For the first time, Israeli defense experts are noting that groups identifying with al-Qaeda - or the global jihad - are determined to acquire operational footholds close to Israel's borders. The most dramatic sign was the announcement of "al-Qaeda Mesopotamia" - the organization led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - that it fired four Katyusha rockets from Lebanon on December 27 that struck northern Israel.
On November 9, Zarqawi's network attacked three Jordanian hotels in Amman. At the time, militant Islamic websites had announced: "After the attack in the heart of Jordan, it will soon be possible to reach Jewish targets in Israel."
Al-Qaeda operations around Israel are becoming more prominent. In August, an al-Qaeda rocket strike at the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba also reached the Israeli resort town of Eilat. To Israel's south, a growing al-Qaeda presence in Sinai led to attacks on Israeli tourists in Taba and other coastal resorts in October 2004, followed by a major bombing at a hotel in Sharm al-Sheikh last July.
Sinai has also served as a rear base for the beginning of an al-Qaeda presence in the Gaza Strip. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy head of al-Qaeda, has encouraged Zarqawi to extend his jihad in Iraq to neighboring states (i.e., Jordan and Syria), where there are already increasing signs of jihadi activity. In the next stage, Zawahiri envisions "the clash with Israel."
For Israel, there are two implications worth considering. First, Zarqawi's branch of al-Qaeda is determined to destabilize the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In the last year there have been increasing concerns that Jordanian public opinion has been radicalized by the US-led war against the Sunni insurgency in western Iraq.
This radicalization does not just involve the Palestinians living in Jordan. Indeed, Zarqawi himself, as well as many of the Jordanian mujahidin, come from Transjordanian Bedouin tribes known for their loyalty to the Hashemite throne.
In December, Jordan's prime minister called for a "preemptive strike" against jihadism in Jordan. In the meantime, a state of emergency has been called in Jordan because of warnings of new attacks.
Second, Israel has to understand that the new terrorism of al-Qaeda involves attacks of far greater lethality than those carried out by the Palestinians in the past. Many Western sources are convinced that Zarqawi was training his recruits in the use of toxins, including poisons and chemical weapons, at the Herat training camp in Afghanistan.
In 2004, a Zarqawi associate named Azmi al-Jailusi confessed to trying to set off a chemical explosion in central Amman, near the headquarters of Jordanian intelligence, which had the potential to kill 80,000 people. In April 2005, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned that recurrent U.S. intelligence reports indicated that Zarqawi was seeking to obtain a "radiological explosive"- also known as a "dirty bomb".
It would be a cardinal error for Israel to conclude that after the U.S. war in Iraq, the region to Israel's east is moving in the direction of greater stability and, therefore, Israel can take the risk of conceding strategic assets in the West Bank. Zarqawi now wants to destabilize Jordan, but clearly seeks to target Israel as well.
Dismissing the value of Israel's security fence, Zarqawi's organization has declared: "the separation wall...will feel the might of the mujahidin," hinting that Israel could face the same waves of insurgent volunteers from the Islamic world that have entered Iraq.
Were Israel to withdraw from the strategic barrier it controls in the Jordan Valley and open its doors to the east, then Israeli vulnerability could very well attract more global jihadi elements to Jordan, who would seek to use the kingdom as a platform to reach the West Bank and then Israel