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Special Analysis: The Amman Plot and Project al-Zabadi

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While what little media coverage there was of the recent chemical weapons plot in Amman, Jordan was over within a day, it received wide coverage within blogosphere. I myself consider the possibility of terrorists using chemical weapons to kill thousands of innocent people to be worthy of at least as much airtime as anything else these days, but then it's probably just as well that I got out of the the whole media business to begin with.

In any case, this analysis will deal with both the Amman plot and other aspects of what we know about al-Qaeda's WMD program, as well as the potential future implications.

Not a new charge ...

The standard response to questions about al-Qaeda's WMD efforts from both current and former US officials is generally something to the effect that the network has a desire to produce chemical and biological weapons but that there is no evidence to date that they have succeeded in such efforts. These claims are hardly new and go at least as far back as August 1998, and I believe that I've noted before that the Clinton administration's primary rationale for destroying the al-Shifa plant in Sudan was that al-Qaeda was working with Sudan and Iraq to create VX, a claim that was repeated by former defense secretary Bill Cohen in his statement before the 9/11 commission.

The first real picture that the general public got as far as the nature of al-Qaeda's WMD program came in the form of a computer that was used by the organization in Afghanistan and later purchased by the Wall Street Journal. According to the NTI Newsire version of the story, the group's WMD program, Project al-Zabadi was established in 1998 after the African embassy bombings (because of the loss of al-Shifa?) and set up with $2,000-4,000 worth of seed money under the leadership of an Egyptian (though some reports say Saudi) scientist named Midhat Mursi, better known by his kuniyat (assumed name) of Abu Khabab. Mursi ran Darunta camp in Afghanistan, where he is said to have tested nerve gas. CNN aired the tape of several of Mursi's tests on animals and the testimony of Ahmed Ressam gives us some idea of what Mursi's curriculum was.

According to the Los Angeles Times, al-Qaeda attempted to carry out a poison gas attack in France in March 2001. Abdelkader Mahmoud Es Sayed, a senior al-Qaeda leader in Italy who used coded porn to communicate with his superiors and apparently had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, sent his top deputy Essid Sami Ben Khemais to speak quite openly with another al-Qaeda member about obtaining the necessary substances to perpetrate a chemical attack in Europe. There was a cyanide gas plot against the US embassy in Rome (as well as the Italian water supply?) in February 2002, the first in a long series of plots in Europe that would involve North Africans, generally connected to the al-Qaeda affiliates GIA or GSPC.

And, of course, during the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, there were more than a few attempts to perpetrate chemical or poison attacks of varying degree in at least 3 European countries. All of the suspects involved in these various plots were trained by two men - Midhat Mursi and Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Ansar al-Islam and the Pankisi Gorge

That Ansar al-Islam was working on cyanide gas, arsine, phosgene, attempts produce mustard gas and VX, botulinum and alfatoxin is, generally speaking, old news. What is unfortunate, however, is that the role of the Pankisi Gorge in serving as an incubator for this type of al-Qaeda activity is not receiving more press coverage, though I will give former French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy a great deal of credit for mentioning the threat posed by the continued existence of al-Qaeda bases in the Russian republic of Chechnya as well as neighboring Georgia.

Some historical perspective may be needed here to explain why al-Qaeda has been able to obtain a more or less secure base of operations even several years after 9/11. Russia has fought two extremely brutal wars (the second of which is still ongoing) against Chechen separatists and as a result a lot of neighboring Caucasus nations as well as many Westerners possess a great deal of sympathy towards the goal of Chechen independence that, not to put too fine a point on it, has led to a somewhat skewed perception as to just what Chechen al-Qaeda (see my previous analysis on Chechnya for my use of this term) leaders actually want in Caucasus. According to Amir Ramzan among others, those jihadi elements within the Chechen rebellion that make up al-Qaeda's arm in the Caucasus plan to create a giant Islamic emirate from the Black to the Caspian Sea, well beyond the original borders of Chechnya. These jihadis, particularly members of the late Khattab's International Islamic Peacekeeping Brigade, are actually much the same people who started the Second Chechen War in 1999 with their ill-fated invasion of Dagestan. In all likelihood, they are also the same rebel leaders who met with members of the French al-Qaeda cell prior to their return to France.

Under Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgian government more or less turned a blind eye to Chechen rebel activity in the Pankisi Gorge, likely for a number of reasons. The first is that they weren't really doing anything in Georgia proper and that moving against them could easily turn them against Tbilisi. The second is that Russia has sponsored at least two separatist movements within Georgian regions of Ajaria and Abkhazia and Shevardnadze may have wanted to return the favor by playing host to Chechen rebels (even providing the late Ruslan Gelayev, a key Chechen leader, with a house in Tbilisi by some accounts). I'm not entirely certain of whether or not Shevardnadze was entirely aware of the international implications of what he was doing or not - his government accepted help from US military advisors after reports surfaced of al-Qaeda fleeing into the Pankisi Gorge from Afghanistan and allowed the US to capture 15 of the estimated 60 Arab al-Qaeda members in Pankisi and apparently thwarted at least two major plots against Western targets in Europe and Central Asia. All the same, near as I can tell Georgia made little if any effort to put an end to Chechen al-Qaeda activity in the "lawless" Pankisi Gorge, much the same way Pakistan seems to have more or less given up on ending Taliban activity in the similarly "lawless" Northwest Frontier Province.

Thankfully, Shevardnadze proved to be just as bad as being a dictator as he had as Gorbachev's foreign minister and was overthrown by his own people in November 2003. The new Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, has vowed to take action both against the Islamic terrorists hiding out in the Pankisi Gorge as well as against Wahhabism in general. Given that Saakashvili's prestige has just suffered a major boost from reclaiming Ajaria in a major victory for Russo-American diplomacy, the general assumption is that it's only a matter of time before Georgia launches a full-scale crackdown in Pankisi. The most recent report that I've seen on the subject suggest that a crackdown is indeed nigh, and it's probably a case of the sooner the better.

The Pakistan connection

Another problem that should be noted in this regard is the role of the Kashmiri groups and in particular the Lashkar-e-Taiba to the continuing threat posed by Project al-Zabadi. The Indian military has been reporting that "foreign mercenaries" operating in Jammu and Kashmir possess chemical weapons since at least April 2003. While thankfully only chemical-laced bullets have been recovered to date, the Pakistani connection does need to be examined further. According to French counter-terrorism officials, the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has helped to develop close chemical weapons skills that are now dispersed throughout the al-Qaeda network, which would seem to support other reports that the LeT is now the de facto trainer for al-Qaeda in the aftermath of Operation Enduring Freedom.

The Pakistani connection is also extremely important because of what was found on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's computer after his capture at the home of Pakistani bacteriologist. But if the information on Mohammed's computer were accurate, al-Qaeda is dangerously close to having a feasible production plan in place with which to make anthrax. From the looks of things, the events of Operation Enduring Freedom (and I expect Operation Iraqi Freedom as well with respect to the destruction of the Ansar al-Islam bases at Sargat and Khurmal) set them back quite a bit, but if recents events in Amman are anything to judge by it's only going to be a matter of time until they come at us again. The Los Angeles Times recently profiled the three men believed to be key members of Project al-Zabadi: Midhat Mursi, Assadalah Abdul Rahman (one of several of the blind cleric involved in the 1993 WTC bombing), and Abu Bashir al-Yemeni, all of whom are still at large.

The Amman Plot

Before getting into the nuts and bolts aspects of the Amman plot, let me just try to debunk two unfortunately very common theories that have been floating around the internet ever since the story first broke:

1. This whole talk of chemical weapons and the like is nothing more than fear-mongering on behalf of the Jordanian government.

If the only source of information concerning this particular plot was the Jordanian press (which is actually fairly reliable by Arab standards). However, Jordanian officials have appear to have been more than willing to inform foreign news outlets of the situation, with King Abdullah even going as far as to tell the San Francisco Chronicle in an interview that had the attack succeeded it would have "decapitated" the government. That's an extremely dangerous admission to make in the Arab world, where weakness or even suspicions of weakness has meant the end of many a monarch. It is also the reason why, in my opinion, Jordan allowed the international media to start reporting the story as early as April 17 but didn't disclose the truth to their own population until April 26 - when they were certain that the plot had been thwarted.

As for just how many people this attack would have killed, my opinion is that the 20,000 to 80,000 figures that have been tossed around by the Jordanian government are non-scientific, but consider this: if the body count were anywhere even approaching that figure, it would certainly be ranked among the worst chemical weapons attacks of all time. Saddam Hussein, for example, "only" killed 5,000 Kurds during his most infamous use of chemical weapons at Halabja.

