I think that the story was accurate as it was originally stated, though I agree that elements of it are being distorted.
Right now, we've had four sources for this story:
* a letter from King Abdullah to General Khair
* interview between King Abdullah and the San Francisco Chronicle
From that, the following appear to be the facts at hand, with my analysis as follows:
1. Zarqawi was the mastermind.
Makes sense, Zarqawi is originally a Jordanian national who was incarcerated and presumably tortured there from 1992-1997, which is when he met Abu Qatada in prison and became radicalized. The original purpose of his al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Tawhid, is the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy.
Similarly, Zarqawi's involvement in a chemical weapons plot would be quite in keeping with his previous behavior. From 2002 onwards his name has surfaced in connection with every major al-Qaeda chemical weapons plot and this excerpt in particular from the 2002 Patterns of Global Terrorism would seem to indicate the full scale of his ambitions: http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2002/html/19988.htm
"In the past year, al-Qaida operatives in northern Iraq concocted suspect chemicals under the direction of senior al-Qaida associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and tried to smuggle them into Russia, Western Europe, and the United States for terrorist operations."
2. They planned to use a chemical bomb to take out the Jordanian intelligence HQ.
The General Intelligence Directorate (GID or Dairat al-Mukhabarat if you prefer the Arabic) is definitely one of the key pillars of King Abdullah's government. Unlike its Western counterparts, GID has no qualms about conducting domestic surveillance of suspected terrorists and they helped to suppress the riots in Maan back in 2002 that followed the killing of a US diplomat in Amman. Taking them out would all but decapitate Jordan's ability to neutralize al-Qaeda in the Kingdom.
Failing that, the GID is currently assisting the US by performing "coercive interrogations" on high-level al-Qaeda operatives according to US News and World Report in June 2003. Previously the US has relied on the Egyptians and the Saudis to perform these duties, but since 9/11 and questions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both nations have fallen out of favor, leaving the GID to pick up the slack. If Zarqawi took them out, he may have figured that he could have rescued some of his comrades-in-arms from US custody.
Al-Hayat claims that the intended bomb in question was recovered with a car that was intercepted 75 miles from the Syrian border and that the car also contained poison gas. No identification was provided as to the composition of the gas, but the 2 al-Qaeda members who were captured with it said that it was going to be used to hit the "seat of the Jordanian government," a possible reference to King Abdullah's palace, as well as the US embassy.
An anonymous Jordanian official confirmed the thwarted gas attack against the GID HQ to AFP, while another told the BBC that they believe that the terrorists also planned to hit the prime minister's office.
3. Car bombs from Syria
Al-Hayat also reported that 3 cars had been intercepted from Syria at the end of March containing explosives, chemicals, and weaponry that were going to be used to target a Jordanian military base. This is NOT the same as the other car that was intercepted with actual poison gas, though a lot of people are conflating the two and further muddying the water. The existence of the car bombs was confirmed by the head of the GID at the beginning of April.
Like the GID, the Jordanian military is another pillar that keeps King Abdullah in power. Assuming the al-Hayat story claiming that those captured with the 3 car bombs wanted to kill everything within a 1-kilometer radius, they could have dealt a severe blow to the Jordanian troops stationed in Amman and possibly thrown them into enough disarray to take control of the city.
4. Abdullah's interview
King Abdullah told the San Francisco Chronicle that al-Qaeda is still very effective and his security services captured 5 trucks loaded with 17.5 tons of explosives that were intended for use in a car bomb attack on the prime minister's office in Amman. With Abdullah out of the country, the prime minister is effectively the regent, so killing him would have dealt a severe blow to the Jordanian government.
Abdullah also said that he had asked for the assistance of European anti-terrorism experts to help his people with the investigation. He said the trucks also came from Syria, though he was certain that al-Assad wasn't involved in the plot. Calling in the Europeans is interesting, because if true it might imply that his people found something that they have neither the facilities or expertise with which to analyze.
5. The letter to General Khair
King Abdullah sent a letter to Leftenant General Saad Khair, the head of GID, on April 12 thanking both his agency and God for thwarting an attack that would have killed thousands. The letter, near as I can tell, was designed solely for internal consumption, given the kind of rhetoric used in it (for example, the reason given for Zarqawi's intention to attack Jordan is its strong support for Arab causes).
Based on this, it looks like we have 3 separate terrorist attacks that were thwarted and that more than a few people are conflating them together - keep in mind that al-Qaeda likes to launch multiple simultaneous attacks as part of their MO.
In reply to Boot Hill's question:
"Much has been made in the press about the 'chemical bomb,' yet (to my knowledge) no credible info has been released on the nature of the chemical agent used. Why is that?"
Judging from King Abdullah's statements, I'd say that the Jordanians are waiting for the Europeans to analyze it before getting back to us on this one. In addition, Jordan does not exactly allow a free rein as far as the press is concerned with regard to security issues and the authorities there may not wish to start a panic, which may explain why only foreign news media have picked up the story rather than the big Jordanian papers like al-Rai and the like have been completely silent on this issue.
"Catching terrorists in the Middle East is a 'dog bites man' story. The real story here (the 'man bites dog' story) are the press reports that this attack originated in Iraq (via Zarqawi), but physically emerged out of Syria using WMD, with the implication being that the WMD came from the missing Iraqi WMD. Yet we still have zero confirmation of that fact, only the innuendo."
We have zero confirmation that the poison gas in question reported in al-Hayat even came from Syria - car and truck bombs certainly did, but there's been no word with regard to where the car containing the poison gas came from. An alternative view might just as well be that it came in from the Syrian or Ard es-Sauwan deserts from western Iraq, though nobody wants to talk about that since a good chunk of the conservative commentariat has already concluded that all of Saddam Hussein's missing WMD was shipped to Syria, just as some still hold to the position that bin Laden is dead. I think that this is honestly just a case of facts being placed within pre-constructed ideological framework rather than any hard proof.
More to the point, even if the poison gas did come from Syria, that still doesn't make it Iraqi in origin. Syria has its own WMD program and al-Qaeda has its own WMD chief, Midhat Mursi, who is quite capable of making all manner of nasty things quite independent of state support. Mursi was the one who created the now-infamous videotape of dogs being gassed in Afghanistan that CNN obtained.
As far as Zarqawi's location goes, the US thinks he's in Fallujah right now but we know that he was back in Iran in December.
John Loftus has zero credibility IMO. It may well be VX, but it could also be sarin or cyanide gas as well, both of which we know that Ansar al-Islam was making at Sergat and Khurmal in northern Iraq prior to the war.
Funny you should mention Debka, as they go even further into claiming that this was a joint operation between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah to topple the Hashemites.
Thanks for your excellent analysis of this complicated situation. It's a great service to those of us who are following these events closely.