Jordan’s 9/11

James Howarth
10 November 2005

You probably haven’t heard of Ahmed al-Khalayleh before. He used to work in a video store in Zarqa, a run-down urban sprawl outside of Amman, Jordan. But in the coming days you are about to hear a lot more about his vicious alter-ego, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the street gangster who found Islam and became the poster boy for the latest era of jihadi violence.

No sooner had near simultaneous explosions have caused carnage and bloodshed at three prosperous hotels in Jordan’s capital than the fingers were already pointing towards Zarqawi, al-Qaida’s latest frontman now that Osama bin Laden has gone quiet. The spokesman for al-Qaida in Iraq, has already issued a statement claiming credit for the attacks in characteristic style:

“Despite the security measures provided by the traitor to protect those dens, the al-Qaeda soldiers were able to reach their targets and carry out the duties, according to the information we have. Details of the attack and people who fulfilled them will be announced later on. Let the tyrant of Jordan know that the protecting walls for the Jews built in Jordan and the backyard camp for the crusaders' army is now in the range of fire of the mujahideen.”

Even if the claim of responsibility is true, it is worth considering what it means in this context to blame al-Qaida. After all, who exactly composes this group and what do they stand for?

People here in Amman sometimes joke about being stuck “between Iraq and a hard place”. The location of these attacks forms a link in a chain of political violence and instability from Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Mediterranean side to the plains of Iraq further east. While these two conflicts have lurched from one crisis to the next, Jordan has remained stable. In fact, precisely because of the Iraq war it has become the region’s business and logistics centre.

Whoever perpetrated these suicide-attacks – the first of their kind in this country – may well have been mindful that Amman would form a bridge between these two nominally separate theatres of conflict. In the minds of many people here, events in Palestine and in Iraq are closely connected, and Jordan is host to significant populations of refugees from both countries. As such, yesterday’s very worrying developments are the latest escalation of a war that is rapidly spinning out of control.

James Howarth is an analyst for Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan and translator of Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (Verso, 2005). He lives in Amman.

Terror has ripped through New York, Washington, Bali, Moscow, Madrid, Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Riyadh, London, Sharm al-Sheikh, Baghdad, Delhi… and now Amman, the most stable capital in a highly volatile region and one of the lynchpins of support for United States policy. The list of cities visited by the sinister jihadi juggernaut will no doubt go on.

Osama bin Laden probably never dreamed his ideas would wreak such havoc. In the age of satellite information and instant replay, however, there is a risk of simply subsuming all these different events under the rubric of global terror and downplaying the distinctive characteristics of each case. Really understanding the problem means differentiating and dissecting the complex forces at play at the various levels of the phenomena known collectively as Islamist terrorism.

The four elements of Islamist violence

Violence in the name of Islam cannot be attributed to one single, unambiguous root cause. Causes, motives and objectives are plural and constantly shifting. This kind of terrorism stands at the nexus of four main socio-political and psychological factors whose role and influence varies in each case. These are:

  • the breakdown of traditional religion in the face of modernity

  • the excesses and misjudgements of western foreign policies

  • repression and double standards in domestic politics

  • the persistence of traditional cultural codes

In combination, the emotional consequences of these factors form a highly combustible mix of despair, anger, frustration and shame.

The first factor, the breakdown of traditional religious culture, leads to an existential malaise which leaves the individual desperately searching for meaning in life and susceptible to extremist ideologies that can appear an irruption of truth into a psychological wilderness. The multifarious and fragmentary religious revival of recent decades is at once an attempt to overcome this spiritual disintegration and a consequence of that same process.

The second factor, western foreign policy, causes deep anger in the middle east - in particular, the United States’ almost unconditional support for Israel, its long-term support for autocratic stability over the potential risks of democracy (even by Condoleezza Rice’s own admission) and its woefully misconceived invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. History has repeatedly shown – and Osama bin Laden is not slow to pick up on this – that an external threat and foreign occupation can transform a peaceful, moderate Islamic tradition into the confrontational jihadist alternative. The recent histories of Chechnya and Palestine are further proof.

Also in openDemocracy, Paul Rogers writes a weekly column tracking and assessing the latest developments in the “war on terror”.

