FOR months, the gang had been working on the plan. Hiding out in safe houses in the Jordanian capital, Amman, they bought cars and vans to carry the bombs, took over blacksmiths’ shops to build the battering rams and set to work manufacturing the 20 tons of chemical explosives they would need for the attack.
The plan was simple and devastating. They would drive the vehicles loaded with chemicals and explosives into Jordanian and American targets in the capital. The blast would spread chemicals across a two-kilometre area. It would kill up to 80,000 people and injure maybe 160,000 more. The poisonous fumes would cause physical deformities and attack the lungs and eyes. It was to be al-Qaeda’s first chemical attack.
The man behind the attacks was Ahmed Fadheel al-Khalayleh, also known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who this week claimed responsibility for attacking Basra’s oil terminal. The targets included the prime ministry, general intelligence department and the American Embassy.
The vehicles were loaded up, those that had been bought to punch through the security barriers were made ready, the explosives primed. The vehicles were on their way to the Amman’s general intelligence department when the Jordanian security forces swooped.
The reports came out of Jordan late on Monday. A few newspapers picked up on them in their late editions, and then it was forgotten about again, almost as if al-Qaeda’s currency has been so devalued by constant reference to foiled plots and claimed attacks that there is a reluctance to be seen to be taking the organisation seriously any more.
And yet intelligence sources say the evidence for an existing al-Qaeda threat is everywhere. It is not a linear organisation, which holds meetings of all its disparate parts to set out its agenda and decide on its tactics. It is more an idea, a loose collection of groups holding the same aims. That is what makes it so hard to fight. The intelligence services know what some are happy to ignore or forget: al-Qaeda are out there and they are active.
The point, oft stated, bears repeating: the day before the 11 September attacks, the suggestion that terrorists were planning to fly two planes into the twin towers would have encountered suspicion and derision in equal measure.
The Jordanian attack would have been in keeping with all the most effective al-Qaeda schemes, devastating in its impact and utterly unexpected by the wider world. But those who take an interest in the group’s activities were not surprised to learn of the Jordanian plan. Magnus Ranstorp, the director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University, said he came across similar - if not quite such dramatic - stories every day.
"It should not be such a surprise," he said. "Jordan is the prize possession of regime change for al-Qaeda, because it is right next door to Israel. It has a peace process with Israel, and it is one of the regions that al-Qaeda would like to destabilise."
But he said the public appetite for stories about the al-Qaeda threat was waning. "One of the reasons that it hasn’t captured the public imagination is that it didn’t happen.
"We are also reaching something of a fatigue because of a massive amount of information relating to foreign plots and arrests. Another example is Saudi Arabia. You heard of the attacks on Saudi Arabia this week, but what is not noticed is that the Saudis are seizing vehicles on a weekly basis filled with explosive. Last week there were five. To stay on top of this is a massive analytical exercise."
Many of the attacks are intercepted, but still al-Qaeda will not give up. Back in Jordan, they are in no doubt that they averted an attack so terrible that it would have dwarfed even 11 September.
According to the official Jordanian news agency, security forces picked up the gang, including the leader, Azmi al-Jayyousi, in a series of raids. The rest were killed when they refused to surrender and started shooting. Jayyousi - and a number of the other gang members - confessed to their involvement on Saturday. The confessions were subsequently aired on Jordanian television.
Jayyousi blamed the attacks on Zarqawi, claiming it was the al-Qaeda man who identified the targets, recruited members of the gang and provided them with the necessary equipment, money and fake passports.
According to Jayyousi, he met Zarqawi in Iraq after travelling to that country from Afghanistan. The pair had met in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, he said. "I took an explosives’ course, poison high level, then I pledged allegiance to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to obey him without any question and to be on his side," he told his interrogators.
Zarqawi began to make arrangements for the gang to enter Jordan and provided the funding through his most prominent aide, a Syrian named Suleiman Khaled Darwish, who had previously succeeded in getting other terrorists into Jordan.
