* Amman fears Syria could spread conflict to kingdom
* Post-Assad chaos poses biggest threat -Jordan security
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN, Oct 28 Jordan's announcement that it has
foiled an al Qaeda plot to bomb the capital highlights the
threat to Washington's ally from Islamist fighters hardened by
conflict in neighbouring Syria, and the danger of Damascus
trying to export its crisis.
The kingdom is no stranger to turmoil. For decades it has
navigated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its western border
and more recently bloodshed in Iraq to the east, which spilled
over to Jordan with hotel bombings in Amman seven years ago.
But the Syrian civil war could pose the gravest threat yet
to Jordan's pro-Western King Abdullah, whether or not rebel
fighters succeed in toppling President Bashar al-Assad after 42
years of Assad family rule.
The overthrow of Assad by Sunni Muslim rebels could embolden
hardline Sunni Islamists in Jordan, while a weakened but still
fighting Assad may try to deflect pressure by spreading the
conflict to his neighbours, Jordanian politicians say.
Mahmoud Kharabsheh, a prominent politician with an
intelligence background, says Syria's role in letting al Qaeda
fighters head to Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion has
reinforced fears that Damascus could try the same in Jordan.
"The Syrian regime will not leave a stone unturned to
destabilise the kingdom. The Syrian regime is determined to
export its crisis to neighbouring countries to ... destabilise
our security," said Kharabsheh, a member of the outgoing
At the height of the bloodshed in Iraq, Damascus emptied its
prisons of many radical Islamists and let them cross the border
to fight the Western forces. This allowed Assad's secular
government to get rid of domestic Islamist opponents, at least
temporarily, and indirectly pin down forces of its U.S. enemies.
Those radicals have returned home to fight Assad, and have
been joined by fellow Islamists from Jordan.
Kharabsheh said the Syrian government might again try to use
its ideological opposite, al Qaeda, as it struggles for
survival. "They are two imminent dangers and their interests
could easily coincide to destabilise Jordan," he said.
Scores of Syrians had been arrested in recent months after
gathering information and acting as agents provocateurs in
Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp, which houses tens of thousands of
Syrians who have fled their country, he added.
Then on Oct. 21, Jordan state TV said intelligence services
had foiled the plot by an al Qaeda-linked cell to bomb shopping
centres and assassinate Western diplomats in Amman, using
weapons and explosives smuggled from Syria..
Although some expressed scepticism about the threat posed by
11 al Qaeda suspects who were arrested - including teenagers
and young students - there is little dispute that the Syrian
conflict has galvanised Jordan's jihadists.
HISTORY OF ENMITY
Despite urging Assad to step down, Jordan has tried to
accommodate the Syrian authorities, fearing any overt
intervention would revive tensions with Damascus. That hostility
reached a peak in 1981 when Syria was accused of being behind a
failed assassination attempt on Jordan's prime minister and
Amman harboured the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Since the latest conflict broke out, Jordan has shown
restraint in dealing with Syrian gun and mortar fire across its
borders, with Amman trying to insulate itself from the military
fallout, according to diplomats and politicians.
This contrasts with Turkey, whose forces have repeatedly
fired on Syria since five of its civilians were killed early
this month by shells and mortars from across the border.
But the combination of turmoil across Jordan's northern
border and growing demands for reform inside the Hashemite
monarchy, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world, have left
Amman particularly vulnerable.
One Western government official visiting the region last
week compared Amman with Beirut, where a car bomb killed a
prominent anti-Assad intelligence chief earlier this month and
plunged the Lebanese into political crisis.
"I worry more about Jordan than Lebanon," he said. "Lebanon
has been through this before and has the coping mechanisms."
ISLAMIST SLEEPER CELLS?
Jordanian analysts say Islamist groups are gaining ground
among Syrian rebels, creating a new generation of battle-
hardened jihadists like the "Arab Afghans" mujahideen who went
to Afghanistan to fight Soviet troops in the 1980s and returned
home to wage jihad against their pro-U.S. governments.
Political analyst Sami Zubaidi said jihadists who believe in
waging holy war were sheltering among ultra-orthodox Salafi
Islamists who support non-violent action. "There are sleeper
cells in the jihadist Salafi groups in Jordan which did not find
an arena inside Jordan and went to Syria," he said.
"A lot of these jihadists go to Syria and get armed and
develop their skills as though it was a training course before
they return to Jordan armed to hit Jordanian targets," he added.
Growing deprivation in impoverished areas such as the
Jordanian city of Zarqa creates recruiting grounds for jihadists
heading to Syria. Zarqa is the hometown of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,
once head of al Qaeda in Iraq who is blamed for the 2005 Amman
hotel bombings which killed more than 50 people.
Only this month, two Jordanian Salafists were killed in
Syria's southern city of Deraa, just across the Jordanian
border, while battling Syrian troops. They were among at least
250 jihadists who are estimated to have crossed into Syria.
The longer that conflict in Syria continues, the more
fighters may be drawn to the battlefield.
But for many in Jordan's security establishment, the biggest
threat comes from the mayhem that would result from the toppling
of the Assad regime.
"This is what scares me; if the regime falls in Syria and
radical Islamist groups become influential there, it will be
easier for these extremist groups to work here in Jordan and
destabilise the country," said Hazem al-Awran, a former