AMMAN, Jordan — Authorities in Jordan have disrupted a major terrorist plot by al-Qaeda-linked operatives to launch near-simultaneous attacks on multiple civilian and government targets, reportedly including the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Amman, Western and Mideast officials said Sunday.
The Jordanian government issued a statement confirming the plot and said 11 people with connections to al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq have been arrested.
The foiled attack was viewed with special alarm by intelligence agencies because of its sophisticated design and the planned use of munitions intended for the Syria conflict: a sign Syria’s troubles could be spilling over into neighboring countries, the officials said.
Officials said the plotters had amassed explosives and weapons from Syrian battlefields and devised a plan to use military-style tactics in attacks across Amman.
The scheme called for multiple strikes on shopping centers and cafes as a diversion to draw the attention of authorities, allowing other operatives to strike the main targets, which included government sites and embassies.
A Western official briefed on the plot’s details confirmed that the U.S. Embassy in Amman was targeted. Like others interviewed for this report, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Jordanian government said the cell had planned the attacks since June.
The plotters intended to use TNT and mortar shells acquired from Syria, as well as machine guns, car bombs, and militia-style guerrilla tactics, to ensure “the highest death toll,” the Jordanian government’s statement said.
A security official with ties to Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate confirmed the plotters were linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq. He said the suspects probably were assisted by Islamist militants in Syria and did not rule out involvement by the Syrian regime.
“We are following every lead possible,” he said.
Government spokesman Sameeh Maaytah said all the suspects are Jordanian.
“They were plotting deadly terror attacks on vital institutions, shopping centers, and diplomatic missions,” he said. “They sought to destabilize Jordan. They plotted against Jordan’s national security.”
Jordan’s state TV broadcast the suspects’ names and mug shots. All are men in their 20s and 30s, most with long beards. They were identified as “militants.”
A Jordanian security official said some of the 11 are linked to Jordan’s banned Salafi movement, which promotes an ultraorthodox brand of Islam that views Muslims who do not follow its hard-line theology as infidels.
Cell members will be put on trial in a military court; a trial date has not been set.
Abed Shehadeh al-Tahawi, who leads Jordan’s Salafis, said he “recognized at least half of the people shown on television.”
“They are members of my group, but they have nothing to do with what is said to be a ‘terror plot’,” he said.
He called the Jordanian government announcement a “bluff to justify a looming crackdown on my group and other good Muslims seeking freedom through the rule of Sharia [Islamic law].”
A statement by Jordanian intelligence said an investigation showed the group “adopts the ideology of al-Qaeda” and that it nicknamed its terror plot as “9/11 the second.”
The statement said al-Qaeda “explosive experts” based in Iraq and elsewhere have assisted the suspects with manufacturing home-made explosives.
The plot’s timing was seen as curious. Jordan has increasingly allied itself with forces seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Syrian autocrat opposed by both rebels and a growing cadre of foreign Islamist militants inside Syria.
Jordan hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees inside its borders and has helped deliver humanitarian aid to rebel-held cities.
But intelligence gleaned from surveillance of the cell suggests the plotters aimed to destabilize Jordan’s pro-Western government with massive blows against the country’s government institutions and tourism-dependent economy, the officials said.
“This was a serious plan, with a great potential for loss of life,” said a former Western intelligence official briefed on the details.
For Jordan, which is beset by economic problems and deepening political unrest, he said, “This may not have been a tipping point, but it could have been a very hard blow.”
The former intelligence official said the plotters had access to large amounts of explosives from Syria and intended to use them to build massive bombs.
“Weapons are everywhere right now, flowing from Iraq into Syria, and back and forth into Lebanon,” the former official said. “The longer the conflict goes on, the worse it gets.”
The State Department had no immediate comment on the plot and declined to confirm or deny accounts that the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in Amman had been on the target list.
The last major terrorist strike in Jordan occurred in 2005, when al-Qaeda launched simultaneous attacks against three Amman hotels, killing 60 and wounding 115.