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Last Updated: Friday, 11 November 2005, 10:28 GMT
Q&A: Al-Qaeda's new direction
A series of bombings targeting hotels in the Jordanian capital, Amman, have been blamed on the fugitive leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner explains what the attacks tell us about the evolution of al-Qaeda.

Q: Do the Amman hotel bombings show al-Qaeda in Iraq is now able to attack on more than one front?

It has already been able to do so. The failed rocket attempt in August 2005 on two US warships docked in the Jordanian port of Aqaba was attributed to Zarqawi's network. The bombings in Amman on 9 November were almost certainly the work of the same network.

There are already indications that some of the Arab jihadi militants who have fought in Iraq have begun to trickle back to other countries. Recently there was a shootout in Dammam in eastern Saudi Arabia where it is thought that the jihadis who were holed up in a house had already been fighting in Iraq.

So it is certain Zarqawi and his followers would like to expand their network and there is certainly an international pipeline that channels fighters to Iraq, not just from the Middle East but from Europe too. So eventually, there is the fear that the pipeline will go the other way.

Zarqawi has already demonstrated that he can get people into Jordan. He is a Jordanian national although it's too dangerous for him to go there because he has been tried there in absentia. But he has obviously got good connections.

He has managed to build up a network that is seemingly quite independent of al-Qaeda's original structure that they had in Afghanistan.

Q: In what way is Zarqawi's network distinct from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan?

Al-Qaeda prior to the 11 September 2001 attacks was relatively anchored geographically - in the camps in Afghanistan. It has become quite diffused since then. Zarqawi has built up a network of contacts that is independent of the ones that Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the rest of the senior al-Qaeda leadership had in Afghanistan.

Q: Zawahiri is alleged to have issued a letter recently urging a scaling down of attacks. Is the attack in Amman proof that Zarqawi is going his own way?

Zarqawi has pretty much gone his own way for a long time. He has taken the al-Qaeda name and has allegedly pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden but, in practice, he is now the main man of the al-Qaeda movement internationally. He is the person who is rolling up his sleeves and, in the eyes of the jihadis, he is the hero who is confronting the invaders in Iraq.

His followers tend to overlook the fact that most of the bombings attributed to his group mostly kill Iraqis and Muslims. They kill far more Muslims than Westerners and that may be something that is worrying Zawahiri and the remnants of the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The strategists like Zawahiri realise they will not be able to carry with them the bulk of Arab opinion if so many Muslims are dying at the hands of Zarqawi's movement.

Q: How much influence do al-Qaeda's old guard still exert on the world stage?

It is premature to write off the core of al-Qaeda hiding in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their ideas are still very much alive and there are indications - such as the release of the tape claiming the London bombings - that they are still active in operations around the world.

But in a way, their work is already done. What they wanted to do was to wake up people to the need to confront what they see as Western aggression. And they have been generally very successful in recruiting people to their cause.

But I think the latest bombing is going to do them a lot of damage. Just as in the bombing of the al-Muhayya compound in Riyadh in November 2003, most of the casualties are Arabs and Muslims and that is not good for public opinion.

Q: What signs are there of a backlash against Zarqawi's network and will such a backlash affect its ability to operate?

You will never be able to completely eradicate the hardcore militants who hold that anybody who does not adhere to their very narrow vision of Islam is not a good Muslim, or worse, an unbeliever. But actions such as the Amman bombing of the wedding tend to undermine mainstream support that al-Qaeda might have had.

A measure of this can be seen, visually, in the hundreds of people who protested against Zarqawi outside one of the hotels in Jordan. But the way to measure this in practice is much harder - for instance, in an increase in members of the public reporting on the militants to the police. That has happened a lot in Saudi Arabia - the tide of public opinion there has turned largely against al-Qaeda because so many Saudis have been killed by their actions.

Q: Can the attacks in Jordan be seen in any light other than Amman's close relationship with Washington?

The Amman attacks have many facets. The attacks are partly to punish Jordan for acquiescing in the Iraqi invasion. The attackers have hit what was supposed to be the safe rear base for Iraq, to show Western contractors and coalition planners that they cannot continue to carry on their operations in Iraq and use Jordan as a safe base.

There is also the Israeli factor. Jordan is one of only two Arab countries to have full diplomatic relations with Israel and King Abdullah of Jordan was planning a visit to Israel shortly. That diplomatic relationship is very unpopular with a lot of people - not just with al-Qaeda but a lot of ordinary Jordanians, Palestinians and other Arabs.

And of course, having an Israeli embassy in Amman means Israeli officials use those hotels, so that is another reason why they were hit.

Q: How have al-Qaeda tactics been evolving in Iraq?

The biggest change over the last two years has been al-Qaeda's switch from targeting Americans to targeting Iraqi members of the government and other Arabs who are seen as partners in the coalition.

The Americans are much harder to hit. What the insurgents have proved they can do very easily - with devastating effect on public morale - is to either walk in or drive in to crowded places and blow people up, be it a marketplace or restaurant or a line of police recruits. They want to make life unliveable for everyone in Iraq, to show that the invasion of Iraq was wrong and the clock has to be put back to zero.

Q: What happens if Zarqawi is killed or captured?

It would only be a temporary blow. Zarqawi would be replaced by somebody who has proved himself in battle, somebody who has good organisational ability. The al-Qaeda insurgency has been going on for long enough in Iraq for a lot of people to have acquired combat and organisation experience in that group.




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