Raqqa Is Weeping

02.04.15 10:55 AM ET

ISIS Snuff Films’ Sleight Of Hand

U.S. officials say ISIS executed a Jordanian pilot a month ago. It’s not the first time the group has hidden whether hostages are alive or dead.

A horrifying video of Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh being set ablaze inside a cage by his ISIS captors shocked the world Tuesday and rocked governments in Washington and Amman. But the film may have also been an act of perverse theater, and one ISIS has performed before.

According to multiple national-security officials and terrorism experts, Kasasbeh was killed weeks before the video aired—as early as Jan. 3, Jordanian officials said. British security sources told The Daily Beast that they had come to the conclusion Kasasbeh was murdered between Jan. 5 and 8; shortly thereafter, they informed their Jordanian counterparts of their suspicion. And U.S. officials began to suspect just over a week ago that the pilot was dead when ISIS didn’t produce a “proof of life” video requested by the Jordanian government, which had said it was willing to swap Kasasbeh for a would-be female suicide bomber in a Jordanian prison whom ISIS had wanted to free.

Indeed, Kasasbeh wasn’t just reported killed, but burned alive, as early as Jan. 8. “A group of #ISIS members in #Raqqa are talking among them enthusiastically about the execution of Jordanian pilot, Maath al-Kassassbeh, who was burned to death by #ISIS,” read a tweet by Abu Ibrahim Al-Raqqawi, the pseudoynm of an activist and blogger followed closely by counterterrorism experts, who say he is likely reporting from the ground in Syria.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Raqqawi said, “The first time I heard that the pilot was killed was the 8th of January about 8:30 p.m.” He says he learned about the pilot’s fate from a fellow member of “Rqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” a group of Syrian journalists documenting the country’s civil war and ISIS brutality. (The eastern Syrian city of Raqqa once served as the self-declared Islamic State’s first capital before the group conquered the Iraqi city of Mosul, and remains an ISIS stronghold.)

The activist, whom Raqqawi does not name out of fear for his life, was inside Raqqa when, as he told Raqqawi, “about 10 ISIS [members] came and they were laughing and celebrating, saying ‘We burned him!’ Then another two ISIS came and said, ‘Who did you burn?’ They told the other two it was the pilot, but they didn’t believe them until they said, ‘We were there and we saw him burning to death.’”

At first, Raqqawi found the story hard to believe. “I know that in Islam, there is no excuse to burn someone to death, so I thought they were lying,” he said. Still, he wanted to relay what he had heard, so “that’s why I posted it unconfirmed to my personal account.”

And yet as recently as last week Jordanian officials had said they were open to a prisoner swap, leading to still unanswered questions about whether the government was holding out hope Kasasbeh might still be alive or trying to call ISIS’s bluff and obtain confirmation of his death.

This wouldn’t be the first time ISIS has tried to create the illusion that its hostages might still be alive, and that the group might be open to negotiating for their release. ISIS has made a practice, U.S. officials and terrorism experts said, of airing videos showing hostages alive when they actually are already dead, dragging out their inevitable demise into an agonizing ordeal for hostage families that pays dividends as a recruitment tool for ISIS’s fanatical followers.

“There have been reports that the Islamic State is killing its captives long before their executions are distributed through social media and other means of transmission,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism expert and fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Daily Beast.

Multiple senior U.S. officials concurred with that assessment and said that ever since ISIS beheaded its first American hostage, journalist James Foley, last August, American officials have assumed that any subsequent hostages shown alive on camera may well have already been killed.

That was the case with Steven Sotloff, who was shown alive at the end of Foley’s beheading video. U.S. officials say they think Sotloff was actually killed around the same time as Foley, and probably in the same location in Syria, even though a video showing his beheading didn’t surface until two weeks after Foley’s. The possibility that he might be alive allowed ISIS to garner tremendous global media attention, and spin the hopeful fiction that Sotloff might still be saved.  

Whatever slim hopes ISIS may have had to be seen as a credible negotiator have now vanished with the death of Kasasbeh. By killing the pilot after (or even before) his government had offered a prisoner swap, the terrorist group has affirmed that it has no interest in being reasoned with, and that will compel Jordan and other governments to launch military rescue missions rather than try to bargain for their citizens’ release, a former U.S. official with extensive experience in hostage negotiations and rescues told The Daily Beast.

U.S. officials are looking closely at the video to determine when it was made, “and whether the negotiations over the pilot’s release were merely a cynical propaganda ploy by the terrorist organization,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.  

“The U.S. intelligence community has no reason to doubt the authenticity of the video,” Brian Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told The Daily Beast.

For some time now, U.S. officials have presumed there was no hope of Kasasbeh coming home alive to Jordan.

ISIS had demanded the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, a failed suicide bomber sentenced to death in Jordan for her role in a deadly 2005 attack, and Jordanian officials had said they were willing to trade her for Kasasbeh. Last week, the Jordanians demanded “proof of life,” which never surfaced. And that, one Pentagon official explained to The Daily Beast, “is when the trail went cold.”

“We suspected then he was already dead,” the official explained. “There was no intelligence showing he was alive.”

U.S. officials now think that ISIS may have subjected its hostages to numerous mock executions in order to make them appear more passive and compliant in the videos it ultimately airs, ABC News reported this week. The hostages may have made statements on camera but actually have been killed at another time, reinforcing the idea that ISIS is stage-managing the executions and has never had any intention of negotiating for its captives’ release.

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Sources said they saw a similar pattern in the capture and ultimate killing of journalist Kenji Goto. British sources, speaking on the condition they wouldn’t be identified, said they had tracked Goto being moved closer to the border with Turkey in the days before his execution, as though his ISIS handlers were ready to conduct an exchange—only to see him moved back to Raqqa as though the deal was canceled abruptly. (A video showing Goto’s beheading appeared online last last week.)

The British sources also maintained that the remaining foreign hostages, including an American aid worker, are now being held separately from each other in different locations close to Raqqa, adding to the risks of any Western-mounted rescue mission. The decision-making process within ISIS when it comes to the fate of hostages is convoluted, they believe, with the decision to execute passing through different commanders before being finally settled by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and a tight-knit inner coterie.   

There had been an expectation that ISIS would reveal Kasasbeh’s fate days ago. The group had said it would kill Kasasbeh “immediately” if Rishawi was not delivered to the Turkish border.

Jordanians spoke about their hope that Kasasbeh would be spared; their government said they were working around the clock on his case. But all along, many braced for the worst.

That ISIS burned Kasasbeh is particularly outrageous to Muslims because Islam considers cremation or the burning of a body to be forbidden. Some defense officials posited to The Daily Beast that the pilot was not beheaded like other captives because ISIS was looking for a new way to horrify the world.

With Nancy Youssef, Jacob Siegel, and Jamie Dettmer