The so-called Islamic State has released a video of a man, almost certainly Jordanian pilot Muadh al Kasasbeh, being burned alive in a cage. Jordanian officials are saying that despite cynical efforts by the group widely known as ISIS to bargain for the man’s life in recent negotiations, he probably was killed as early as January 3. His F-16 had crashed and he was captured in ISIS-controlled territory in Syria on December 24.
Jordan vowed an "earth-shattering" response, and hours after the video was released the government said it executed two prisoners: Sajida al Rishawi, a female would-be al Qaeda suicide bomber, and Ziad al Karbouli, also reported to have been an al Qaeda operative. Last week, Jordan had said it would release al Rishawi, who was on death row pending an appeal, in exchange for the pilot, but wanted proof he was still alive. Unconfirmed reports had been circulating for some time that he might already have been killed.
Unlike recent videos of the Japanese captives beheaded by ISIS, which were brief, hastily produced amalgams of a few still photographs and a recorded voice, this one has sophisticated animated effects, music, narration and an extended “confession” by the young first lieutenant in a studio setting. The production values alone lend credence to the idea he was killed long before ISIS claimed it would spare his life in exchange for that of the failed female suicide bomber in Jordanian custody. That now appears to have been a bit of opportunism in the middle of the failed negotiations to ransom the Japanese.
So, once again ISIS is producing horror films that it hopes will have a political impact, and in this one there is no doubt its target is Jordan’s government and its military, which ISIS accuses of supporting the “crusaders” fighting against the so-called “caliphate.”
This is the kind of video using 21st-century technology to promote medieval brutality that has played well among gullible young men, and a few young women, who have flocked to the ISIS banner from abroad. The question is how it will play with the Jordanian and other Arab coalition partners arrayed against ISIS, because they clearly are the targets of this psychological operation.
Al Kasasbeh, who has a black eye in the video, presents a detailed picture of the Arab and Western air forces deployed against ISIS and the munitions they use, with interspersed pictures of burned babies and men being dug out from under rubble. Then he is paraded in front of uniformed men wearing balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikovs. He is put into a cage amid the wreckage of buildings presumably bombed by coalition planes. His orange prisoner suite is wet with some substance. He is set ablaze. The camera stays on him until his blackened flesh begins to melt away from his face and he falls over. Then a backhoe dumps earth on top of the cage and rolls over it. A burned hand is shown protruding from beneath shattered concrete.
But it is the beginning of the film (after the invocation, “In the name of God, most Merciful, most Compassionate”) and the end that tells us the most about the ISIS psy-war strategy.
The first image in the video is of Jordan’s King Abdullah speaking on the Charlie Rose Show in the United States on December 5. The king says that when Jordan joined the coalition, the F-16 pilots were told only volunteers had to take part. “Every single pilot raised his hand and stepped forward,” the king tells Charlie Rose in the video clip used by ISIS.
In fact, in Jordan there was some negative reaction to that interview at the time. It appeared to many Jordanians as if the king was playing to an American audience, not to their own concerns. Many had expressed doubts about whether the coalition war really was Jordan’s war.
ISIS, in this video, is trying to up the ante, not only denouncing Jordan’s intelligence and military cooperation with the “crusaders” and with Israel, but also naming 11 more Jordanian Air Force personnel at the end of the 21-minute video, showing pictures of them and pinpointing their alleged residences on a satellite map. “Wanted Dead,” says the legend above each figure’s name and photograph.
The information and photos could easily have been obtained from al Kasasbeh’s cell phone if he had it with him, but the effect that ISIS clearly wants in the video is one of omniscience.
A statement posted in the middle of this montage, coming shortly after the horrific immolation, says: “On this occasion, the Islamic State announces a reward of 100 gold dinars to whoever kills a crusader pilot. The diwan for state security has released a list containing the names of Jordanian pilots participating in the campaign. So, good tidings to whoever supports his religion and achieves a kill that will liberate him from hellfire.” Such is the reward, apparently, for assassins.
King Abdullah clearly is undeterred. He arrived in Washington on Tuesday where his government signed a new memorandum of understanding with the United States upping support payments from $600 million a year to $1 billion a year.
The king met with President Barack Obama on Tuesday evening and then cut short his visit. In a televised address, Abdullah called ISIS "a terrorist, cowardly organization." The ISIS strategy obviously is to try to turn Jordanians against the monarch and the U.S-led coalition, exploiting the discontent of some powerful tribes, including al Kasasbeh's, and attempting to humiliate the armed forces. But the grotesque nature of the video and the gross deceit of the murderers who tried to bargain with the life of the man they'd killed may well have the opposite effect. King Abdullah declared, "We stand today with the family of the martyr and the hero, Muadh, and with our people, and with our armed forces in this calamity, which has struck all Jordanians. In these difficult moments, it is the duty of all our sons and daughters to stand together and show what Jordanians are truly made of." The crisis would make Jordanians "stronger and more unified," he said.
In what is likely to be a long war, more such incidents can be expected. What is unlikely is that any government will take seriously from now on overtures by ISIS to ransom or otherwise negotiate the release of prisoners.
By killing the Jordanian pilot after (or, indeed, even before) his government had offered a prisoner swap, the terrorist group has affirmed that it has no interest in negotiating seriously, and that will compel Jordan and other governments to launch military rescue missions rather than try to dialogue for their citizens’ release, a former U.S. official with extensive experience in hostage negotiations and rescues told The Daily Beast.
“This is going to change the game dramatically,” the former official said. “Now every time someone’s taken, he’s just killed. We’re going to have to proactively go after them. That’s the only way to save them.”
Jordan is likely to tap into its extensive intelligence networks in Syria and share even more intelligence with the United States than before, particularly on the location of remaining prisoners, the former official said, adding that collaboration between the two countries’ militaries and intelligence services is likely to increase, which is exactly the opposite of what ISIS set out to achieve.
Meanwhile, one American prisoner, a young woman, remains in ISIS hands.
With reporting by Nancy Youssef.