Amman, Damascus, and the Conventional Wisdom

By Irfan Khawaja
May 17, 2004 (first published in Muslim World Today, May 21, 2004)

The understandable concern over the doings at Abu Ghraib Prison has come to overshadow two stories of arguably greater significance: the abortive terrorist bombings in Amman, Jordan in early April of this year, and the massive bombing and shootout in Damascus, Syria at the end of that month. I recently did a Lexis-Nexis search for material on the first of these events, and came up (in a search that included American, Canadian, British, and Australian papers) with a mere handful of stories covering the first two weeks of May. Information on the second event was not exactly plentiful, either; a fairly extensive search produced an article here and there. If that doesn’t constitute a fatal misallocation of attention, I don’t know what does. 

Start with the story about Amman. According to an AP report by Jamal Halaby datelined April 27: 

State television aired a videotape of four men admitting they were part of an al-Qaida plot to attack the US Embassy and other targets in Jordan, using a combination of conventional and chemical weapons. A commentator on the tape aired Monday said the suspects had prepared enough explosives to kill 80,000 people. One of the alleged conspirators, Azmi Al-Jayousi, said that was acting on the orders of Abu Musab al-Zaraqawi, a Jordanian wanted by the United States for allegedly organizing terrorists to fight U.S. troops in Iraq on behalf of Al Qaida. 

According to the same report, besides the US Embassy, the terrorists’ targets included the Jordanian intelligence ministry and the office of the Prime Minister. The report adds that Al Jayousi claimed to have received $170,000 to finance the operation. 

It’s not clear precisely what chemical weapons were involved in the plot, but a Jordanian security official is quoted in Halaby’s report as saying that “the chemical bomb would have produced a toxic cloud that would have attacked victims’ nerves, skin and respiratory systems and resisted any single antidote.” According to columnist Larry Elder, the specific chemicals involved in the would-be attack “included VX, Sarin, and 70 others” (“The Curious Lack of Curiosity About WMD,” May 7). In the interests of fairness, I should note that Musab al Zarqawi denies having any chemical weapons, but promises to use them on civilians the minute he can manage to get some. 

In any case, this little episode raises some obvious issues that have gone mostly unaddressed, and the most obvious is the much-denied but persistently recurring connection between Al Qaida, Iraq, and WMD. It’s become an article of faith among the sophisticated and well-informed—well, if you count Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman as “sophisticated and well-informed”—that such a connection is a sort of metaphysical impossibility. Since (we’re patiently told) Al Qaida is a religious organization, and Iraq’s Ba’ath party was secular, the two organizations could not possibly have cooperated with one another. Such a rendezvous, after all, would violate the axiomatic firewall between Islamic Jihad and Secular Tyranny. And since (we’re indignantly told) Iraq’s WMD never existed, the threat they posed was non-existent. So the only thing we had to fear from Iraq’s WMD is fear itself.  

It is, I think, worth questioning these ill-founded certitudes in light of the Jordanian plot. The obvious question is how al Jayoushi (and/or Zarqawi) would have gotten his hands on chemical weapons. Such weapons don’t, after all, grow on trees. So where exactly did they come from? It’s impossible to say for certain at this point, but three considerations are relevant to an answer. 

The first is that the connection between Al Qaida, Saddam’s regime, and WMD is neither new, nor an invention of the Bush “neo-cons.” The connection derives from the Clinton’s Administration’s claim that the Al Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant in Khartoum had been manufacturing EMPTA, a precursor of the Iraqi version of VX nerve gas, and that Osama bin Laden had a major financial share in the Shifa plant. According to Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in The Age of Sacred Terror, the major evidence for these claims stands unrebutted to this day. That precedent gives general plausibility to the idea of an Al Qaida/Iraq/WMD connection. 

Second, we have the myriad recent disclosures—by Stephen Hayes, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Jay Epstein, Jonathan Schanzer, Richard Miniter, and others—of cooperation between Iraq’s Mukhabarat, or secret service, and Al Qaida (and/or its allies). Skeptics have poked various holes in these claims, but much of the evidence remains unrebutted. (Hayes’s new book The Connection offers a useful summary of the evidence.) 

