Jordan: Major al Qaeda chemical plot foiled
Jordanian authorities said Monday they have broken up an alleged al Qaeda plot that would have unleashed a deadly cloud of chemicals in the heart of Jordan's capital, Amman.
Among the alleged targets were the U.S. Embassy, the Jordanian prime minister's office and the headquarters of Jordanian intelligence.
U.S. intelligence officials expressed caution about whether the chemicals captured by Jordanian authorities were intended to create a "toxic cloud" chemical weapon, but they said the large quantities involved were at a minimum intended to create "massive explosions."
Officials said there is debate within the CIA and other U.S. agencies over whether the plotters were planning to kill innocent people using toxic chemicals.
At issue is the presence of a large quantity of sulfuric acid among the tons of chemicals seized by Jordanian authorities. Sulfuric acid can be used as a blister agent, but it more commonly can increase the size of conventional explosions, according to U.S. officials.
The plot was within days of being carried out, Jordanian officials said, when security forces broke it up April 20.
In a nighttime raid in Amman, Jordanian security forces moved in on the terrorist cell. After the shooting stopped, four men were dead. Jordanian authorities said. They said at least three others were arrested, including Azmi Jayyousi, the cell's suspected ringleader, whom Jordanian intelligence alleges was responsible for planning and recruiting.
On a confession shown on state-run Jordanian television, Jayyousi said he took orders from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a suspected terrorist leader who has been linked to al Qaeda and whom U.S. officials have said is behind some attacks in Iraq.
"I took explosives courses, poisons high level, then I pledged allegiance to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to obey him without any questioning," Jayyousi said.
Jordanian intelligence suspects Jayyousi returned from Iraq in January after a meeting with al-Zarqawi in which they allegedly plotted to hit the three targets in Amman.
In a series of raids, the Jordanians said, they seized 20 tons of chemicals and numerous explosives. Also seized were three trucks equipped with specially modified plows, apparently designed to crash through security barricades.
The first alleged target was the Jordanian intelligence headquarters. The alleged blast was intended to be a big one.
"According to my experience as an explosives expert, the whole of the Intelligence Department will be destroyed, and nothing of it will remain, nor anything surrounding it," Jayyousi said.
Details of the alleged plot were shown Monday on Jordanian television, including graphics of how the cell apparently intended to carry out the attack.
In an videotape shown on Jordanian TV, Hussein Sharif said Jayyousi recruited him as a suicide bomber.
"The aim, Azmi told me, was to execute an operation to strike Jordan and the Hashemite Royal family, a war against the crusaders and infidels," Sharif said. "Azmi told me that this will be the first chemical attack that al Qaeda will execute."
Jordanian authorities said the attack would have mixed a combination of 71 lethal chemicals, which they said has never been done before, including blistering agents to cause third-degree burns, nerve gas and choking agents.
A Jordanian government scientist said the plot had been carefully worked out, with just the right amount of explosives to spread the deadly cloud without diminishing the effects of the chemicals. The blast would not burn up the poisonous chemicals but instead produce a toxic cloud, the scientist said, possibly spreading for a mile, maybe more.
The Jordanian intelligence buildings are within a mile of a large medical center, a shopping mall and a residential area.
"And there is no one combination of antidote to treat nerve agent, choking agent and blistering agent," the scientist said.
Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, has been accused of plotting chemical attacks before, and authorities said it would not be his first attempt to strike Jordan.
In 2000, a Jordanian court charged him in absentia with planning to blow up a hotel and attack tourist destinations.
U.S. officials have said he was behind the 2002 assassination of American diplomat Lawrence Foley, who was gunned down outside his home in Amman.
According to the televised confessions, $170,000 came from Zarqawi via messengers from Syria.
In last week's raid, Jordanian forces seized cash, bomb-making equipment and weapons, investigators said.
CNN was not allowed access to any of those arrested. But the videotaped confessions offer a rare glimpse inside an alleged terrorist operation.
The Jordanian government said the videotapes were made with the full cooperation of the suspects and their attorneys.