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Could Jordan’s celebrity terrorist finally face justice in the US?

King Abdullah II has tolerated, and even capitalized, on the hatred and extreme violence that Ahlam Tamimi personifies; is he finally leading his people away from all that?
Ahlam Tamimi reads the news of the Sbarro bombing she had orchestrated hours earlier on Istiqlal TV, August 9, 2001. (Screenshot)
Ahlam Tamimi reads the news of the Sbarro bombing she had orchestrated hours earlier on Istiqlal TV, August 9, 2001. (Screenshot)

BY GREGG M. MASHBERG AND ARNOLD ROTH

Are we perhaps — just perhaps — seeing the beginning of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan finally purging itself of FBI Most Wanted Terrorist Ahlam Tamimi?

You may remember the massive terrorist bombing of a Sbarro pizzeria in central Jerusalem during the deadly summer of 2001. The attack killed 15 people, including eight children, and approximately 130 were wounded, many grievously.

Tamimi, the Hamas operative who selected the busy restaurant for unspeakable carnage, went on record afterwards saying it was all about the children. Her goal was to kill as many of them as possible.

Tamimi delivered the human bomb, a young Islamist zealot with a guitar case slung across his shoulder filled with explosives encased in nails to magnify the flesh-ripping effect, to the target site. She chose Sbarro precisely because she knew it would be filled with kids having lunch.

The spearhead of the massacre, Tamimi was 21 at the time, Jordanian by birth and upbringing, and a student at a Palestinian Authority university with a night job reading the news on camera at a Palestinian Authority TV station. As police and rescuers thronged the smoking remains of the pizzeria, helping survivors and tending to the maimed and murdered, she made it back to the Ramallah studio in time to present that evening’s bulletin. For perhaps the first time in the annals of journalism, the horrific crime that opened the program was the work of the person icily delivering the news report.

What’s extraordinary about the events that followed is how Jordan has kept the Sbarro mastermind safe, famous, comfortable and influential in the most toxic sense of the word for the past nine years. This goes on despite a formal US demand that the Hashemite Kingdom arrest the fugitive who has a $5M reward on her head and extradite her to Washington where she faces terror charges. Two of her Sbarro victims were American nationals. David Horovitz’s epic May 2020 account gives the context: “Failed by Israel, Malki Roth’s parents hope US can extradite her gloating killer” [Times of Israel].

Under a treaty between the two countries signed in 1995, Jordan has handed over a string of fugitive terrorists who are now incarcerated in American prisons. But not Tamimi.

Little reported in the US media, Jordanians — with no apparent sign of dissent — have embraced Tamimi as a hero and inspiration. But now there are signs that Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whose government has spent most of the past decade shielding Tamimi from American justice, may finally be looking to bring her nine-year Jordanian honeymoon to an end.

Upon her release from an Israeli prison in 2011 as part of a prisoner deal, Tamimi received a tumultuous welcome back in her native Jordan. Within weeks, she was hosting a TV program of her own. With its dreamy title, “Breezes of the Free” was a Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood production, beamed by satellite from Jordan every week to Arabic-speaking audiences the world over, promoting the cause of Palestinian Arab terror.

In the summer of 2012, Tamimi married a cousin from her Tamimi clan, Nizar Tamimi — himself a convicted murder whom, like her, Israel released, despite having sentenced him to life. Their festive wedding was covered live by several Arab TV stations.

She has gone on to develop a high profile in Jordan and, via a series of speaking tours in the region, beyond its borders and in the Arabic media. Despite numerous take-down actions on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, she has continued to advance her social media brand.

Ahlam Tamimi’s triumphant career in the public eye has sent a profound message. The Tamimi juggernaut tells Jordanians and her fans everywhere that terror is not terror when its victims are Israelis. Israeli children, infants included, are fair targets for atrocities. Imprisoned terrorists are not prisoners but mere detainees and captives, victims of injustice who await the breezes that freed her from 16 life terms in an Israeli cell.

