Al-Qaeda on defensive as bombs begin to backfire

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AFTER years of al-Qaeda terror attacks in which thousands have been killed, many of them Muslims - the people they wish to recruit - voices of dissent are starting to be heard in the Middle East.

As moderate Muslims dare to protest at daily death tolls, even the prospect of one of Osama bin Laden's most feared cohorts, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, being handed over is being discussed.

Faced with the unprecedented outburst of fury among Muslims over its latest atrocity, al-Qaeda's concern about reaction in the Middle East was evident last week when it came the closest yet to an apology.

It offered an "explanation" for one of worst attacks to hit Jordan in modern history, in which suicide bombers turned wedding parties into scenes of destruction, killing at least 60 people and injuring 96 at international hotels in Amman.

At first al-Qaeda announced that "a group of our best lions" had carried out the attacks to punish Jordan for supporting "the Jews and Crusaders".

Then late at night it posted a second statement on the internet "to explain to Muslims part of the reason the holy warriors targeted these dens." It said it had ordered the suicide attacks on the hotels "only after becoming confident that they were centres for launching war on Islam and supporting the Crusaders' presence in Iraq and the Arab peninsula and the presence of the Jews on the land of Palestine."

A third statement on Friday also had a defensive tone. It said the bombers were four Iraqis, who had chosen the hotels "after a month of surveillance and information gathering".

Al-Qaeda's volte-face was caused by an unprecedented emotional outpouring of anger against the terrorist organisation in Jordan. On Thursday thousands of Jordanians protested across the country to denounce the head of the al-Qaeda terrorist group in Iraq, Zarqawi, America's most wanted enemy. They marched through Amman chanting: "Burn in hell, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi!"

There were even larger demonstrations on Friday after the weekly midday mosque sermons in Amman and at a mass funeral for victims. "We came to support our nation and our unity," said Ibrahim Haniya, 22, who marched with a group of friends. "These bombers didn't differentiate between Muslims, Christians or Jews. They were against the world."

"The country is experiencing solidarity," said Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Amman. "On the TV, on the radio, everyone is condemning the attacks in the strongest terms, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to show their solidarity with the rest of the population."

Diplomats say a key question is whether al-Qaeda has over-reached itself. "They have clearly been stung by the reaction on the streets in Jordan," said one diplomat with knowledge of the region.

"Until now they have been impervious to the deaths of ordinary Muslims. This time, the fact that they savaged two wedding parties was bad enough. But even worse is the fact that among the dead were Palestinians. Palestinians not only make up the majority of the population of Jordan, but they have iconic status in the Arab world, where they are seen as victims of Israel."

An immediate result of the Jordan attacks may be a split between al-Qaeda and Palestinian militants, he said, adding that it was significant that Palestinians in Gaza had moved immediately to put daylight between themselves and al-Qaeda.

Nafez Azzam, of the Islamic Jihad group, said: "We condemn the style, the random killings. We condemn the killing of innocents anywhere regardless of belief and religion."

Hamas urged al-Qaeda to limit itself to striking against the US in Iraq and to avoid killing Arabs and Muslims.

"Such condemned bombings will be at the expense of Iraqi and Palestinian causes," said Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri.

Al-Qaeda's 'explanation' of its attacks in Jordan was its second within days. Last week two Indonesians arrested over the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August, which killed 12, also expressed remorse in the face of a huge wave of popular revulsion.

Significantly, one of them said sorry not only to the victims and their relatives, but to other Muslims. The man, known as Tohir, whom police say is a member of Jemaah Islamiyah, the South-east Asian branch of al-Qaeda, said on television: "I apologise to families of the victims sincerely and to the Muslim community, who have felt the slander and negative impact of my actions."

A Western intelligence official said: "The bombings in Amman will do a lot of damage to the reputation of al-Qaeda. Until now al-Qaeda has had some success. Many Muslims have been alienated from the US because of the invasion of Iraq and its support for Israel. The idea of violent jihad has spread to parts of the world far from Iraq, and there is even talk of a global Islamist insurgency.

"But there is evidence of a backlash. Most of the bombings attributed to al-Qaeda kill far more Muslims than Westerners, and it will not be able to carry the bulk of Arab opinion with it when so many Muslims are dying as a result of its activities."

The aim of al-Qaeda is to drive the Americans and other "Crusaders" from Muslim lands and overthrow governments such as those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey which it sees as lackeys of the West, and replace them with umma, a community which would follow the 'pure' brand of Islam.

However, anti-Americanism has not been translated into the collapse of any of these governments.

Even in Iraq al-Qaeda may have overreached itself, according to Eric Margolis, author of War at the Top of the World: the Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet. "I think it remarkable that Zarqawi has not been caught yet. But I think it's even more likely that he will soon be either caught or betrayed, possibly by his own people.

"In Iraq there's a lot of anger and fury at Zarqawi, even among the Iraqi resistance forces who are fighting the Americans. They say that Zarqawi is polluting and defaming their struggle by terrorist attacks, which are just brutal and bloodletting, and giving them a bad name."