Suspected bomber in Jordan detained, released by U.S. forces in '04
By Hannah Allam
Knight Ridder Newspapers
AMMAN, Jordan - One of the suspected suicide bombers in the deadly attacks on three luxury hotels in Jordan's capital apparently was detained and released last year by U.S. forces in Iraq who determined that he was not a threat to security, a U.S. military spokesman said Sunday.
The Jordanian government identified four suspected bombers Sunday: three Iraqi men who died in the attacks and an Iraqi woman who survived when her explosives vest failed to detonate. The name of one of the male attackers, Safah Mohammed Ali, matches the name of a man who was detained for about two weeks during fierce clashes between insurgents and U.S. Marines in Iraq's western insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, said the military spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ali and the other suspected bombers killed 57 people and injured more than 100 during three nearly simultaneous bombings at upscale hotels in Amman on Wednesday. Al-Qaida in Iraq later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Insurgent sources in Iraq and one of Ali's colleagues at a factory in Fallujah said in separate interviews that Ali was detained in November 2004, when he was injured while fighting U.S.-led forces - information that corresponds with the U.S. military's account.
"A detainee by the name of Safah Mohammed Ali was detained for a period of about two weeks at a division holding area in November 2004 as a result of operations in Fallujah," the spokesman wrote in an e-mail response to Knight Ridder. "A review of the circumstances of his capture by the unit determined there was no compelling evidence that he was a threat to the security of Iraq and he was therefore released."
The spokesman emphasized that the U.S. military could not be certain that the detainee was the same man who allegedly blew himself up in Amman last week. In Iraq, however, those who knew Ali said they were sure it was the same person.
The spiritual leader of the rebel council that ruled Fallujah when it fell under insurgent control said in a phone interview that he remembered Ali as a fighter in the Black Banners Brigade. That Fallujah cell was led by Omar Hadid, a local insurgent who rose to prominence as a close associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. Hadid later died in clashes with the U.S. military.
The spiritual leader, or mufti, said Ali's anti-American stance was hardened after he was detained by U.S. forces in the same mosque where a Marine shot to death an unarmed Iraqi man in a controversial incident captured on video by an embedded American TV journalist. The military ruled the shooting justified.
Ali's co-workers at an Iraqi Ministry of Industry factory in Fallujah described him as a computer specialist who was badly injured while fighting U.S. forces in the offensive last year. They said he disappeared after his release from U.S. custody.
"He never showed up to work again," said Salam Ali, who is no relation to the bombing suspect. "I asked his family and they said, `We don't know where he is.' When I saw the name on TV today, I was shocked knowing that a colleague of mine would blow himself up in Amman."
The triple suicide bombings shattered Jordan's image as one of the most tranquil nations in the Middle East. On Jordanian television Sunday, the surviving female suspect confessed that she tried to blow herself up at a crowded wedding party at the Radisson SAS Hotel, but the explosives vest she wore under an evening gown failed to detonate.
With a stony face and unwavering voice, 35-year-old Sajda Mubarak al-Rishawi, described how she and her husband crossed into Jordan from Iraq with fake IDs, rented an apartment in Amman and practiced how to detonate vests that authorities said were packed with up to 22 pounds of the powerful RDX explosive. The woman was described as the sister of al-Zarqawi's right-hand man in Iraq.
She said she and her husband took a white car to the hotel and mingled with the wedding guests. From separate corners of the ballroom, she said, they prepared to strike.
"There were women and children. I tried to detonate, but I failed. It didn't go off," said al-Rishawi, seated during questioning and wearing in a bulky black overcoat with a white headscarf. "My husband told me to get out. He succeeded in detonating. After the explosion, I ran out with the other people."
The would-be bomber's statements were spliced with the government's footage of her posing in a long denim dress and, over it, a crude explosives vest that looked like a jumble of red wire and silver duct tape. In a close-up photo of the vest distributed by Jordanian authorities, the fabric is pulled back to reveal dozens of ball bearings that turn into deadly projectiles upon detonation.
When the confession ended, the visibly upset TV anchorwoman ended her broadcast with "May God preserve Jordan. May God preserve our king." The station then immediately cut to a short music clip in which tearful Jordanians sang, "Don't cry, our bride. Don't cry, Amman." Hundreds of other Jordanians waved the nation's red, white and black flag at a rally in the center of the capital.
Al-Rishawi's husband was identified as Ali Hussein Ali al-Shimmari, 35. Ali and another suspected bomber, Rawad Jassim Abed, allegedly struck at the Grand Hyatt and Days Inn hotels.
A Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent who is not named for security reasons contributed to this report from Baghdad.