AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan has foiled a plot by an al Qaeda-linked cell to bomb its shopping centres and assassinate Western diplomats, state television said on Sunday, thwarting an attempt to destabilize the key U.S. ally.
Security forces had detained 11 suspects, all Jordanians, in connection with the plot, which envisaged carrying out attacks in the capital Amman using smuggled weapons and explosives from Syria, according to security officials cited by television.
The plot had been active since June.
Minister of Information Samih al Maaytah said the arrests underscored the serious threat posed by radical “terror groups” seeking to undermine the kingdom’s long tradition of stability.
A key U.S. ally in the Middle East and Israel’s peace partner, Jordan enjoys close ties with Western intelligence agencies and has often been targeted by al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants.
The cell had targeted two major shopping malls in the capital and was planning a bombing campaign in the capital’s affluent Abdoun neighborhood, where many foreign embassies are located.
A security source said the suspects had manufactured explosives “aimed at inflicting the heaviest losses possible”.
“The group was able to devise new types of explosives to be used for the first time and planned to add TNT to increase their destructive impact,” said the source.
The same security source said there was a crucial link with Syria where President Bashar al-Assad is battling to put down an uprising against his family’s rule.
“Their plans included getting explosives and mortars from Syria,” the security source told Reuters, saying the militants had sought to strike at a time of regional upheaval when the country’s security establishment is over stretched.
The authorities said they had seized large quantities of ammunition, machine guns and other items such as computers. The militants were training to use “suicide bombers using explosive belts and booby-trapped cars”, said another security source.
Maaytah told reporters that members of the militant group had spent some time in Syria, without saying when they had returned to Jordan.
“This group arrived from Syria. They have been going in and out,” said Maaytah, explaining that the case had been transferred to the state security prosecutor.
Another security source said the cell had been fighting for “some period” alongside Islamist rebel groups in Syria.
Jordan has in recent months arrested scores of hardline Islamist fundamentalists along its northern border with Syria as they were about to cross into the country to join jihadist groups fighting to overthrow Assad.
If Jordan allows Assad’s opponents to aid the armed uprising, Amman’s security forces fear the Syrian government could retaliate by sending agents to carry out bomb attacks inside the country.
Intercepted electronic mail showed that the cell had received advice from Iraqi Qaeda explosives experts.
Jordan regularly arrests Islamist suspects and puts them on trial in military courts that human rights groups say are illegal and lack proper legal safeguards. Many civic groups also say many of the Islamist cases are politically motivated.
In 2005, al Qaeda claimed responsibility for three suicide bombings that ripped through luxury hotels in Jordan’s capital killing dozens of people.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Osborn