The New York Times November 13, 2005
In Jordan, Methodical Madness
By James Glanz
ALL is chaos under heaven," a revolutionary once wrote, "and the situation is excellent." The writer was not Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist whose group has claimed responsibility for the triple bombing last week in Amman, Jordan, but Chairman Mao.
The creation of chaos has often been a first step in the revolutionary process, and that is one way to look at the terrible bombings, which killed 57 people.
Many Jordanians, who lit candles, marched and appeared united against the terrorism, said that Mr. Zarqawi had achieved little beyond generating a fierce backlash against his cause.
But some experts on the Middle East warned the shock and fury that came after the explosions may have been part of the terrorists' calculation, a first step toward fracturing Jordanian society, with a goal of one day overthrowing the state.
This bombing, the latest in a series aimed at moderate Arab governments, may be a disturbing early sign of Al Qaeda's growing ambition. In this view, the chaos of Iraq has become a haven for Al Qaeda, and the hub from which it intends to extend its reach throughout the region, in something like the way that the Soviet Union extended its power to the states that ultimately became its satellites.
In other words, a new long, twilight struggle may have begun.
This geopolitical ambition, if it exists, is embryonic; so far Al Qaeda's goals are, as Churchill said of the Soviet state, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
"I just don't think we've got this thing figured out yet," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "And I can't detect that we've set in motion a process for figuring it out."
Many Jordanians understandably saw the attacks in strictly local terms, much as many New Yorkers reacted to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But Gary G. Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University, said the Zarqawi network ultimately had one overriding goal. "They want to take over territory, and they are asserting themselves as never before," he said.
The first stage in that strategy, said Boaz Ganor, director of the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism in Israel, is "to destroy the status quo and to create the circumstances that will make it possible for the local Islamic radical movements to take control in their homeland."
There is evidence that the terror network has been trying to do this for some time in Jordan. Jordanian intelligence has reportedly foiled several attempts to carry out terror operations on its soil, including a plot to attack the American Embassy in Amman in 2004.
Earlier this year, intelligence services cracked what they said was a major local operation set up to recruit and train suicide bombers who were to be sent to Iraq. And as recently as August, a rocket attack in the Jordanian port of Aqaba narrowly missed two United States Navy ships but killed a Jordanian soldier.
After the failed attack at Aqaba, said Ali Shukri, a retired Jordanian general, the obvious next big target was the nation's capital. "You would immediately know that the second one would follow in Amman," he said.
In addition, the Amman bombings appear to be part of a wider pattern of expanding the jihadi field of operations beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. Similar coordinated attacks tore through Sharm el Sheik, the Egyptian Red Sea resort, in July of this year and a residential compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2003.
But is Al Qaeda really intent on coming out of the shadows to hold territory, to govern - and to become a target itself? Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautioned that what may for the moment look like a giant diabolical pattern could dissolve into a collection of isolated actions taken by local groups.
"Everything I know about counterterrorism is, you deal with specific cells," Mr. Cordesman said.
Even if Al Qaeda is expanding its field of operations and ambitions, will their strategy of violence work in countries not under occupation and with functioning governments?
In Iraq, the killing of children and adult civilians in suicide attacks has produced a deadening sense of hopelessness - not the rejection of terrorism that the American military, which never fails to report heavily on such attacks, seems to have expected.
But the ethnic hatreds that have helped create an acceptance of violence in Iraq do not exist with nearly the same virulence in Jordan, said Joost R. Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group, who is based in Amman and has done extensive work in Iraq.
The sentiment that he is hearing on the street, though, carries its own mixed message, Mr. Hiltermann said.
"I hear, 'We are sympathetic to Zarqawi because he is standing up to the Americans, but it's not right to kill children,' " he said.
Western and moderate Arab governments must find a way to counter that sympathy, particularly if Al Qaeda begins to try to compete for the loyalties of the populations of Middle Eastern states.
Mr. Pike, of GlobalSecurity.org, said that the United States, at least, could not formulate a rational strategy until it found a way to define the most basic parameters of its adversary.
In the case of global communism, Mr. Pike said, the West gradually tried to answer questions like whether moderate socialists could be allies or were inalterably part of the other camp; what relationship Russian-style Communism had to local insurgent movements in other countries; and what weaponry the Soviets had access to.
Similar questions now surround the role of firebrand Islamists who do not carry out violence themselves; local insurgent movements in countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia; and increasingly sophisticated car bombers in Iraq and elsewhere, Mr. Pike said.
"We are just beginning to understand the magnitude of the challenge" of militant Islam, he said, "and I don't think we've got much in the way of the conceptual apparatus that we need."
When asked what year 2005 might compare to in the analogy to the cold war, Mr. Pike at first demurred, saying the parallel was too inexact. But when pressed, he said, "1922."
If that's the case, then more than a little history waits to play out.
© Copyright 2005, The New York Times Company