- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

AMMAN, Jordan Peering behind the stone facade of the building, the operator could barely maintain a bead on the target with his Heckler & Koch MP-5 submachine gun.

It was a cool day in Amman, the Jordanian capital, though the scent of black irises reminded everyone of the warmth of spring.

The operator had been poised for attack, submachine gun in hand, for more than three hours, and the sweat was dripping through his black ski mask and under his navy-blue overalls and Kevlar body armor.

Outside a two-story building in Abdoun, one of Amman's most exclusive neighborhoods, a small army of commandos had converged on a safe house used by Iraqi terrorists.

The heavily armed Iraqis, involved in arms-smuggling and attacks against the large Iraqi community in the Jordanian capital, had been cornered in the safe house.

The commandos decided the Iraqis were unlikely to surrender. In January 1998, the cornered men had killed the deputy chief of the Iraqi mission in Amman. He was killed with seven others in what Jordanian intelligence officers called a cold-blooded massacre.

Some intelligence reports suggested that they were agents working for Saddam's son Uday. Now, after months of surveillance by the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, they had been cornered. A small army of men in black fatigues had surrounded the building and put snipers on nearby rooftops.

Officers wearing crimson berets and neatly pressed camouflage fatigues did their best to maintain cell-phone and secure radio communications with their men around the target. The time to move was now. Negotiations were out of the question.

Moving stealthily through the crowded neighborhood in a fluid assault, the operators stormed the hide-out and engaged the gunmen in a furious fusillade of automatic fire. The battle was one-sided and over in minutes.

Those ballistic and bloody moments in Amman in 1998 have been overshadowed by subsequent developments. For Jordan's commandos, the world now is a much different place.

The likelihood of Osama bin Laden's terrorist cells disrupting national security was hammered home in December 1999, when 28 al Qaeda operatives were arrested inside Jordan for planning to bomb American and Israeli tourists during year 2000 celebrations.

Perhaps most important, the commander whose name the troops were shouting proudly in the streets of Amman became the king of Jordan.

For nearly 90 years, special-operations forces men who are one with the desert and lethal with a razor-sharp Kukri, or hand-tooled Shabariya decorated by sequins and gold thread have been the symbol of rule and pride in Jordan.

The importance of elite forces as part of Jordan's arsenal is embedded in centuries of tradition and reinforced by the realities of Middle Eastern warfare.

For more than a half-century, the Jordanian military had the reputation of being the most professional in the Arab Middle East. The British-trained and American-supplied military has developed from the legendary Arab Legion to a well-equipped fighting force ready for battle with Khaled tanks and F-16 bombers.

Jordan created its own special forces on April 15, 1963, when the first airborne unit was raised for "conventional" commando strikes. Soon, the "operator," the desert fighter, would become an all-important saber in Jordan's national-security arsenal.

King Abdullah II's military background is the personification of that ethos. A Sandhurst graduate, he began his career as an armor officer, but quickly moved to the special-operations arena after a stint as a helicopter gunship pilot.

As crown prince, he served first in the special forces as a brigade commander and eventually as commander of the Royal Jordanian Special Operations Command, where one of his most important tasks was counterterrorism.

Counter-Terrorism Battalion 71 (CTB-71) was formed after the brutal fighting of Ailul al-Aswad, the "Black September" civil war of 1970. It consists of some 100 operators and is made up solely of volunteers selected from within the ranks of the Ranger battalion, the paratroop brigade and the Royal Guard.

The hostage-rescue instruction, where counterterrorist hopefuls are taught to assault hijacked aircraft, buses and buildings, is arduous and designed to produce men who can be called upon under the most difficult circumstances to defy bullets, bombs and barricades in order to hit their targets.

Unit operators are taught to be familiar with every weapon that might be found in the region. Most are live-fire exercises, conducted with weapons and ammunition seized from terrorists operating near the Israeli, Syrian or Iraqi frontiers.

CTB 71's job is being able to respond to any terrorist or hostage-taking incident inside Jordan, and even to those beyond the national frontiers. These scenarios include assaults on hotels, government offices, embassies and other sensitive targets.

The unit's fighters routinely take over a corner of Queen Alia International Airport to hone their skills in aircraft captures. Most of the operations involve assaulting a hijacked jetliner, such as a Tristar 9 L1011 or an Airbus 310, and the unit has trained extensively in cabin assaults initiated by snipers or involving the use of explosives to blow emergency doors off their hinges.

CTB 71 even is prepared to combat maritime terrorism. Although the image of the Royal Jordanian Special Forces as an elite combat-arms specialist in desert operations is correct, all operators in CTB 71 are scuba-qualified.

Aqaba, Jordan's sole port, is a likely target for terrorists attempting to enter Jordan from Egyptian and Saudi ferries, for a hostage situation on one of those ships, or for terrorists who might try to bring in chemical or biological agents on board a freighter.

One recent exercise demonstrated the unit's maritime skills. Using a freighter moored off Aqaba as a convenient training platform, one force of operators reached the vessel under water while a three-pronged assault force raced in aboard Zodiac inflatables.

Once the operators managed to lift themselves onto the freighter's deck and seize control of the bridge, three Vietnam-era UH-1 choppers from the Royal Jordanian Air Force Special Operations Squadron flew in from the north, skimming the placid waters of the Gulf of Aqaba as they raced toward the target.

Once over the ship, three teams of operators climbed down ropes from the hovering Hueys in an assault that lasted all of three minutes. "This unit is for real," said a member of the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command, who had worked with CTB 71 in training exercises. "They are as good as any European or Asian team, work twice as hard as most units, and play for incredibly high stakes."

On a desert hilltop about 20 miles east of Amman, two lumbering C-130 Hercules transports fly some 7,000 feet above the dunes at dawn. Four groups of jumpers glide to earth on square nylon rigs and land silently, deploying immediately with assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank rockets.

With the drop zone secure, the commandos call in a squadron of choppers ferrying in a CTB 71 strike force to a mock village several hundred yards to the north.

The black-clad operators race out of their helicopters and immediately engage targets with furious weapons fire. Paper targets portraying men and women with guns indicate terrorists and are obliterated with 9-mm and 5.56-mm bullets. Targets featuring unarmed civilians even children are to be left unscathed.

The exercise goes well, and officers observing the hellish firefight from a distance of some 60 yards are pleased, though apprehensive. Many of them, who have served with the special forces along the Iraqi border or in Bosnia and Kosovo with U.N. peacekeepers, believe it is only a matter of time before these troops fight for real.


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