The Base: Radicals in Iraq Begin Exporting Violence, Mideast Neighbors Say; Rebels Enter Jordan for Attack, Kuwait Finds Bomb Cache As Fighters Cross Borders; Bush: Terrorists' 'Central Front'

by Jay Solomon in Amman, Jordan, Yasmine El-Rashidi in Kuwait City,and Glenn R. Simpson in Herzliya, Israel

Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Oct 7, 2005. pg. A.1

Three al Qaeda operatives crossed from Iraq into Jordan in August, smuggling seven Katyusha missiles in the underbelly of an aging Mercedes with a hidden second gas tank. Their orders were to bomb the headquarters of Jordan's intelligence service and the U.S. and Israeli embassies. The plot ultimately shifted and they instead narrowly missed two U.S. Navy ships in the Jordanian port of Aqaba. The militants then fled safely back to Iraq.

The incident, as related by Jordanian security officials, suggests how the violence of Islamic militants in Iraq is beginning to bleed out into the neighboring region. Some Middle East intelligence and security officials now worry that process threatens a broader, destabilizing conflict in the Middle East region.

President Bush voiced concern yesterday that al Qaeda and others want to make Iraq a base from which to launch operations against the U.S. and other secular governments. "The militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region and establish a radical Islamic empire from Spain to Indonesia," Mr. Bush said in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.

Indeed, "the terrorists regard Iraq as the central front in their war against humanity," Mr. Bush said. "We must recognize Iraq as the central front in our war on terror," he added, in a characterization he has often used.

The speech sought to shore up flagging American support for the war in Iraq. Yet Mr. Bush's words also echoed a concern of some who opposed invading Iraq in 2003: that chaos following an overthrow of Saddam Hussein could make Iraq a magnet for terrorists. Before the war began, Arab leaders including Jordan's King Abdullah II and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak predicted that an invasion would enrage the Arab masses and allow violent extremists to feed off resulting instability.

Mr. Bush yesterday disputed any idea that the invasion of Iraq has worsened the terrorist problem the world faces. While acknowledging threats to stability in the Middle East emanating from Iraq, Bush administration officials say the creation of functioning democracy there will ultimately make the region more secure. They say Iraq's successful election 10 months ago has already helped underpin elections in other Arab countries, such as recent ones in Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. And they say the changing dynamics in the region could help end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, citing Israel's recent withdrawal from Gaza.

Still, it's clear that numerous governments around the world, including in Europe, now are concerned about a possible terror spillover from Iraq. In particular, some close to Iraq say they're facing a growing network of arms and fighters being smuggled across their borders.

Officials in Kuwait, for instance, grew so alarmed earlier this year after uncovering a spate of planned terrorist attacks on their capital that they started building a steel fence on their border with Iraq.
Kuwait also detained security guards it believes were involved in smuggling networks. It even banned the import of watermelons from Iraq this summer, after a tip that they might hide explosives, though Kuwaiti officials say they believe they've contained the threat.

The covert nature of much intelligence work makes it impossible to verify many claims and warnings from Middle East intelligence sources.
Some terrorism experts say U.S. and Middle East officials attribute too much of recent unrest in the region to jihadists, either in order to mask general disaffection within the Arab countries, or as part of a pitch for greater U.S. financial aid. Still, the intelligence agencies in Jordan and Kuwait are widely regarded as among the most credible in the world.

Al Qaeda's efforts in Iraq resemble the way Osama bin Laden and other Islamic leaders used Afghanistan in the 1980s to promote global jihad.
In both cases, Islamists prosecuted the wars as part of a broader propaganda operation to rally the world's Muslims. Both theaters of war, meanwhile, have given extremists new training in military technologies and tactics.

And the tactics in Iraq are getting more sophisticated, some say.
Militants fighting there "are not like the mujahadeen 20 years ago, trained in guerrilla warfare, handed an AK-47 rifle and a satchel of grenades," says Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Rand Corp.
who consults for the U.S. government. "Rather, these people have been trained in urban warfare, in ambush and sniper tactics, in the use and placement of improvised explosive devices."

Driven out of Afghanistan by the U.S. after Sept. 11, top Islamists established bases for operations elsewhere. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a leader of the Iraqi insurgency, passed across Iran and set up shop in Kurdish northern Iraq.

One goal for al Qaeda, after losing its Afghan haven, was to bring its struggle to multiple fronts that would stretch American forces thin, according to statements released by al Qaeda. Mr. Zarqawi and other foreign militants in Iraq are believed to have formed a loose alliance with members of the former ruling Baath party and with Sunnis who fear being marginalized in a Shiite-dominated Iraq.

U.S. military officials say al Qaeda-linked elements conduct fewer than 10% of the insurgent military strikes in Iraq but provide the vast majority of suicide bombers and cause a large percentage of U.S.casualties. "Zarqawi is in no shape or form the head of the insurgency,"
says a senior Pentagon official in the Middle East. But al Qaeda "is very good at field craft and creating high-casualty events."

Terrorist strikes in the region, such as recent ones in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are on the rise, and according to Middle East intelligence officials, most are either ordered or inspired by Mr. Zarqawi and other al Qaeda figures. The officials view Mr. bin Laden's threats against the royal family in his native Saudi Arabia -- and Mr. Zarqawi's desire to attack targets in his native Jordan -- as more ominous when al Qaeda fighters are next door in Iraq rather than farther away in Afghanistan.

In addition, violence in Iraq between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam risks spilling over to other Arab lands, worries Adnan Abu Odeh, a former adviser to Jordan's late King Hussein. "I think the significance of what's been set off in Iraq will play out for decades," he says.

