Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Rule of thumb in dealing with governments: When in doubt, doubt

You'll have to excuse me if I don't put too much faith in the televised "confession" of two accused al-Qaeda plotters in Jordan. As AP had it,
Azmi al-Jayousi, identified as the head of the Jordanian cell of al-Qaida, appeared Monday in a 20-minute taped program and described meeting Jordanian militant Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi in neighboring Iraq to plan the foiled plot.

A commentator said the plotters wanted to kill "80,000" Jordanians and had targeted the prime minister's office, intelligence headquarters and the U.S. Embassy. ...

Images of what the commentator said were vans filled with blue jugs of chemical explosives were included in the broadcast. ...

Government officials have said the suspects plotted to detonate a powerful bomb targeting Jordan's secret service and use poison gas against the prime minister's office, the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic missions. Had the bomb exploded, it could have killed at least 20,000 people and wrecked buildings within a half-mile radius, the officials have said.
Now, I suppose there could have been some kind of plot, but it seems to me there are a number of reasons to suspect something is not right here.

First is the amount of devastation supposedly to be caused. A bomb that would have "wrecked buildings within a half-mile radius" is one hell of a big bomb. Maybe someone here with more expertise in explosives could explain, but from what I know I can't see how they intended to deliver such a device undetected. Perhaps to forestall any analysis of the claim, the report mentioned "blue jugs of chemical explosives" but, as the BBC noted on April 26, didn't say what those chemicals were. (And why specifically "blue" jugs? Is that one of those "telling details" that are used to add verisimilitude to a description?)

It's also worth remembering that the Oklahoma City bombing, which involved 2-1/2 tons of ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel oil packed into a van, killed 168 people - and the Madrid bombings, which were caused by a total of 10 "backpack" bombs on four rush-hour trains, killed about 200. Not only did they cause nowhere near the physical damage Jordanian authorities claimed would arise out of the foiled plot, the potential death toll those officials offered is literally two orders of magnitude (that is, 100 times) greater.

The projected death toll from the poison gas attacks to follow - apparently 60,000 - should also raise a few eyebrows. Recall that when the Japanese apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system at the height of a Monday morning rush hour on March 20, 1995, it sickened thousands - but only 12 died. "Only," of course, here being a relative term, a contrast to the tens of thousands projected by the Jordanians.

(Sidebar: Robert Jay Lifton's book Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism is a valuable read.)

Even the worst chemical and poison gas atrocity of modern times, Saddam Hussein's coordinated, large-scale assault on the Kurdish town of Halabja on March 16, 1988, killed 5,000 - 1/12 of what Jordan says was in store there. Admittedly, if the attacks were to be in Amman, as seems to be the implication, proportionately the death toll would be half that of Halabja, which some might claim makes the Jordanians' figure at least reasonable. However, the fact that Halabja was not a surreptitious, uncontrolled release but a day-long military attack would seem to outweigh that kind of reasoning.

Then there's this:
Airing suspects' confessions before their trial is unusual in Jordan. In 1998, six men accused of affiliation with a militant group confessed on television to planting a bomb that exploded outside an Amman hotel. Five years later, a court found them innocent.
So what is the point of what seem to me outlandish claims? Well, it
may be an attempt to answer critics who claim the government has exaggerated the terror danger to justify tightening security.
That is, they've been taking their cues from the White House.

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