Some have cited Zarqawi's audiotaped denial as evidence to support the position that the Jordanian government was exaggerating the details of the plot. You'll forgive me if I don't take him at his word on this one, especially when, as Alphabet City first noted, Ansar al-Islam was passing out leaflets in Baghdad threatening chemical attacks on US forces just weeks before news of this plot broke.

2. This is it! Zarqawi must've been planning to use Saddam Hussein's WMDs against Jordan!

There are a number of variants to this story and the fact that most of the cell members entered Jordan through Syria has been combined with the "Iraqi WMDs moved to Syria" theory to produce any number of scenarios, some of which regard the Syrian regime as complicit in the planned attack on Amman. Unfortunately, it is also completely inconsistent with actual confessions provided by the arrested members of the al-Qaeda cell that was to have carried out the attack. According to Azmi al-Jayyousi's confession, the "chemical explosives" (gotta love that term) that were intended to be used in the attacks were created by him, first at the Sal farm and then later a series of shops near al-Ramtha Bridge. So any chemical weapons that were going to be used in the planned attack on Amman are going to have been manufactured by al-Jayyousi rather than by the Iraqi regime.

Charges of Syrian complicity in this attack are probably likewise erroneous. While it is true that the plot was financed to the tune of $170,000 by Suleiman Darweesh (now in custody), a Zarqawi aide formerly based in Syria, probably via the Commercial Bank of Syria which has since been blacklisted by the US government. Unlike Iran, Syria's strategic worldview appears to be focused solely on Israel and Bashar al-Assad has been grudgingly cooperative in the fight against al-Qaeda, though they still appear more than happy to allow the terrorist network to use their country as a transit point when en route to Iraq and al-Assad has recently questioned the existence of al-Qaeda. All the same, al-Assad seems at the very least able to acknowledge the latter when they start operating in his own backyard. That three of the four attackers had recently returned from Iraq is also unlikely to escape the attention of the Syrian security services.

More to the point, the place where al-Jayyousi began manufacturing his chemical arms is near Irbid in northern Jordan. There are smuggling routes in that part of the world that literally go as far back as the days when the Nabateans used to rule the land and given what the al-Qaeda cell in Jordan allegedly received from their Syrian counterparts there would seem to be little reason to suspect Syrian involvement in the plot, at least at this time.

So what was in the works, anyway?

There are a number of conflicting accounts on this one. So far, I've been able to identify at least five separate sources of information as far as what the Jordanians believe was actually going to occur, tying together the different pieces of information from King Abdullah's letter to General Khair, King Abdullah's interview, the account from al-Hayat as reporting by the Washington Times, AFP, the BBC, and Knight-Ridder, as well as the computer graphics that were aired on Jordanian TV. With all of that out of the way, here is my tentative reconstruction of what I believe was intended to occur. Keep in mind that a lot of this information is fragmentary and I could be completely off-base here, but we all know how much al-Qaeda loves to carry out simultaneous terrorist attacks.

1. At least one of the major targets is said to have been the Dairat al-Mukhabarat or GID to use its English acronym. In addition to being one of the key pillars that holds up the Jordanian monarchy, the GID is also one of the various agencies that the US has been known to subcontract out to when it comes to performing "coercive interrogations" on high-level al-Qaeda suspects. This has been public knowledge since at least June 2003 when US News and World Report first broke the story, though I imagine that any reasonable analyst could probably deduce as much. As a result, in attacking the GID not only could al-Jayyousi have severely weakened the Jordanian government but he could also have hoped to start the domino effect that would eventually result in the release of numerous mid-level to senior al-Qaeda operatives. According to the al-Hayat account, the GID HQ was also supposed to be gassed and my guess is that al-Jayyousi was planning to use conventional explosives or truck bombs to deal the openly blow to the GID HQ and then use the alleged poison gas cloud to deal with any survivors that was supposed to spread out over an area of several miles.

2. The US embassy was supposed to have been attacked with poison gas. Attacking US embassies is, of course, standard al-Qaeda MO.