Third, we have the long list, produced and codified by the UN weapons inspectors, of Iraq’s unaccounted-for chemical weapons arsenal—the weapons that were never found, not because anyone proved that they didn’t exist, but because no one was ever able to figure out precisely what happened to them. As Benjamin and Simon suggest in their previously-mentioned book and in a few Op-Eds, given the Bush Administration’s failure to secure WMD sites in the early days of the Iraq war, there is a real danger that that failure increased the possibilities of weapons proliferation. For all of the talk about “non-existent WMD” in Iraq, few have grappled in a sustained way with the possibility that WMD really did exist, but were stolen in the “fog of war.”  

Taking these possibilities together, the following hypothesis suggests itself: is it not possible that Zarqawi was involved in the Jordanian plot, and that he used his contacts in Iraq to acquire the chemical weapons involved in it—the chemical weapons that Iraq claimed, sans documentation, to have destroyed? 

I should emphasize that I’m not arguing that the evidence points unequivocally to the fact that the Jordanian plot involved Iraqi WMD transferred to Al Qaida. I’m arguing instead that the evidence points to a possibility of that sort. The precise nature of the connections between Jayousi, Zarqawi, WMD, Al Qaida, and Iraq are not transparent or certain. But since we’re dealing with covert operations, it’s more than a little silly to expect them to be. And consider the stakes: we’re dealing with a life-or-death issue potentially involving 80,000 people. If we were discussing, say, industrial safety regulation—think of the Union Carbide disaster at Bhopal, or of Chernobyl—no one would say, “Well, we’ve got no smoking gun—so let’s not worry about some improbable catastrophe scenario.” And yet we are hearing even less concern about the Jordanian plot than that. It would be nice to think that there was nothing to worry about. But if that were so obvious, by now, we’d know why. Since we don’t, it’s fair to demand a more thorough investigation of the matter. 

Why the lack of thoroughness? One reason is just the paucity of information. But the other reason is sheer complacency. Bizarrely enough, one gets the impression that complacency has recently become the new sophistication:  the more complacent you are about apocalypse, it seems, the more you convey the sense that you know where the real risks lie. And (the conventional wisdom now holds) a chemical weapon attack is not a real risk, for the following complacency-inducing reasons. First, no terrorist could ever get their hands on them. Second, even if they did, they wouldn’t for technical reasons be able to do very much with them. And third, even if they tried it, the attempt would backfire because it would court massive retaliation by the governments targeted by the attacks. 

The Jordanian plot raises serious challenges for all three arguments. Regarding the first, if terrorists can’t get their hands on chemical weapons, how did Al Jayousi & Co. do so? Regarding the second, if terrorists are too inept to deploy chemical weapons, what is the response to the Jordanian officials citing the 80,000 casualties figure? The Jordanians could of course be exaggerating or lying: they have incentives to do so. But unless we know that they are, such speculations offer little comfort: officials sometimes exaggerate threats, but they sometimes underestimate or under-report them. How do we know what’s happening here? Finally, regarding the last argument, as for the deterrent effect of massive retaliation, what happens if the perpetrators are suicidal to begin with? The fact is, if massive retaliation were a foregone conclusion, we would have seen it by now. But the arrest and/or killing of a handful of conspirators hardly qualifies as that. 

These are, of course, questions, not answers. But then, as I write, there are more questions than answers about Abu Ghraib, too. A country capable of asking tough questions about Abu Ghraib (which of course must be asked) ought to be capable of asking questions about recent events (becoming less recent) in Amman as well. What happened at Abu Ghraib was a disgrace, but what happened in Amman is a disaster in the making. Why are we discussing the first to the exclusion of the second? 

In related—but essentially unreported and undiscussed news—on April 28, the day after the revelations in Jordan, the Mazza district of Damacus was the target of a car bombing followed by a spectacular firefight between the militants supposedly responsible for the bombing and Syrian state security forces. The Syrian government, characteristically tight-lipped about the incident, released little information about it, except to blame it on Islamic radicals. The Western media followed suit by clamming up about it as well. I have seen practically no discussion of the subject since then. 

