Al Qaeda's Desert Inn
Al Jafr Prison doesn't appear on maps of Jordan. There are no photographs of the place available from the world's news services. The remote prison appears out of the southern desert as if some medieval apparition, with two towers anchoring a circular stone wall. Barbed wire is everywhere. The notorious prison was closed in the 1970s, but it reopened in the 1990s as a maximum security jail. "This is a prison," a Jordanian intelligence officer explains bluntly, "for terrorist detainees."
It's also the place where the CIA has used a secret interrogation center since 9/11, U.S. News has learned. As many as 100 al Qaeda prisoners have passed through al Jafr, according to U.S. and Jordanian intelligence sources. Among them are some of the biggest catches in the war on terror: al Qaeda operations head Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Persian Gulf chief Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri. Most stay just a few days before being shipped out to longer-term facilities.
That the CIA trusts its most high-profile prisoners to the Jordanians speaks volumes about the relationship Washington has established with its Arab partners in the war on terror. Indeed, the unsung heroes in the efforts against al Qaeda have been America's friends in the Muslim world. The Egyptians and North Africans get high marks, but Jordan has proved to be the secret weapon. "To the extent anybody was effective, the Jordanians were," says a former senior U.S. intelligence official. "They're like everyone's favorite cousin."
Jordan's intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, is considered the most professional in the Arab world. For Middle Eastern intelligence, some CIA hands consider the agency more valuable than even Israel's Mossad. "They're very competent, they live in a rough neighborhood, and they've had to survive," says a former top CIA operative.
Terror plots. Even before 9/11, the Jordanians had become key partners in the war on terror. In 1999, tips from the Mukhabarat alerted the CIA to plots by Bosnia-based terrorists against U.S. targets in Europe. A year later, in the so-called Millennium plot, the Jordanians smashed an al Qaeda-tied cell intent on bombing Christian and American tourist sites--a move that could have crippled the Jordanian economy. After that, says an official, the already helpful Jordanians "got religion" and went on the offensive.
Jordan's role won't be a surprise to U.S. intelligence veterans. The CIA helped set up the Mukhabarat, and the elder King Hussein was on the agency's payroll. For at least 20 years, the late king received as much as $1 million a year--money he said was funneled to his security and intelligence agencies. Relations were extremely close. "His first call in the morning was to the chief of station," says a former high-level CIA official. The war in neighboring Iraq has only heightened the strategic importance of Jordan. Amman hosted CIA covert programs aimed at fomenting a military coup in Iraq and quietly provided a home for U.S. Special Forces during the war. This year, U.S. aid to Jordan has quadrupled, to $1.6 billion--three times what Pakistan is receiving. And that's only what's being reported publicly. -David E. Kaplan and Ilana Ozernoy
This story appears in the June 2, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.