3. The prime minister's office in Amman was also supposed to have been a target. Given that the original time table for these attacks was set to occur when King Abdullah was out of the country meeting with President Bush (the meeting was delayed after word of the plot broke, allegedly over disagreements concerning the Israeli plan to retain certain settlements in the West Bank), Ali Abu al-Raghib, the Jordanian prime minister, is in effect regent in the absence of his Hashemite liege. Killing him would deal a major blow to the Jordanian government and, combined with the destruction of the GID HQ, pave the way for a potential coup. If history is any guide, coups are generally far more likely to succeed when the ruler in question is overseas.

4. Al-Hayat says that a Jordanian military base was also being targeted by al-Jayyousi cell. This makes a fair amount of sense, as destroying the Jordanian military base closest to the capital would also be a sure-fire way of removing any chance of Hashemite loyalist opposition to a coup. Also, the Jordanian military intervened in Maan back in late 2002 to apprehend several of Zarqawi's minions, so he would have good reason to want revenge against them.

As for what agents the al-Qaeda cell was planning to the use, the CNN account only lists one of the allegedly 71 chemicals that the cell planned to use in Amman, sulfuric acid, which fits with Ahmed Ressam's testimony as far as what he learned to use at Darunta camp. Sulfuric acid can be used to make a blister agent, but that still doesn't explain the nerve or choking agents that were also allegedly recovered by the Jordanian authorities. I'm no doctor or chemist, but the description of what the cloud was intended to do from the Knight-Ridder article sounds more than a little like the effects of mustard gas to me.

Implications

Project al-Zabadi still appears to be in operation to at least some degree and is likely to more or less continue apace until Midhat Mursi is captured or killed. In all likelihood, Darunta camp 2.0 has already opened up at one of the Lashkar-e-Taiba training camps in Pakistan as it appears to have in the Pankisi Gorge as well. The US can and has made efforts with regard to dealing with the latter, but our options available in the former case are unfortunately less than ideal, particularly if we're talking about stopping these attacks before an al-Qaeda cell succeeds in carrying out an attack of this nature against a major Western city. At least part of this, as noted in the Financial Times story via Rantburg, is due to the sheer number of graduates from either the Pankisi Gorge or Darunta training camps still at large. Ahmed Ressam was being taught this stuff at Darunta as far back as 1998 and I suspect that he's hardly alone in this regard. If the recently thwarted plot in the UK involving osmium tetroxide is anything to judge by, this expertise would appear to have been passed on to al-Qaeda's Pakistani alumni as well.

The idea of what anything on level of Amman could do to a Western city if successfully carried out is staggering, especially considering the loss of life involved in such an attack and witnessing how easily a single conventional terrorist attack was able to alter the course of the Spanish elections. How exactly would the United States react if something like what was planned in Amman occurred in DC? Or in New York City or Boston during the respective party conventions? All of these are important issues, like the continuing existence of reasonably easily accessible al-Qaeda training facilities over two years after 9/11 and are going to need to be dealt with regardless of who ends up occupying the White House in November 2004.

One thing that needs to be stressed, however, is that important victories have been made in stopping al-Qaeda's plans to unleash use chemical weapons - I count no less than 6 plots of this nature that have been disrupted to date. Operation Enduring Freedom help dealt Project al-Zabadi a significant blow (as did the destruction of al-Shifa, per the former administration officials who ordered the strike), and regardless of what one thinks of the war in Iraq, the destruction of Ansar al-Islam was a service on behalf of humanity. Diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia helped to ease Shevardnadze's removal from power and have set the stage for stabilizing Georgia for the first time in the better part of the last decade. However, these efforts must be continued in order to ensure that what was planned to occur in Amman is never realized in any city.

2 TrackBacks

Tracked: May 24, 2004 3:30 PM
More on Amman from Fresh Bilge
Excerpt: Dan Darling has received a summer appointment to the American...
Tracked: February 10, 2006 5:37 PM
Excerpt: The strike on the compound in Damadola, Pakistan, where Ayman al-Zawahiri. al-Qaeda’s number two in Command, was believed to be attending a dinner to celebrate a Mulslim holiday, has netted at least one high-level al-Qaeda operative. Pakistani intell...

2 Comments

Great job, Dan! I sincerely hope that the announcement you mentioned over on Regnum Crucis is the internship—or something even better.

This is what I think about the Jordan plot.

Long story short - not really an attempt to make chemical weapons, but a big bomb and kill a bunch of people, but not nearly 80,000.

BTW, congrats, welcome to DC, the bugs will be gone in a few weeks.

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