Jordan, sandwiched between Iraq and Israel, could be particularly vulnerable. Roughly 60% Palestinian, Jordan has long had to deal with radicalism focused on Israel. But Mr. bin Laden's late mentor, Abdullah Azzam, hailed from Jordan, as did Mr. Zarqawi. "Zarqawi used to swear in prison that he'd get his revenge" against the Amman government and intelligence services, says Abdullah Abu-Romman, a journalist who served in prison with Mr. Zarqawi in the 1990s. "He'll try again."

The August missile attack in the Jordanian port of Aqaba shows militants in Iraq can move weapons into neighboring countries despite extensive monitoring. It also illustrates coordination between violent cells in Iraq and elsewhere.

Jordanian security officials believe Mr. Zarqawi personally chose two Syrian brothers and an Iraqi national to do the Jordanian operation.
They say the brothers' father in Amman, Mohammed Hassan Abdullah al-Sihly, provided intelligence and logistical support, and also coordinated with other Jordanian nationals who were part of a local cell.

The team's initial plan, say investigators who later interrogated Mr. Sihly, was to attack the offices of Jordan's General Intelligence Department in Amman, plus the U.S. and Israeli embassies. The investigators say this was the second plot targeting these buildings since April 2004, when police broke up a 13-man al Qaeda cell allegedly planning to use 20 tons of chemicals in an attack.

Heightened security led Mr. Sihly to redirect the team to the port of Aqaba, where two U.S. Navy ships, the Kearsarge and Ashland, were berthing for military exercises, according to these officials. The three-man team rented a second-floor workshop about five miles from the docks and positioned the Katyusha rockets with timing devices. Three of the rockets fired, with two narrowly missing the ships and a third hitting the Israeli city of Eilat.

Jordanian security forces neutralized the other four rockets and arrested Mr. Sihly and some other accomplices. But they didn't catch the three main operatives who had come over from Iraq. Mr. Zarqawi took credit for the attack a week later, saying on an Internet posting that "the brothers who carried out the assault on Aqaba have returned safely" to Iraq.

Kuwait also faces threats from the Iraqi insurgency next door. In January, Kuwait's Security Services uncovered a bomb-making operation on the outskirts of Kuwait City. In a low-rent apartment in a district known as Jaber Ali, security officials say they found nine complete explosive devices, packed into sacks ready for transportation into the capital.

In this and other raids, Kuwaiti police say, they found diagrams of military installations and shopping-mall complexes. The plans, say these security officials, reflected the same tactics used by Iraqi insurgents, using light weapons and car bombs. The officials say interrogation of some of those captured reveal they had orders from a Saudi-based al Qaeda cell linked to Mr. Zarqawi to target military installations and shopping malls.

The neighboring countries potentially destabilized by extremists in Iraq include Syria -- even though President Bush yesterday said Syria has been one of the insurgency's biggest boosters by letting funds, fighters and weapons freely cross its borders. The problem for Syria is that the regime of President Bashar Assad is avowedly secular, and some radical Islamists view its leaders as infidels.

Militants with ties to Iraqi insurgents are already waging a campaign against the Assad government, says Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at Tel Aviv University. He says the campaign is waged by a group called Jund Al Sham, or Soldiers of the Levant, and that fighters caught or killed in the campaign show it is transnational. "This is a major problem for the Syrian regime and a clear result of the anarchy in Iraq," Mr. Zisser says.

A longer-term impact of the Iraq conflict could come from foreign fighters who train in Iraq and later return home. U.S. officials estimate that foreign fighters who have entered Iraq so far number in the very low thousands -- nowhere near the 20,000 who went to Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion 25 years ago. They also say most Middle East governments don't support their citizens going to Iraq, in contrast to overt Arab financial underwriting of the earlier, anti-Soviet Afghan insurgency. Still, al Qaeda and other Islamist groups have developed a steady pipeline of recruits heading to Iraq from North African countries such as Morocco and Algeria, from the Arabian Gulf and from Europe, say U.S. and Middle East officials.

The fighters usually pass through Syria, these officials say, where they get initial training and provisions before heading into central Iraq for, in some cases, "martyrdom" operations. Islamic Web sites carry videos showing young Saudi and Yemeni fighters preparing for suicide bombings.

In one, Muntada Al-Ansar, the medical-student son of a Saudi diplomat, appeared alongside hooded militants who briefed him with charts and maps. The youth then embraced his tutors before climbing behind the wheel of a truck full of explosives. Cell members filmed from three angles as the truck drove down a highway before making a turn into a government building in Mosul, Iraq, and setting off a giant explosion.

Many governments in the region worry that this network of Islamist recruits could reverse, bringing battle-hardened extremists back home someday. Twenty-one Kuwait men now are on trial in Kuwait accused of fighting in Iraq and recruiting others. In Jordan, seven suspects went on trial in August, accused of taking part in the Iraqi insurgency.

Germany is concerned with an Iraqi Kurdish group, Ansar al-Sunna, that has worked closely with al Qaeda and Mr. Zarqawi. Last December, German police broke up a plot by Ansar members to assassinate Iyad Allawi, then Iraq's prime minister, during a visit to Berlin. The group has an underground railroad for Iraqi fighters that runs through Italy, Sweden, Syria and other countries, according to a dossier compiled by Italian judicial authorities.

Ansar "is another example of an emerging and increasingly successful organization which has grown with the war in Iraq and the subsequent insurgency, in close cooperation with Zarqawi," said Ernst Uhrlau, director of intelligence coordination for the German government, at a recent conference.


Farnaz Fassihi in Beirut and Robert Block in Washington contributed to this article.

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