Paul Rogers’s latest column puts the Amman bombs in the wider context of events in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Australia; see “Jordan catches Iraq’s fire” (10 November 2005)

The third factor, repression of political dissent and stifling of economic opportunity by rulers in the region itself, is provoking levels of anger and frustration that for many people approach boiling-point. Osama bin Laden’s own statements clearly show his immense feelings of disgust and betrayal of what he sees as a fatally corrupt and self-serving Saudi ruling family. The rallying-cry of a radical religious reformism provides a further tool to mobilise the disenchanted and marginalised.

The fourth factor in the rise of Islamist extremism and violence is the cultural dimension, which includes influences like the strong tradition of honour in the middle east (which it shares with many other parts of the world). For many people, simply being host to foreign forces on home soil is an intolerable affront to their integrity and must be resisted by any means necessary. Another aspect of this is the frustration generated by the persistence of traditional customs regarding sex and marriage in a globalised world where the alternative approaches to these issues are so evident on satellite TV and the internet.

There is a powerful correlation between humiliation and the desire to restore honour and pride through violence. For example, the first Chechen suicide-bomber, a 22-year-old woman, had sixteen of her closest relatives killed by Russian military during the year before her attack – among them her husband, two brothers, one sister, several cousins and nephews. Such examples provide clear evidence that armed intervention aimed at ending conflict often unintentionally reproduces it further down the line, exacerbating the very terror that governments are trying to prevent.

A variety of Islamisms

The interaction between these four main factors varies in each case, but it is important to realise that they produce very different kinds of Islamists, which can be categorised in three ways:

  • anarchists (who are more concerned with their own personal issues)

  • proselytisers (who are more concerned with converting others)

  • democrats (who are more concerned with social issues and creating what they see as a just society in the eyes of God).

An example of the latter is the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development / AKP) ruling party in Turkey, which has had to compromise on its Islamist principles and background in order to achieve and maintain political power, as well as in its overtures towards the European Union. At the other end of the spectrum we find those like bin Laden and al-Zarqawi, whose vague and utopian demands no government could ever fully accept.

In dealing with the four main root causes, then, it is very important to distinguish between the different variants of Islamist terrorism, particularly in order to differentiate between those who may be open to dialogue and those with whom negotiation is impossible. In March 2005, the International Crisis Group issued a report (Understanding Islamism) warning against a “sledge-hammer approach which refuses to differentiate between modernist and fundamentalist varieties of Islamism”. It has become increasingly accepted that, with due care being taken, dialogue with moderate political Islam has become a necessity. The west must be ready to accommodate alternative views on the experience of modernity, so as to bring about a peaceful reconciliation between the spread of democracy and the resurgence of Islam.

At the same time, Osama bin Laden - despite his criticisms of governments in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere - has no positive socio-political agenda that can really be responded to. The same goes for his protégé al-Zarqawi, who appears to be of the self-centred anarchist variety. Al-Zarqawi is not really interested in any “hearts and minds” campaign. He lies at the far end of the spectrum of Islamist ideology that has descended from the earlier days of statist agendas towards an increasingly fragmented, egotistical Islamism whereby individuals are more concerned about sowing chaos or the supposed benefits of the afterlife than with creating a new socio-political order.

What was so dangerous about the war on Iraq is that it has created a new arena in which the distinct strands of radicalism have begun to coalesce and undergo mutual reinforcement. No one has produced a convincing mechanism to reverse that process. Rather than the flower-strewn utopia of neo-conservative fantasy, the reality has been a lethal confluence of interests between indigenous Iraqi insurgents, who see the conflict from a more localised, nationalist perspective, and the international jihadi movement who have descended on Iraq to pit themselves against what Ayman al-Zawahiri terms “global unbelief”.

Whatever his distaste for compromise, bin Laden has made it clear that he is certainly not above the idea of a strategic alliance with those he would technically consider infidels. He sees nothing wrong with his international jihadis collaborating with former Ba’athists to ferment chaos in Iraq. Now this chaos seems set to spill over the borders into neighbouring countries like Jordan, where the large US presence has finally come under serious attack.

Amman in the global war

On first impressions, the Amman bombs appear to have be inspired by a combination of domestic political dissent and revulsion at the ubiquitous American presence in the country. The latter takes several forms, including cultural symbols like large five-star hotel chains and the presence of military and intelligence personnel. These attacks stand somewhere at the crossroads between the type of nationalistic or xenophobic attacks perpetrated by the insurgency in Iraq and the more globalised, clash-of-civilisations style international jihadism promoted by bin Laden.

