Anti-terrorist investigators, straining to stay a jump ahead of al Qaeda, have extracted valuable information and insights from the first stages of the probe of the rocket attacks on the American naval vessels USS Ashland and USS Kearsage docked in Aqaba Friday August 19. They provide disquieting clues to the next targets Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has charted from his bases in Iraq and Syria.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror exports report that for the first time, the Jordanian terrorist has brought within Al Qaeda’s striking range such high-value objectives as the Suez Canal. He has proved his reach extends to Aqaba port, the US 5th Fleet’s most important supply base for US forces in Iraq after Kuwait. Jordan’s Hashemite throne is now directly threatened, a strong foothold established in Egypt and al Qaeda stands poised on Israel’s borders.
The jihadists have maneuvered themselves into position to torpedo the Bush administration’s plans for an Israel-Palestinian peace process at the very moment of Israel’s pullback from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.
The Aqaba investigation has also yielded significant secondary findings:
1. Not content with its role as exporter of anti-US terrorist strength to Iraq, Syria has now assumed the role of supplier of al Qaeda terrorists fighting Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the American military presence in all three countries.
2. The new al Qaeda networks controlled by its Iraq commander Zarqawi are made up of Iraqi expatriates scattered around the Middle East, Egyptians, Syrians and Palestinians. This cluster operates separately from the Saudi and North African cells planted in Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf emirates and Europe.
3. The networks functioning in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sinai and the Gaza Strip defer to a single command base in Syria which coordinates their operations.
4. The networks do not need outside weapons or explosives supplies; they make their own, just as the Palestinians produce their own mortar shells and Qassam missiles in workshops in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
The Katyusha rocket launchers used in Aqaba were made in Jordan, while the missiles came out of Zarqawi’s workshops in Iraq. All the bomb cars, explosive devices and detonators used in the Taba attacks last October, the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings in July and the strike against the MFO on August 15 were manufactured by al Qaeda cells in Egypt and Sinai.
5. It is likely that the al Qaeda infrastructure based in the northern Sinai region of Al Arish is not a new one as the Egyptians claim but has been buried there more than three years, since early 2003. Its function appears to have been to supply other al Qaeda networks with the materials for making explosives. This cell is also believed to have manufactured and distributed the biological poison ricin to al Qaeda cells in Europe and Canada.
(See separate article in this issue.)
Guarding the Suez Canal
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has always held ready a contingency plan for defending the strategic Suez Canal waterway against sabotage. Sunday, Aug 21, he received a US-Jordanian intelligence warning that additional al Qaeda groups were at large in Sinai and geared for action. He immediately put those emergency measures in place.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter terror sources report:
Egyptian air force and navy units deployed on the canal were placed on high alert.
Egyptian units on the Sinai bank of the northern stretch of canal were beefed up.
Special forces were positioned with combat helicopter support at Sharm el Sheikh on the southernmost tip of the peninsula, at Ras Sudar and Bier Tawfiq where the canal empties into the Gulf of Suez.
Sinai was cut off from mainland Egypt by security forces which blocked the connecting highway to traffic.
The only civilian tunnel running under the Suez Canal (there are two military tunnels) was closed to vehicles in both directions.
The Egyptians also shut down the only bridge spanning the canal that links Egypt and Sinai.
These measures were designed to ward off two major hazards:
A. The passage of Al Qaeda terrorists between Sinai and Egypt proper.
B. The packing of tons of explosives into the tunnel for a huge blast that could put the canal out of commission.
Since Cairo published none of these measures, a major traffic pileup developed at the tunnel and the bridge entrances when vehicles and passengers were turned back without explanation and told to come back on the morrow.
Since last weekend, Egyptian forces have been conducting a vast manhunt for al Qaeda terrorists in northeast Sinai. They are sweeping a region stretching from Sheikh Suweid near el Arish close to the border with Gaza to Lake Bardawill on the Mediterranean coast.
