Islamic militants scored a significant propaganda coup today, displaying the captured pilot of a Jordanian warplane they claimed to have shot down over northern Syria with a shoulder-fired missile. The Jordanian F-16 is the first plane flying with the U.S.-led coalition to be lost in territory controlled by the self-styled Islamic State since air strikes began against the militants in September. The incident will complicate the air campaign against the jihadists and likely force a re-thinking of ground-attack tactics.
Jordanian authorities were at first reluctant to confirm the warplane had been shot down by a MANPADS, short for Man Portable Air Defense Systems. They suggested at first that the F-16 may have had mechanical problems, but later the country’s information minister, Mohammad Momani, told Associated Press the aircraft was struck by “ground fire.” He declined to provide further details.
But there was confusion later about what did bring the plane down when U.S. Central Command issued a statement saying, "Evidence clearly indicates that ISIL did not down the aircraft."
The militants were less reticent, announcing quickly they had used a missile to shoot down the F-16 while it was conducting a raid over the town of Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL. They wasted no time posting photographs of the captured 26-year-old pilot, Lieutenant Muadh al-Kasasbeh, along with his ID cards. One photograph posted by the so-called Raqqa Media Center showed the pilot wearing a white shirt but naked from the waist down after being pulled by gunmen from a lake or pond.
Another picture showed him surrounded by a dozen or so fighters—some masked and others laughing. There were also images of the plane’s cockpit canopy posted by militants on the Internet.
“The Jordanian pilot Kasasbeh is a model of heroism and all of us stand with his family and his colleagues in-arms,” Momani said in a statement emailed to reporters.
Kasasbeh’s capture poses a serious problem for Jordan and its king, Abdullah. No other leader in the Middle East has been more out front as an opponent of the so-called Islamic State, and at every level—politically, militarily, and covertly—he has done his best to put his country in the vanguard of the fight.
U.S.-led coalition airstrikes recently have been increased on Raqqa. On one night earlier this month, the coalition launched 30 strikes on the town.
Islamic militants and moderate Syrian rebels have previously managed to shoot down Iraqi and Syrian government aircraft—mostly helicopters—with either captured MANPADS or with the few supplied by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But the Obama administration has sought to prevent MANPADS from falling into the hands of even moderate Syrian rebels, and has tried to limit their distribution as much as possible.
Fears mounted in August that Islamic militants had managed to secure MANPADS when they stormed a Syrian air force base at Tabqa in Raqqa province. Noting that it wasn’t the first military installation overrun by the militants, Matt Schroeder, a senior researcher at the Switzerland-based research group Small Arms Survey warned the jihadists had looted a large cache of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles with their seizure of Tabqa airbase that could mark a “significant proliferation” of the missiles across the region.
“What we do know from previous airfield seizures is that these places are a source of MANPADS and similar weapons,” Schroeder said. Shortly after the base fell militants started tweeting photographs of MANPADS, both the Russian-made SA-16 and SA-18. Analysts also reported images of more advanced missiles, including the SA-24 and Chinese FN-6, both capable of hitting a plane flying at 20,000 feet.
In September, Islamic militants released photographs of what they claimed was the shooting down of an Iraqi Mi-35 helicopter just north of Baghdad. They said they had used a Chinese FN-6. A few weeks later when the Pentagon announced it would start deploying Apache helicopters to provide air support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling ISIS, the militants posted a how-to guide for the shoot-down of the heavily armored helicopters using MANPADS.
“Jordan holds ISIS and those that support it responsible for the pilot’s safety and his life,” warned a statement from the Jordanian Armed Forces, and Jordanian military sources told the country’s official news agency, Petra, they are concerned that the fate of the captured pilot will be a grim one.
“It is well-known that this organization does not hide their terrorist schemes,” one of the sources said. The young Jordanian pilot comes from a well-known military family in the kingdom and his uncle is a retired major general. The family was putting considerable pressure on Jordanian authorities within hours of the downing of the warplane, urging on television that everything should be done to get their relative released quickly.
Some avenues of negotiation are being explored. Coincidentally, King Abdullah had previously scheduled a meeting Wednesday with tribal leaders from the pilot’s hometown of Kerak. A few of the sheikhs there have discussed the possibility that a woman, Sajida Mubarak Atrous al Rishawi, imprisoned since 2005 for her role in the bombing of three Amman hotels that killed 60 people, might be traded for the pilot.
But several Jordanian analysts say they think this is unlikely. Yes, the woman was working for the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi, another Jordanian seen as the original godfather of the group that became ISIS. (Jordanian intelligence played an important role in the hunt that eventually killed Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006.) But as one Jordanian intelligence source told The Daily Beast, “we know ISIS and we know that for it women do not normally count.”