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Base Jump

The childhood mosque of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who has emerged as the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, is a modest affair. It lacks a proper minaret, and, unlike many of the other houses of worship in this hardscrabble industrial city, there are no green or blue neon lights to set it off from the corner bodegas and concrete apartments nearby. Last Friday, though, this one-story concrete building suddenly found itself on the front lines of an ideological war within Islam.

The imam here at the Al Falah Mosque, Mustafa Suleiman, dedicated his sermon that day to how the bombings two days earlier of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Days Inn, and Radisson SAS Hotel in downtown Amman, just 45 minutes away, were criminal and contradicted the strictures of Islam. "Zarqawi is kufr," Suleiman says when asked his opinion of this city's most notorious son. Kufr is a serious charge in Islam; it literally means blasphemy. But, in the lexicon of sacred terrorism, kufr refers to a class of people to whom Islamic laws do not apply--who can be cheated, robbed, and killed without penalty from God.

For Suleiman, declaring Zarqawi and those who agree with his jihad kufr means that they are no longer part of the community. He tells me that, in light of last Wednesday's attacks, he will no longer allow Zarqa's Salafis, the ascetic sect of Islam to which Zarqawi nominally belongs, to pray at his mosque. He has urged his flock to cooperate with Jordan's secret police, who have fanned out over the city. He says, "Nobody can be pleased with Zarqawi's actions, but his family, which still attends prayers at the mosque, is especially ashamed. We don't support him here. We don't support him in Iraq." And, at least for the mosques in Zarqa, this view is not unique. Closer to the city's center, the imam at the much larger Abu Gaud Mosque says that Zarqawi's Islam is "poisoning the minds of our young people."

In fact, across Jordan, the response was much the same. A survey conducted the weekend after the attacks by Amman's Al Ghad newspaper found that 86.4 percent of Jordanians polled think that Al Qaeda is not acting in accordance with the tenets of Islam. Less than 1 percent believed the attacks were in the interest of the Arab cause. Zarqawi crossed an important line when he sent his martyrs to the center of an Arab capital. This time, their victims were, for the most part, not Americans, Iraqi Shia, Jews, or Turks; they were the same Arab Sunni Muslims that Al Qaeda in Iraq claims to be defending.

Zarqawi, it seems, made a strategic mistake in attacking Amman's hotels. His tactics may ultimately alienate the very people he hopes to convert to his cause. The Amman bombings prompted the imams of Zarqa to confront what Jordan's government has traditionally been loath to admit: Radicalism and sympathy for Zarqawi's atrocities in Iraq have been tolerated in Jordan for too long. But now, thanks to Zarqawi's own plots, that is starting to change.

Zarqa is to Amman what Oakland is to San Francisco. While Amman sparkles at night with sleek modern towers and bustles during the day with the business of the kingdom, Zarqa's working-class residents slog away in a less glamorous economy. King Hussein built this place in the middle of the last century to host a Jordanian army barracks, and it has since grown into the country's second-largest city, with nearly one million people working mainly at textile factories, power plants, and oil refineries. In Amman, it seems that every third driver has pasted a Jordanian flag or a picture of the king in his window. Here, there is hardly any of this spontaneous patriotism. The few flags on houses and apartment buildings are Palestinian. The only visible soldiers on duty here guard a distillery, the target of occasional protest from the city's more pious citizens. In Amman, it is hard to find a single block downtown without an armed security officer.

Until Zarqawi's organization murdered usaid official Laurence Foley in Amman in 2002, Zarqa was known mostly for a particularly tasty version of the national dish, mansef--a mixture of lamb, yogurt, and rice--and its cheap clothing shops, which advertise their wares in banners strung above traffic in the city's merchant district. Today, Zarqa seems forever linked with the man who sent a husband and wife strapped with explosives to blow up a Jordanian-Palestinian wedding.

Zarqawi was born Ahmed Fadeel Al Khalayleh in 1966 to a poor family in this poor city. According to Ibrahim Gharaibeh, a Jordanian author who has written extensively on Islamic terrorism, Zarqawi's father, who is now dead, went through long spells of unemployment. His mother died in 2002. By all local accounts, Zarqawi was a bad apple, but he displayed leadership skills. He was a captain of his local soccer team. In the mid-'80s, he was known for his reckless behavior. "He drank a lot," one man who claims to be a distant cousin tells me. Gharaibeh says that, in 1985, Zarqawi, who had worked as a street sweeper, was arrested for stealing. But he did not become a radical Muslim until he left for Afghanistan in 1989, just as the Soviets were pulling out. Upon his return to Jordan, he became part of a small network that was broken up by the Jordanian security services in the early '90s. Zarqawi was sent to prison in the southern part of the country. "The problem began in the prison," Gharaibeh says. "Abu Musab has charisma. With his previous experience from Afghanistan, he became a leader in the prison." Gharaibeh estimates that Zarqawi persuaded around 100 prisoners to join his organization while behind bars. Suleiman says that Zarqawi was released after his family appealed to the offices of King Hussein.

For Suleiman, it is a point of shame that this terrorist's nom de guerre is a constant reminder of his city. And that is why he has set out to preach against Zarqawi's actions. Nonetheless, the imam and his fellow religious leaders have a long way to go. Even though Zarqawi's group has essentially claimed responsibility for the triple bombings, many people here still refuse to believe it. Outside of a modest concrete house, which I am told by a local merchant belongs to Zarqawi's brother, six teenage boys start an argument about the attacks of last Wednesday. "Do you really know who did this?" a lanky boy who calls himself Ahmad asks. I respond that Zarqawi's organization took credit for the attacks on websites. "You can't believe anything on the Internet," he says. "I think there is a hidden hand." It's not hard to find that sentiment here. In interviews, I encounter every possible explanation for what the Jordanians find inexplicable. Some speculate it was the Israelis; others say it was Shia from Iran. One mechanic even says he could see King Abdullah approving the bombings to generate sympathy.

But the disbelief is also telling. I met no one who bought Al Qaeda in Iraq's own justifications for the bombings--namely that the monarchy was too close to the CIA and the new Iraqi government and therefore deserved the mayhem its martyrs wrought. It's easy to understand why. At the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Mustafa Akkad, a beloved Syrian-born filmmaker best known for a movie he made about Libya's resistance to Italian rule, and his daughter died in the blast. Also killed in that bombing was Major General Bashir Nafeh, a senior Palestinian intelligence official. As a monument to the atrocities, the Radisson SAS Hotel has left in place the wreckage of the Jordanian-Palestinian wedding that ended with the murder of the groom's and bride's fathers.

Jordan's minister for religious affairs, Abdul Salam Al Abadi, denies that the country is a breeding ground for extremism. "Our mosques are not suffering from inciting terror, except for a few exceptions that we deal with on a case-by-case basis," he says. But many in Jordan are starting to see things differently. Says Ayman Safadi, the editor of Al Ghad: "We have tolerated the voices here who justify and apologize for the killing in Iraq. But this era has ended."

Back in Zarqa, a student named Yasir Yemeni tells me over sweet tea that he and his friends are in solidarity with the victims of the hotel bombings. "The people who died in Amman, we consider our friends," he says. "We don't want to even know anyone who would do something like this." That ought to remind Zarqawi of something he seems to have forgotten--or never learned: All politics is local, even in his hometown.

By Eli Lake