Jordan acknowledges al-Qaida cells

Monday, December 16, 2002

AMMAN, Jordan -- Al-Qaida has set up terrorist cells in Jordan, but security forces have succeeded in uprooting them, Jordanian officials said Sunday, a day after announcing the arrest of two suspected members of Osama bin Laden's terror network accused of killing a U.S. diplomat.

Jordanian officials had until now resisted the possibility al-Qaida was active in the kingdom, one of the United States' closest allies in the Middle East. Al-Qaida infiltration comes at a sensitive time for Jordan, squeezed between Israel-Palestinian violence and the potential of a U.S. war against neighboring Iraq.

"There could be some small cells here and there, but we managed to arrest most of their members if not all," Information Minister Mohammad Affash Adwan told The Associated Press Sunday.

He did not elaborate, and it was unclear if he was referring to arrests beyond those announced Saturday of Libyan Salem Saad bin Suweid and Jordanian Yasser Fatih Ibrahim.

The two are accused in the Oct. 28 shooting of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley outside his home in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

But officials say the two men, reportedly arrested Dec. 3, had bigger plans. A statement from Adwan said the two admitted their al-Qaida cell had intended to smuggle surface-to-air-missiles into the country. The statement also said Ahmed al-Kalaylah -- a fugitive top al-Qaida commander better known as Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi -- supplied the two suspects with machine guns, grenades and money to carry out attacks against embassies and foreign diplomats.

Links to extremists

Libyan security officials told AP on Sunday that they had been seeking bin Suweid since 1988, apparently for links to extremists, and had alerted other Arab security agencies to watch for him. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 40-year-old bin Suweid, also known as Abu Suheib Habib and Salem bin Suriya, left Libya for Afghanistan in 1988, joined al-Qaida and rose to lead a cell.

It was not the first time an al-Qaida link had surfaced in Jordan.

In November 1999, Jordanian authorities foiled a plot to use poison gas and explosives in attacks against Americans and Israelis in hotels and tourist sites during millennium celebrations.

During a trial in the millennium plot, the military prosecutor told reporters that the 28 defendants were accused of belonging to al-Qaida. Most of the defendants were found guilty on various charges, but the military court said there was insufficient evidence al-Qaida was active in Jordan.

Months after the millennium plot was uncovered, Jordanian security officials have said, bin Laden is said to have sent his terrorists after King Abdullah II and his family as they vacationed on a yacht in the Mediterranean off the coast of an unnamed European country. That plot failed after Jordanian security received a tip. Abdullah's strong ties to the United States and his country's peace treaty with Israel may have made him a target.

Jordan, home to 44 percent of the Arab world's 3.6 million Palestinian refugees, fears escalating Arab-Israeli fighting in the neighboring West Bank could spill over into its territory or drive more refugees into the kingdom.

Another potential refugee crisis looms if the United States attacks neighboring Iraq to rid it of weapons of mass destruction it is accused of stockpiling.

The perception that Washington sides with Israel and is unfairly threatening ordinary Iraqis fuels Arab anger at the United States -- and Jordan is caught in the middle.

Another source of instability became clear last month, when fatal gunfire between police and rebellious crowds in the southern Jordanian city of Maan. The government blamed the battle on gangs trading in guns and drugs, but analysts say the real cause of the trouble in a city known for an ultraconservative brand of Islam is resentment at the government and its policies.

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