U.S., Jordan Forge Closer Ties in Covert War on Terrorism
The suicide bombers who struck three Western hotels in Amman, Jordan, this week also were targeting the increasingly important U.S. partnership with that country.
Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, or GID, has surpassed Israel’s Mossad as America’s most effective allied counter-terrorism agency in the Middle East. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, its cooperation with the CIA has grown even closer.
The GID has aggressively hunted Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born head of the extremist group Al Qaeda in Iraq and suspected planner of Wednesday’s bombings. Last year, Jordanian agents arrested several Zarqawi associates, reportedly foiling truck bomb attacks on the U.S. Embassy and government targets in Amman, the capital.
Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey called Jordan “a natural target for Al Qaeda” and Iraqi insurgents. “It’s a little surprising there haven’t been more attacks” against Jordan, he said.
The U.S. provides secret financial assistance to subsidize the GID’s budget, former senior U.S. intelligence officials said, adding that the two intelligence agencies conduct sophisticated joint operations and routinely share information.
Jordan’s intelligence partnership with the U.S. is so close, in fact, that the CIA has had technical personnel “virtually embedded” at GID headquarters, said a former CIA official in the Middle East. One former CIA official said he was allowed to roam the halls of the GID unescorted.
Most recently, Jordan has emerged as a hub for “extraordinary renditions,” the controversial, covert transfer of suspected extremists from U.S. custody to foreign intelligence agencies.
GID personnel are characterized as highly capable interrogators by Frank Anderson, a former CIA Middle East division chief. “They’re going to get more information [from a terrorism suspect] because they’re going to know his language, his culture, his associates -- and more about the network he belongs to,” he said.
But in two previously undisclosed cases, citizens of Yemen say they were detained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, then transported to Jordan and held by the GID, their lawyers said. One of the detainees said he was tortured by the Jordanian service and then handed back to American authorities.
The State Department praised Jordan for combating terrorism in one report this year and accused it of human rights abuses in another.
The latter report is particularly sensitive as the Bush administration justifies its war in Iraq, in part, as an effort to bring democracy to the Middle East. Washington’s intelligence partner in Jordan has been criticized for its role in the human rights violations and in political repression.
The State Department credits cooperation between the CIA and the GID with disrupting “numerous terrorist plots” and intercepting insurgents trying to cross the Jordan-Iraq border.
But Marc Lynch, a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts and an expert on U.S.-Jordanian relations, said the Amman government “has received a free pass on human rights because it has been so useful strategically.”
According to a State Department report released this year, Jordanian security agents “sometimes abuse detainees physically and verbally during detention and interrogation, and allegedly also use torture.”
It said Jordan’s reported torture methods include sleep deprivation, beatings on the soles of the feet, prolonged suspension with ropes in contorted positions and extended solitary confinement.
Such allegations have not hampered the CIA’s collaboration with the GID.
“Jordan is at the top of our list of foreign partners,” said Michael Scheuer, who resigned from the CIA last year, ending a 22-year career that included four years heading a unit tracking Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
“We have similar agendas, and they are willing to help any way they can.”
Although the Israeli Mossad is commonly considered the CIA’s closest ally in the region, Scheuer and others interviewed said that the GID is as capable and professional as the Mossad -- and as an Arab nation, Jordan is more effective combating predominantly Arab militant organizations.
“The GID ... has a wider reach [in the Middle East] than the Mossad,” Scheuer said.
The GID, with authority to track both internal and external security threats, plays a leading role monitoring opponents of King Abdullah II’s authoritarian government, including those who seek peaceful change, human rights advocates say.
The agency has arrest powers and runs a network of detention centers. Students applying to universities need a good-behavior certificate from the GID, according to the State Department human rights report. The directorate can also deny passports to citizens on national security grounds.
Political repression has increased in Jordan, partly in response to intense local opposition to the nation’s alliance with the U.S. as the Bush administration continues its fight in Iraq. Human rights advocates have accused Amman of cracking down on media freedoms and public assembly and report a growing population of political prisoners.
Jordan receives about $450 million worth of economic and military aid from the U.S. annually. It is one of only two Arab states to sign a peace agreement with Israel; the other is Egypt.
“The United States has had no closer ally than Jordan in the war on terror, and Jordan will find no better friend than the United States at this difficult hour,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday, after the attacks in Amman.
After supporting the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Jordan allowed American forces to establish bases on its territory. The Jordanian military is also training Iraqi security forces.
Although Jordan supported Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, it later provided refuge for political foes of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, including Iyad Allawi, who became interim prime minister last year under the U.S.-led occupation authority.
The GID has a long record of penetrating extremist groups. In the 1970s, it played a leading role in a crackdown on domestic Palestinian radicals who at one point threatened to topple the monarchy.
In the 1980s, the CIA and GID collaborated on a sophisticated campaign to subvert and cripple the Abu Nidal group, considered the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization at the time.
According to a former Middle East CIA station chief, Nidal was extremely fearful of infiltrators. To feed that paranoia, the GID set up bogus foreign bank accounts to falsely show his top aides receiving mysterious payments from overseas sources. Ultimately, Nidal turned on key associates, many of whom were executed.
