Jordan bomb trial offers US a case study
Raed Hijazi is a mere footsoldier in Osama bin Laden's jihad. But his ongoing trial in Jordan's State Security Court is taking on a broader significance as America debates how best to strike back at Mr. bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.
Mr. Hijazi's trial is offering important insights, not only into how terror groups with Al Qaeda links operate, but potential pitfalls faced by American prosecutors if or when they attempt to bring bin Laden and his allies to justice in a US courtroom.
Hijazi, a former Boston cab driver and US citizen of Jordanian heritage, is accused of plotting a New Year's Eve 2000 truck bomb attack on an Amman hotel filled with American and Israeli tourists. Simultaneous attacks were planned at
two Christian holy sites in Jordan that were expected to be packed with still more tourists. More than 20 people are accused in the plot.
Hijazi had boasted, according to a government prosecutor, that there wouldn't be enough body bags in all of Jordan to carry away the dead.
Instead, the plot was broken up by alert Jordanian security officials. Their quick, preemptive action offers the world a much-needed success story in the fight against terrorism at a time when America and Europe are struggling to come to terms with a new sense of vulnerability.
But the case also raises questions about what kinds of tactics should be permitted in a US-led war on terrorism. Hijazi's lawyers argue that the Jordanian government's case is largely based on incriminating statements wrung from Hijazi during torture inflicted by Jordanian and Syrian authorities. Under international law, any statements made under duress should be excluded as tainted evidence.
Government officials deny any torture was involved. They are asking the three-judge panel to convict Hijazi and sentence him to the maximum penalty - death by hanging.
Saad Hattar, a reporter at the Jordan Times, has covered the hotel bombing case from the beginning. He says he doesn't believe the torture charges, but he adds that the security services "have their own ways of trying to intimidate defendants and witnesses."
The issue of torture or mistreatment could become a significant roadblock, should US prosecutors try to encourage Hijazi to agree to a plea bargain and possibly testify in an American court against high-ranking members of Al Qaeda with whom he allegedly dealt.
But such legal options may already be impossible.
"Hijazi has to be very tainted at this point," says an Amman-based diplomat.
There is an impression among some analysts that the US maintains its close working relationship with Jordanian intelligence in part to reap the benefits of brutal tactics that are impermissible for the Americans.
"The US role is not perceived as one that protects human rights in Jordan. It is to the contrary," says Lamis Andoni, a Massachusetts-based writer and political analyst with long experience in Jordan. "There is ample evidence that whenever Jordan tries to accommodate the US, human rights and civil rights are the first casualty."
Nonetheless, given the crisis atmosphere in Washington, Jordan's effectiveness in counterterrorism has prompted some in the US to ask whether American intelligence agencies should strive to become more like the Jordanians - including delving into the most ruthless aspects of intelligence work.
President Bush has signed an executive order lifting a 27-year presidential ban on assassinations, in effect authorizing US intelligence agents to hunt down and kill bin Laden and Al Qaeda members. But it remains unclear to what extent the order opens the way for the use of a full range of other brutal tactics against suspected Al Qaeda associates.
Jordan's effectiveness in gathering intelligence isn't based only on the intelligence service's reputation for brutality. Analysts say the government maintains a large security force that keeps a close eye on Jordanian society, providing a kind of early warning system to potential trouble.
"The Jordanian intelligence service has always had the ability to infiltrate all kinds of groups, beginning with Arab nationalists, the Palestinian movement groups, and now the Islamists," says Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. "Wherever you had Arabs and Jordanians, Jordanian intelligence was there."
This infiltration capacity stands in stark contrast to the US Central Intelligence Agency, which has been severely criticized for shunning the often messy human side of intelligence work in favor of high-tech eavesdropping via telecommunications intercepts and satellite imagery.
Jordan has never enjoyed that luxury. With its proximity to so many flash points in the Middle East, the kingdom has endured a long history of terrorism, from the assassination of King Abdullah I by a lone gunman in 1951, through the turbulent years of Palestinian militancy in Jordan in the 1970s, to a thwarted plan in the summer of 2000 by Al Qaeda-backed guerrillas to assassinate King Abdullah II and his family aboard a yacht.
"Jordan has been at war with bin Laden since 1991, but the confrontation intensified over the last few years," Jordan's information minister, Saleh Qallab, recently told Agence France Press.
Roughly 10 years ago, security officials began to notice the return of Jordanians who had fought in Afghanistan. Among the returning veterans was Raed Hijazi.
The hotel bombing conspiracy began as early as 1996, prosecutors say, with preliminary planning among a locally organized group of Jordanians with no apparent connections to Al Qaeda. Those would come later, according to prosecutors.
Hijazi spent 18 months in Boston, from 1997 to 1998, working as a security guard and cab driver, prosecutors say, raising from $10,000 to $13,000 to help finance the operation.
On his return trip to the Middle East, he stopped in London to purchase five two-way radios that prosecutors say were to be used as remote-control detonation devices.
Once back in Jordan, he and more than 20 associates purchased chemicals as well as arms and ammunition. That's when they allegedly made contact with Al Qaeda and were invited to Afghanistan for pre-mission training in explosives and other techniques.
Jordanian authorities picked up tips about a possible terror attack in Jordan, but they lacked solid information. Their continuing surveillance paid off in late November 1999 - just one month before New Year's Eve.
They intercepted a telephone call between one of the conspirators and Abu Zubaydah, a key figure in Al Qaeda. The conversation suggested that an attack was imminent.
Jordanian authorities swung into action, arresting ring members and seizing a cache of explosive chemicals, weapons, ammunition, and even the five two-way radios. In the process, they prevented what would have been the largest terror attack in Jordan's history.
To date, five members of the conspiracy have been sentenced to death. If convicted, Hijazi's would become the sixth death sentence. Most other convicted conspirators have received prison terms ranging from a few years to life.
One surprising outcome of an earlier trial in the conspiracy is that the three-judge panel hearing the case acquitted all 28 suspected ring members of the formal charge of having been members of Al Qaeda. Analysts say this finding by the judges is significant, because it underscores the often murky nature of the relationship between bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and those who may organize on a local level to carry out a terrorist attack after being inspired by bin Laden to act.