Cairo informed Jerusalem of the deployment of 2,500 national security personnel with their weapons in the demilitarized peninsula, as required by the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. They have so far rounded up some 500 detainees, who are in various stages of questioning.
Monday, August 22, a group of high-ranking Egyptian intelligence officers landed in Aqaba to join the Jordanian staff group running the manhunt in Jordan for the al Qaeda rocket team.
Jordanian throne circles wagons for survival
American FBI agents and officers have arrived from Baghdad and Washington to join the Jordanian staff center. They came in response to a request for assistance addressed to the White House by Jordan’s King Abdullah who was then visiting Moscow. In particular, the king asked for laboratory help to analyze the composition of the explosives used in the rocket attacks and for forensic identification.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources add that while intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman is managing Egyptian operations against al Qaeda, two of King Abdullah’s brothers are in charge of the counter-terror campaign in Jordan: his half-brother, son of Queen Noor, Prince Hashem, who is the king’s favorite and acts as virtual crown prince, and Prince Faisal, former commander of the Jordanian air force.
Abdullah selected the two ablest and most trusted senior princes to lead the counter-terror operation out of a sense that the Hashemite kingdom was beset with grave danger to its survival.
1. All the 12 detainees linked to the Katyusha rockets attacks on US warships in Aqaba – 5 Egyptians, 5 Iraqis and 2 Syrians – infiltrated the kingdom from Syria. They entered on forged passports. Amman’s working assumption is that scores more may still be on the loose spoiling for action. Jordan cannot afford to lose time before rooting them out.
2. Jordan is too small to take chances on its survival. Unlike its much larger and richer neighbor, Saudi Arabia, it lacks the human resources and the wherewithal for a protracted war against al Qaeda like the campaign the Saudis conducted. Compared with Egypt, Jordan is short of strategic depth and a large security apparatus. Abdullah must act fast to nip the terrorist influx from Syria in the bud before it settles in and undermines the kingdom from within. He therefore gathered in the royal family for an all-out fight against the enemy at its gates.
Abdullah had his worst fears confirmed when a new batch of detainees and fresh intelligence input confirmed on Tuesday, August 23, that squads of terrorists were still pouring across from Syria. Many were using the Yarmuk River flowing into Jordan from southern Syria to infiltrate the kingdom, putting to use the lessons al Qaea learned in Iraq, where its terrorists navigate the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to reach targeted territory by night.
Jordan’s security authorities immediately activated special units to plug this route with nightly ambushes.
Amman’s counter-strategy to meet the al Qaeda incursion is built around five primary steps:
One: A round-the-clock military presence, including tanks, in every corner of the capital, Amman.
Two: Amman has shut down most of the truck and freight traffic to and from Iraq, although this import-export trade has become one of Jordan’s main sources of revenue. In slashing the volume of traffic by 60%, the Jordanians have nonetheless fine-tuned the measure to restrict and monitor human traffic, while only minimally impairing the freight trade, especially in consideration of the fact that it is a supply lifeline for US forces in Iraq.
Three: The task of controlling Jordanian-Iraqi transit is complicated by the presence of 400,000 Iraqi expatriates in the kingdom. Jordanian intelligence is convinced that al Qaeda sleeper cells infiltrating Jordan are sheltering in this community.
This week, the Hashemite kingdom clamped stern restrictions down on Iraqi citizens seeking entry. In addition to a valid passport, arrivals must now display a Jordanian visa and a Jordanian intelligence service permit stating it has no security objections to their entry.
This permit cannot be obtained directly by any Iraqi visitor; he must locate a Jordanian citizen or firm willing to apply on his behalf to Jordanian intelligence, declare the applicant is known to them and assume responsibility for his actions during his stay in Jordan.
Four: Decrees have been posted barring Jordanian employers from hiring Iraqi staff without written permission from Jordan’s security services, which file the names on their own lists. Offenders face heavy prison sentences.
Five: Jordan and Egypt have suspended the Aqaba-Nueiba sea ferry service that terrorists were using as a convenient means of traveling to Sinai on forged passports.