Jordanian intelligence “undermined the morale of the organization and basically disabled it,” the former CIA officer said. For years, Washington has funneled financial assistance to the GID, much of it secret, sources told the Los Angeles Times.
Before Jordan signed a peace deal with Israel in 1994, for example, the CIA sent the agency undisclosed funds in excess of official aid allocations, said W. Patrick Lang, a former senior official with the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“We did it that way in order to avoid upsetting the Israelis,” Lang said.
Scheuer said the U.S. continues to underwrite the GID’s budget.
“It’s not a huge sum of money to us, but it’s a significant amount of money for [the GID] and allows them to buy a lot of equipment, mostly technical stuff, that they could otherwise not afford,” he said.
A former senior agency Middle East expert said Jordan’s king often had a closer relationship with the local CIA station chief than with the American ambassador to Jordan.
“We have had some ups and downs in our public bilateral relationship with Jordan,” he said. “The one constant has been the close ties between the CIA and the king and his government.”
Nothing illustrates Jordan’s intelligence collaboration with the U.S. more dramatically than its involvement in the CIA’s rendition program.
Scheuer, who in the mid-1990s helped start the practice, said Jordan was one of just a few countries, among them Egypt and Morocco, willing to accept suspects from the agency.
Scheuer emphasized that renditions require approval by senior White House officials and are vetted by government attorneys.
Larry Johnson, a former State Department counter-terrorism official, said Jordan was an ideal partner for the rendition program.
“Of all of our allies, which country would you want to question a terrorist suspect in his own language and who you trust not to blow smoke?” he asked. “Jordan wins hands down. They are the most professional and sophisticated interrogators we can rely on.”
The Times has identified six cases in which Jordan aided the U.S. in handling detainees, based on interviews, legal documents and published accounts.
In two previously unreported cases, the U.S. is alleged to have delivered detainees to the GID, which later returned them to American custody after their interrogations.
In late September 2001, Jamal Mari, a Yemeni citizen, was seized by local security forces in Karachi, Pakistan. He was held at a secret prison for several weeks, then turned over to American intelligence officials, who flew him to Jordan.
The U.S. has accused Mari of working for a charity group in Pakistan with ties to Al Qaeda. He has denied the charge and disavows any affiliation with terrorists.
Mari was held at a GID facility, according to an account he gave his American attorney, Marc D. Falkoff. Mari said he was not physically abused by the GID but was hidden from visiting Red Cross inspectors.
Mari told Falkoff he was returned to U.S. custody after four months in Jordan. He is now being held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Another Yemeni, 17-year-old Hassan bin Attash, was turned over to American forces in Pakistan and sent to a U.S.-run prison in Afghanistan. His story was relayed to a Libyan detainee whose lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, shared his notes with The Times.
According to Bin Attash, U.S. officials sent him to Jordan in 2002. He said he endured four months of being tortured by the GID before being returned to U.S. authorities. He, too, is being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Falkoff, who recently agreed to also represent Bin Attash, said that U.S. government attorneys had refused to provide a summary of the case.
“All I know is that the government has identified him as an enemy combatant,” he said.
In the previously reported case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, the GID transferred him from U.S. custody to Syrian authorities, Arar said. After being detained on a flight through New York, Arar was taken to Amman aboard a CIA-operated executive jet.
There, GID agents shoved him into a van, where, he said, he was beaten during a ride to an interrogation center. Later that day, the Jordanians drove him to the border and put him in the hands of Syrian intelligence.
After 10 months in a Damascus prison where, he said, he was repeatedly tortured during interrogations, Arar was released and sent back to Canada. No charges were filed against him in the U.S., Syria or Canada.
“The U.S. doesn’t have a great relationship with Syria, which was apparently reluctant to take [him],” said Barbara Olshansky, a lawyer with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights who represents Arar. “Jordan has better ties with the Syrians and acted as an intermediary.”
Salah Nasser Salim Ali, a Yemeni, ended up in Jordan after he was deported from Indonesia in 2003. His commercial flight made a scheduled stop in Jordan, where, he told Amnesty International, he was seized and detained by the GID.
“Salah Ali described being suspended from the ceiling and having the soles of his feet beaten so badly that when they took him down from the hooks he had to crawl back to his cell,” a recent Amnesty International report said. “He was stripped and beaten by a ring of masked soldiers with sticks.”
After Ali was held by the GID for about 10 days, “Jordanian guards hooded and shackled him, and stuffed foam into his ears before driving him to an airstrip,” the report said.
He was flown to what he described as an American-run prison in an unknown location.
In May of this year, Ali told Amnesty, his American jailers flew him to Yemen, where he is currently imprisoned. No charges were brought against him. A Yemeni government official interviewed by Amnesty said Ali was being detained only because it was a condition of his release from U.S. custody.
The Jordanian Embassy in Washington did not reply to questions about the GID-CIA relationship or renditions to or via Jordan.
However, the GID denied torturing detainees in an e-mail message to Amnesty International in August.
“Allegations of detainees abuses are purely fabrications that lacks verifications,” said the e-mail, which Amnesty provided to The Times.
“Most of the detainees at the GID detention center are affiliated to terrorist groups that seek to undermine Jordan’s security and stability.”
The note denied that Ali was ever detained by the GID and said he was “merely deported for exceeding [his] residence permit” in Jordan.