets using car bombs and other weapons. (It is also possible that they have received CB materials from terrorists in the KAZ [Kurdish Administered Zone].)” The Rt. Hon. Lord Butler of Brockwell KG GCB CVO, Chairman, Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction: Report of a Committee of Privy Counsellors (London: The Stationary Office, July 14, 2005), p. 120;
30. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), p. 240.
31. Ibid.
32. Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), October 5, 2004, cited in Eurasia Security Watch, No. 53, American Foreign Policy Council, Washington, D.C., October 7, 2004.
33. Dan Darling, “The Cicero Article,” Weekly Standard, November 10, 2005.
34. Michael Ledeen, “The Terror Masters Revisited,” National Review, August 16, 2004;
35. Thanassis Cambanis, “Along Border, Kurds Say, Iran Gives Boost to Uprising,” Boston Globe, November 7, 2004. See also Edward T. Pound, “Special Report: The Iran Connection,” U.S. News and World Report, November 22, 2004. Pound claims to have reviewed intelligence reports disclosing that 320 Ansar al-Islam terrorists were being trained in Iran. The reports linked Ansar al-Islam to Zarqawi.
36. Oraib al-Rantawi, “Fearing Instability, Jordan Seeks Its Unity,” Beirut Daily Star, December 27, 2005.
37. Dan Darling, “Meet Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, the Commander of Iran’s Anti-American Qods Force,” Weekly Standard, October 5, 2005.
38. Ibid.
39. Alastair Macdonald, “Iraq Minister Blasts Iran, Syria, Says Aid Zarqawi,” Reuters, December 15, 2004;
40. Mohammed al-Shafey, “Former Defense Minister: Politicians Fully Aware of Iranian Interference,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 7, 2005.
41. Asher Susser, “Jordan,” in Ami Ayalon and Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, eds., Middle East Contemporary Survey 1994 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), p. 437.
42. “Al-Qaida and Iran: Friends or Foes?” Counterterrorism Blog, December 17, 2005;
43. “Islamic Extremism: Common Concern for Muslim and Western Publics – Support for Terror Wanes Among Muslim Publics,” Pew Global Attitudes Project, July 14, 2005;
44. Ibid.
45. International Crisis Group, “Jordan’s 9/11.”
46. Ibid.
47. Sabah al-Said, Between Pragmatism and Ideology: The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, 1989-1994 (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1995), pp. 12-13.
48. Judith Miller, God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East (New York: Touchstone Books, 1997), p. 362.
49. Asher Susser, “Jordan,” p. 437.
50. Bill Powell, “A War Without Borders,” Time, November 21, 2005.
51. Marie Colvin and Uzi Mahanaimi, “Jordanian Soldiers ‘Aided’ Suicide Attacks,” Sunday Times, November 13, 2005.
52. Jamal Halaby, “Jordanian Terror War to Include Reforms,” Associated Press, December 15, 2005.
53. Suleiman al-Khalidi, “Jordan Picks New Spy Chief to Fight Militants,” Reuters, December 20, 2005.
54. “Emergency State Declared in Jordan,” Al-Bawaba, December 26, 2005.
55. Powell, “War Without Borders.”
56. “Syrian Security Forces Kill Five Militants in Clash,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 4, 2005.
57. “Israel and the Middle East 2005, A Strategic Overview,” Strategic Assessment, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3 (November 2005);
58. Brisard, Zarqawi, p. 87.
59. Ibid., p. 189.

*     *     *

Dr. Dore Gold, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1997-1999, heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. His book Hatred’s Kingdom surveys the rise of Islamic militancy in Saudi Arabia.
Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam, and a founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. He is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the IDF.