Tragedy as Impetus in Jordan

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 16/11/05):

The headquarters of Jordan's intelligence service sits astride a cliff in this city's western suburbs, on a road marked with a small sign that says "Jordan Nursing Council." Once you pass a series of gates and checkpoints and reach the inner courtyard, you see a stark black flag bearing the Arabic script: "Justice Has Come."

The fearsome Jordanian Mukhabarat has intimidated this country's foreign and domestic enemies for decades, and proved its worth again over the past week. By meticulous tradecraft, it managed to find a female Iraqi suicide bomber whose explosive belt had failed to detonate in last week's attacks by al Qaeda terrorists on three hotels here. The glassy-eyed woman confessed her role on television, and she gave interrogators additional leads about her accomplices.

Jordan's long-running war against al Qaeda has been kicked into a new phase by popular indignation over last week's bombings. A senior official told me that Jordan is considering aggressive new anti-terrorism operations that will seek to capture or kill Abu Musab Zarqawi and his top lieutenants. When I asked King Abdullah about the campaign, he explained, "Zarqawi brought the war to our doorstep, and there's a feeling in Jordan that we'd like to bring him to justice."

These counterstrike tactics will take the war to Zarqawi in a new way. The Jordanians have some of the best anti-terrorist operatives in the world, and they may be able to penetrate lairs that have been beyond the reach of U.S. forces in Iraq. Indeed, sources say that thanks in part to tips from Jordanian intelligence, U.S. forces captured Zarqawi at least twice over the past several years but let him go because they failed to identify him.

The tough new moves are only part of Jordan's response to the hotel bombings. What's more surprising, in some ways, is that the king has decided to accelerate his plans for political and economic reform. Indeed, even as the king is unleashing the Mukhabarat against al Qaeda, he contends that he wants to limit its intrusion into Jordanian politics and private life.

I spoke with King Abdullah yesterday at Basman Palace in the center of Amman. He had just come from a meeting with families of some of the victims of the hotel bombings, where he offered them condolences and financial support in the manner of a traditional Arab monarch. But in most other respects, Abdullah's response to this tragedy has been decidedly nontraditional. Rather than hunkering down in the way his father, King Hussein, often did in crises, Abdullah is pushing even harder to modernize the country -- believing that prosperity and change will be the best antidotes to Muslim extremism.

"What the attack did was show to everybody what we've been saying -- that this is an issue of ideology and the Muslim world can no longer be complacent. People can't sit in the middle," he told me. His advisers note that ordinary Jordanians have been slow to condemn suicide bombings when they were used against Israelis or U.S. troops in Iraq. After the Amman bombers attacked even a Muslim wedding, Jordanians may have a new view. Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher argues: "We can no longer afford to accept this culture of blowing people up. From now on, there must be zero tolerance."

Muasher has been drafting a road map for the reforms, known as the "National Agenda," which is expected to be unveiled this week. If passed into law, it will open the door to freer political parties, media and nongovernmental organizations. Economic reforms will seek to privatize industry, reduce taxes, boost education and otherwise foster a Western-style meritocracy in which brains and hard work count more than " wasta ," as the Arabs refer to inside connections. The king plans to form a new government in December that will draft the reform proposals into law, and to hold elections next year.

Part of Abdullah's reform agenda is to curb the Mukhabarat, so that it operates as a security service rather than as an instrument of political repression. The king asked his longtime spymaster, Saad Kheir, and other old-guard politicians to leave the government yesterday, in another sign that he's serious about change. "If your problem is with the Mukhabarat, then leave that problem to me," he told me. If Jordan can build a more open and democratic political system, he said, "then we have political maturity and an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood."

Bolstered by popular anger over the hotel bombings, Abdullah has decided to step on the accelerator rather than the brake. That's a risky strategy in this conservative, stability-loving country, but the Jordanian king is convinced that trying to prop up a shaky status quo would be even riskier.