"Our mission," said Jayyousi, "was to instigate military work on the Jordanian arena. He arranged for my infiltration into Jordan."
Safe houses were arranged for the men, and Jayyousi - now ensconced in Jordan - started preparing intelligence on the targets.
"Then we collected the chemicals to be used for manufacturing the explosives." he said. "I started to search for these materials in all institutions that sell chemicals. We managed to buy large quantities from all these companies. We collected around 20 tonnes of chemicals, sufficient to carry out all operations on the Jordanian arena. I started to manufacture and prepare them."
While Jayyousi made his preparations, Zarqawi arranged the finances. Money began to arrive, payments of $10,000 and $20,000 at a time until he had amassed about $170,000 (99,000). That was enough to pay for the materials they needed. Zarqawi continued to working on the fake passports, identity cards and car registrations that they would require. Meanwhile, the rest of the gang began to slip into Jordan across the Syrian border.
Among them was Anas Sheikh Hussein, 18, who had trained in the camps in Afghanistan and had travelled to Saudi Arabia before receiving his instructions to go to a safe house in Amman.
Also there was Ahmad Samir, who received firearms and security training from one of Zarqawi’s aides in Iraq.
Samir went to the building Jayyousi had selected as the explosives factory, close to Amman’s al-Ramtha bridge, and stayed there for two months, building the bombs. His family stayed nearby. For security purposes, Jayyousi knew the gang members only by nicknames.
With the bomb manufacture under way, he turned to his friend, Hussein Sharif, to get hold of the lorries and cars they would need.
Sharif told his interrogators Jayyousi wanted to strike against Jordan and its royal family, "a war against the crusaders and infidels. Azmi told me that this will be the first chemical suicide attack that al-Qaeda will execute. He told me that you will help me buying cars".
Together, they went about getting hold of the cars. They bought a small Opel, so Jayyousi could move around among businessmen. Then they bought a van, which they registered in Samir’s name, to transport the material Jayyousi was buying, and then a larger vehicle, which was to be packed with explosives and used to batter through any barriers.
Another van and a Chevrolet Caprice were added to the fleet, along with another lorry to punch through to the targets.
The plan was to stuff the vehicles with 20 tonnes of chemical explosives, detonating them in a blast that would affect a circle two kilometres across.
Sharif took the vehicles to blacksmiths’ shops to prepare them for their role.
At one blacksmith’s in Bushra town, near Irbid, Sharif’s brother worked on containers for storing the explosives before they went on to the lorries.
His neighbour, Salem Jaradat, asked him what he was doing: "He is a skilful blacksmith. He used to make doors and windows," he said.
For a couple of weeks, Jaradat said, the smith worked on the vehicles, then he turned his attention to the containers.
"We asked him about them. What is this? Why this? He said these are for large projects, and need a lot of fuel. We said to him why are iron sheets so thick, 5mm or more; he said this is what the customer wants."
In another blacksmith’s shop in Kufor Jayez in Irbid, they were working on the battering rams that would be attached to the front of the vehicles. Meanwhile, Jayyousi was working on the chemical explosives in the shop near al-Ramtha Bridge.
Soon, the material was ready to be loaded into the vehicles.
The Caprice was to lead and the others, each with two or three men inside, would follow behind. The Caprice would smash through the barriers and explode.
"Upon its explosion, the remaining guards who are not dead will suffer either from shock or internal haemorrhage, thus becoming impotent to fight back," Jayyousi said.
"The remaining cars will then enter one by one, slowly, where they can park wherever they want, since there will be no-one to fight back.
"Destruction will even reach faraway areas."
It did not happen. The security services got to them first.
But Magnus Ranstorp believes that however hard people try to push the threat out of their minds, it will not go away.
"Society goes back to normal, we create a resilient society, we put in place the offensive and defensive measures, but the global environment has changed," he said.
"They are still there, and this issue is not going to go away in the next 20 years.
"Jordan is a great reminder how many regimes are beleaguered by the wave of militancy that has occurred."