- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

AMMAN, Jordan. — Last week, the capital of the Jordanian kingdom seemed sleepy, quiet, with little traffic on the streets and empty stores. Was it just the Eid Al Adha holiday? Or fears that another al Qaeda attack was imminent?

Australia and Canada closed their embassies here on Jan. 9 due to an undisclosed security threat, a day after Britain closed its embassy citing similar security concerns. The American embassy remained open, although activity was at a minimum during the holiday.

The British and Canadian embassies reopened Jan. 15, but Great Britain’s Foreign Office issued a statement warning its citizens traveling in Jordan that there is a “high risk” of attacks in Jordan. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade echoed the assessment, declaring, “Reports suggest terrorists may be in the final stages of planning attacks against Westerners and places frequented by Westerners in Jordan.”

The British ambassador, Christopher Prentice, told the Jordan Times that a threat came via the Internet.

The embassy closures and warnings spurred a rare bristle of irritation from the Jordanians. Government spokesman Nasser Judeh said last week that “in this case, the security authorities concluded that the threats did not warrant the closures.” He added that security around the embassies had been reinforced anyway.

The Jordan Times, a cautious English-language daily not known for controversy, ripped the embassies as much as its manners would allow: “The fact that the Jordanian government insists that the decision was ‘completely unjustified’ can mean only one of two things: Either our friends know something we don’t know, and have not been forthcoming in sharing their intelligence with us; or both sides do have the same intelligence, but haven’t quite discussed it enough to find a common ground and agree on an analysis of the proportion of the perceived threat… In either case, we expected a different behavior from such old, trusted and close friends as Great Britain, Canada and Australia.”

Is al Qaeda preparing another attack, along the lines of the Nov. 9 suicide bombings in three hotels, which killed 63 and injured hundreds? Or was this idle chatter, designed to stir up fear? Either way, Amman is taking it seriously; metal detectors and groups of security guards cradling automatic rifles are now a regular feature of life in the capital at the entrances to hotels, restaurants and shopping malls.

The November hotel attacks were clearly aimed to wreck the tourism element of the Jordanian economy, a key component of a country with no oil, little water, few natural resources and one mid-sized port. If tourists aren’t marveling at the ruins of Petra or bathing in the Dead Sea, that means an already limping Jordanian economy will have a lot more unemployed.

Until the hotel bombings, the growth of the tourism industry was a bright spot in the country and the region. The number of tourists visiting Jordan rose by nearly 13.2 percent during the first three-quarters of 2005 compared to the same period of 2004, according to preliminary figures released by the Ministry of Tourism, increasing from 4.2 million to 4.8 million. There was a proportionate increase in American tourists during that time, 117,773 visitors compared to 102,721 in 2004. The numbers for the post-attack period aren’t available yet, but it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t a precipitous decline.

(Interestingly, the Tourism Ministry’s figures show Jordan is getting more Iraqi visitors. About 628,000 Iraqi nationals entered the kingdom between January and September 2005 compared to 484,000 during the same period the previous year.)

It’s tough to blame either side in the embassy-closure spat. The embassies need to put the safety of their employees and their citizens first. But the Jordanians need to keep their economy moving in order to marginalize the extremist vision of war against the West, and naturally grind their teeth at the thought that one al Qaeda member can shut down embassies and spur warnings to tourists based on one Internet-based threat.

Once lost, a sense of security is hard to regain. Perhaps only the capture of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, will restore the sense that Jordan, a U.S. ally, is safe and should remain a Middle Eastern destination of choice for Westerners.

To win the war on terrorism, the United States, the Jordanians and their allies must eliminate the war on tourism.

Jim Geraghty, a contributing editor to National Review, is the author of a forthcoming book on terrorism and voters.

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