On March 14, 2017, the US Department of Justice unsealed a criminal complaint charging Tamimi with murdering two American nationals by means of a weapon of mass destruction. DOJ had kept the complaint under seal since 2013, as it attempted to extradite her to the US. The Jordanians refused and American diplomats apparently viewed themselves as helpless in the face of Jordanian intransigence.

Late last year, however, Congress provided authority, if not a mandate, to stop bankrolling Jordan to the tune of approximately $1.5 billion per year if it continues to dishonor its extradition obligation.

And just this past June, the State Department seemed to take heed. The new US Ambassador to Jordan, Henry Wooster, said during his confirmation process that “all options were on the table” to pressure Jordan to extradite Tamimi, presumably including a US funding cutoff. Confirmed by the Senate, Wooster arrived in Amman to take up his post in September 2020.

Then something startling happened.

Just days later, and with no media coverage, Jordan notified Nizar Tamimi that his residence visa was ending and would not be extended. On October 1, Nizar Tamimi, who unlike his wife is not a Jordanian citizen, left for Qatar, declaring he had been deported.

Ahlam Tamimi, outraged, promptly launched a public relations campaign claiming Jordan had violated her human rights by depriving her of the company of her husband.

Emphatically playing the victim card, she publicly beseeched the king to reunite the loving couple, proclaiming that no matter how distraught, she will not move to Qatar for fear of being arrested there or en route by Interpol. (Qatar and the US do not have an extradition treaty.)

Cashing in on years of Jordanian protection, coddling and celebration, she is now at the heart of a campaign urging Jordanians to declare “We Are All Ahlam Tamimi.”

During October, Tamimi phoned in to several Jordanian radio stations delivering appeals to the public to stand by her and press King Abdullah II to restore the husband to his rightful place in Jordan.

One of those calls was to Melody FM, a high-profile talk-radio station in Amman. Live video from the studio captured how the hosts quietly signaled to the control booth to cut her off as soon as they realized who was calling and that she had just invoked the name of King Abdullah II. The call ended as Tamimi was in mid-stream.

Jordanians were enraged. The video went viral and on October 10 the interrupted call drove the highest trending hashtag on Jordanian Twitter. Melody FM has become the target of a commercial boycott. The talk show (“You and We”) is canceled and its two hosts are publicly at each other’s throats over which of them was more disrespectful to Tamimi.

It is too soon to understand fully what we’re seeing. Is Jordan merely throwing a bone to the US by shooing Nizar out of the country, expecting that will be enough to placate the Americans? Is the US finally saying, “enough is enough,” and pressing Jordan to begin getting rid of Tamimi?

Or — perhaps, in the wake of the Abraham Accords — does King Abdullah see normalization with Israelis as the wave of the future and Tamimi as an impediment?

Yet despite the hopeful signs, is the Sbarro monster right when she proclaims that Jordanians “are all Ahlam Tamimi”? Will Jordanians rally to protect her? If so, is King Abdullah II finally prepared to show leadership and lead his people away from the hatred and extreme violence that Tamimi personifies, rather than tolerating and even capitalizing on it?

There’s only one decent next step which is to load her on to a non-stop flight to Washington, DC where US justice awaits her. That is the way Jordan and its ruler can begin living up to the ideals they otherwise espouse as an ally of America and a force for moderation. King Abdullah II, Jordan, and the region would be the better for it.

The above was co-authored by Gregg M. Mashberg, a lawyer in New York who has represented the Roths pro bono since 2012, in connection with the effort to extradite Tamimi to the US.

About the Author
Arnold Roth, an attorney and technology business manager, serves as honorary chair of the Malki Foundation which he and his wife Frimet established in 2001. Its work honors the memory of their daughter Malki, murdered in a terrorist attack on the Sbarro pizza shop in the center of Jerusalem.
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