The assailants, no doubt opposed to the US using Jordan as a strategic base for its controversial operations in Iraq, chose the three prominent hotels in Amman as simultaneously domestic and foreign targets. These hotels are undoubtedly soft targets and clear symbols of the western influence so abhorred by an Islamist minority that advocates a supposed cultural authenticity. A yet more worrying consideration here is that these were attacks on cultural and economic symbols rather than a political or military reality - and in this era of globalisation, those symbols will hardly be reduced anytime soon.

Jordan’s close alliance with America, official peace with Israel and intimate linkage with the fate of Iraq make it something of a logical target for terrorists. Situated at the strategic core of the middle east, its geopolitical centrality and role as regional stabiliser leave it open to criticism from those unversed in the art of compromise.

As with the reactions to the July 2005 suicide-attacks in London, there is a depressing air of inevitability about this. Despite the excellent reputation enjoyed by Jordan’s security forces, there is very little defence possible against those who are determined to incinerate themselves. What is truly shocking is the ease with which such attacks can be carried out: no armies to mobilise, nor even any particularly sophisticated equipment to assemble. The security apparatus have infiltrated plots in the past, but this one - perhaps conceived and planned from Iraq - got through.

There is no doubt that the global media are to some extent complicit in the emergence of larger-than-life characters like bin Laden and al-Zarqawi. Within minutes of these attacks, terrorism analysts on the major news networks were already speculating, citing the nature of the targets, the simultaneous coordination of the attacks, that they bore “all the hallmarks of al-Qaida”.

Also on Jordan’s political pressures in openDemocracy:

Natasha Twal, “Jordan: life in death” (May 2002)

Nermeed Murad Garlick, “Jordan: how the monarchy manages change” (October 2002)

Ali Shukri, “The war on Iraq: its effect on the Arab world” (March 2003)

Paul Hilder, “The Amman roundtable, or people matter” (June 2004)

Fares A Braizat, “What counts as terrorism? The view on the Arab street” (January 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Yet the fragmentation of the ideology of global jihad and its most notorious organisation means that the latest terror attacks are not likely to have been carried out by individuals trained in Afghan camps, but merely by groups inspired to some extent by bin Laden’s ideology. Either way, his shadow lurks behind the mayhem, taking credit for everything. Bin Laden and al-Zarqawi are only too happy to be seen as masterminds, and they knowingly play on this media simulacrum that puts everything at their door.

As he happens to be Jordanian, al-Zarqawi was immediately top of the suspect list, but beyond that simplistic deduction no one in the immediate aftermath seemed to have any clue about the nature of his involvement. His strategic alliance with bin Laden and al-Qaida is a relatively recent development, and it is significant that he only managed to claim responsibility for these attacks many hours later. Since all sides have an interest in it, this claim remains unconvincing without further evidence and investigation.

Al-Qaida in a global age

There does seem little doubt that these bombers were partly inspired by the rhetoric of bin Laden, as previous Saudi suicide-bombers have been. But a point has arrived at which it becomes highly debatable whether the suggestion that al-Qaida perpetrated the attacks really means anything useful. Sub-groups and splinter organisations, admirers, copycats and amateur jihadis - all are part of al-Qaida the concept, if not al-Qaida the organisation.

Since 2001, it has evolved from a physical “base” (qa‘ida in Arabic) to a conceptual base or idea (also, conveniently enough, qa‘ida in Arabic), a brand name for terror that can be adopted by anyone around the world. Because of the internet, physical and practical links are no longer necessary. There is therefore barely any real sense by this point in attributing an attack to the al-Qaida organisation. The affiliations are not practical but ideological, and the ideas are disseminated freely through the infrastructure of globalisation.

Yet it is likely that an amorphous, diverse, ever-shifting ideological movement can be accredited with at least part of the inspiration behind these incidents. Now that bin Laden seems to have dipped below the horizon, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Ayman al-Zawahiri have continued to threaten such attacks from their bases in Iraq and south Asia. Providing the media impetus and ideological justification, however, does not necessarily guarantee practical involvement. Security organisations may have to deal with the more uncomfortable conclusions faced by British intelligence on 7 July 2005, namely that a new, self-sufficient cell had sprung up to cause the carnage.

If Iraq has become global jihadism’s latest training-ground, assessing the after-effects of the invasion and occupation of that country may be the work of years. For the present, it seems that the people of Jordan are also paying the price. Although uttered in an entirely different context, the words of Martin Luther King seem eerily prescient as the regional consequences of the Iraq misadventure continue to unfold: “If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.”

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