The Damascus bombing is reality’s riposte to the thoughtless mantra that our presence in Iraq is “creating” and “causing” Islamic terrorism that would not otherwise be taking place. Put aside the question of how anyone could claim to establish that the terrorism now taking place in Iraq would not be taking place in some other form somewhere else. The question arises: if our presence in Iraq is the cause, how is a bombing in Damascus the effect? “Western and Arab analysts said they were puzzled over what could have been a motive for a terrorist attack on Syria,” reports the New York Times, “which fiercely opposed the American-led war in Iraq and has praised the violent insurgency there as legitimate resistance to an occupying force” (Susan Sachs and Neil MacFarquhar, “Syria Says Little About Damascus Attacks, Points to ‘Terrorists,’” New York Times, April 29). More or less the same “puzzlement” arose over the bombings in Istanbul, Turkey last November. 

Where’s the puzzle? I’ve discussed Istanbul elsewhere (“The Lessons of Istanbul,” Pakistan Today, Dec. 5, 2003), but the puzzle about Damascus is resolved in some of the very articles that pose it: “Despite reported differences between the two governments, the Syrian authorities have worked closely with American intelligence agencies in providing information about Al Qaeda” (Susan Sachs, “Damascus Hit by a Bombing and Gunfight,” New York Times, April 28). 

If you put aside the preposterousness of American collaboration with the Syrian government—a government that sponsors Islamic terrorism against one of our allies (Israel) and incites the “insurgency” that is killing our soldiers in Iraq—surely this is all the answer that anyone needs to that “expert puzzlement.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the “Iraq-as-catalyst-for-terrorism” argument, Islamic terrorists do not show mercy on those whose secular political gestures happen to coincide with the terrorists’ own demands. The people of Istanbul, Madrid, Riyadh, Damascus, and Amman (to list some of the cities hit during the Iraq war) were not exactly pro-war, but they were targets all the same. By contrast, the people of, say, London, Washington, and Warsaw were more pro-war than those of the other cities, and yet so far, haven’t been hit. The lesson ought to be that being “fiercely” opposed to the Iraq war makes you no more or less a target of Islamic terrorism than fighting in it. The only way to avoid being a target is to hoist the white flag of surrender—or better yet, to die. 

There are reasonable arguments for having been against the Iraq war, just as there are reasonable arguments for being in favor of it. But our anti-warriors, enamored of accusing their opponents of “excessive ideological zeal,” have muddied the waters with their own ideological zeal on this topic. 

On no basis but dogmatic hunches, they have somehow declared mere inquiry into the WMD/Al Qaeda/Saddam connection to be the province of cranks and lunatics. But it isn’t—and they have yet to rebut the best evidence of that connection. Not having bothered to acquaint themselves with the facts about Iraq’s WMD, they are content to mouth mantras and slogans about “non-existent WMD.” But the hard evidence, codified in more than a decade’s worth of UN and other documents, suggests that there was far more reason to think Iraq had them than reason to think that it didn’t. “Puzzled” by the obvious, but incapable of questioning their own axioms, our pundits have little to offer us in the way of commentary about the war but recycled outrage over Abu Ghraib (and/or Nick Berg). But it’s worth remembering that those issues are detours on the road to victory--however necessary it may be to pursue them--and our fulminations about them, however sincere or justified, will not make the enemy go away, or make victory any less an imperative. 

And that leads us both to a diagnosis and an explanation for the misallocation of concern. The trouble with the conventional wisdom is its insufficient concern with victory. The concept almost never arises in discussions of either element of the war on terrorism, the Afghan or the Iraqi. There are few discussions of ends, and few serious discussions of means. There is, even worse, embarrassment at the very thought that victory ought in any consistent way to guide our thoughts and inquiries. But the simple fact is—as my colleague Angelo Codevilla puts it—“no victory, no peace.” The necessary condition of victory is getting straight on the threats we face. A look at events in Amman and Damascus should clear our minds a bit and get us back on track.

Larry Elder, “The Curious Lack of Curiosity About WMD,” May 7, 2004:

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror, via Amazon:

Stephen Hayes, The Connection, via Amazon:

Daniel Benjamin, “In the Fog of War, a Greater Threat,” Washington Post, Oct. 31, 2002:

Irfan Khawaja, “The Lessons of Istanbul,” Nov. 25, 2003:

Irfan Khawaja, “The Precautionary Principle,” Navigator, Dec. 2003:

Angelo Codevilla, “No Victory, No Peace,” Claremont Review, Nov. 26, 2003:

Irfan Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey and lecturer in politics at Princeton University. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.