Eleven men suspected of links to al-Qaida pleaded not guilty on Thursday to terrorism charges related to an alleged plot to attack the U.S. Embassy and shopping malls in Jordan.
It is the first major plot linked to al-Qaida since a triple hotel bombing in Amman that killed 60 people in November 2005. At the time, al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the bombing, citing its rejection of Jordan's alliance with the United States and its cordial ties with Israel under a 1994 peace treaty.
There has been speculation that militants might seek to use Jordan as they consolidate their foothold in neighboring Syria, which is embroiled in a bloody civil war.
The suspects — two Jordanians and nine Jordanians of Palestinian origin — entered their pleas at the opening session of their trial at Amman's military court. Three civilian judges presided over the brief public hearing, which later adjourned until Feb. 28.
Standing in the dock, the bearded men wearing dark blue prison uniforms shouted the battle cry of Allahu Akbar, which is Arabic for "God is great," when the judges took the bench.
All 11 suspects have been in police custody since October.
They are accused of plotting simultaneous attacks on two shopping malls in the Jordanian capital to distract police as they assaulted the U.S. Embassy with rockets and homemade explosives. The indictment said al-Qaida "explosive experts," based in Iraq and elsewhere, assisted the suspects with manufacturing "lethal" explosives from raw material.
The foiled plot allegedly called for gunmen to kill U.S. diplomats on the embassy grounds.
The defendants also allegedly planned to kidnap and kill Western tourists and attack other unidentified diplomatic missions and Western targets, the indictment said.
It said the group is headed by 22-year-old Jaafar Dardas whose family hails from the West Bank town of Hebron.
Of the remaining 10, two defendants were also actively involved in recruiting young Jordanians to fight alongside rebels against the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the indictment said. Like other Arabs, Jordan's predominantly Sunni Muslim population is critical of Assad, who is from the minority Alawite sect, a secret offshoot of the rival Shiite Islam.
The indictment said others in the cell bought and attempted to smuggle arms and ammunition from Syria, taking advantage of confusion on the border caused by an influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan.