Dispatch

‘Whatever the Islamic State Wants, We Should Give Them’

As the crisis heats up over a captured Jordanian pilot, a father begs for his release, Islamist politicians want to pull back from the Syrian conflict, and a country questions its role in the war.

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AMMAN, Jordan — From his home in the Jordanian capital, Safi al-Kasasbeh quietly reconstructed his son’s ordeal, searching for clues that God is on his family’s side.

His son, Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, could have been killed when his plane caught fire over Syria’s northern Raqqa province. His parachute could have failed to open when he ejected over Islamic State-held territory. And it must have been God’s grace, the elder Kasasbeh has decided, that allowed his son, who cannot swim, to use his parachute as a makeshift life raft when he came down in the Euphrates River.

“God loves Moaz,” said Safi, 68, a retired director of the educational directorate in Jordan’s governorate of Karak. “Moaz continuously prays and fasts during Ramadan. We love him dearly, and we pray to God and we call on God for Moaz to be returned to us.”

In the coming hours, that faith could be sorely tested. On Tuesday, Jan. 27, a video emerged, from Twitter accounts sympathetic to the Islamic State, showing a still image of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto dressed in an orange jumpsuit and holding a picture of Kasasbeh.

“The barrier of extracting my freedom is now just the Jordanian government delaying the handover of Sajida,” a voice purporting to be Goto’s said in lightly foreign-accented English, referring to Sajida al-Rishawi, a prisoner in Jordan for her role in a deadly 2005 bombing in Amman. “Any more delays by the Jordanian government will mean they’re responsible for the death of their pilot, which will then be followed by mine. I only have 24 hours left to live, and the pilot has even less.”

On Jan. 28, the Jordanian government announced that it would agree to a hostage swap that would see Rishawi released in exchange for Kasasbeh. It is unclear, however, whether that will resolve the issue: The Islamic State video only offered to exchange Kenji Goto for Rishawi, and made no mention of also including Kasasbeh in the trade. The Jordanian statement, meanwhile, did not say that Amman was willing to swap Goto for Rishawi.

Kasasbeh’s plight has contributed to a quiet debate within Amman about Jordan’s involvement in the international coalition against the Islamic State. It is perhaps the freest such debate in the Arab world, as the other countries conducting airstrikes in Syria — Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — have significant restrictions on media freedoms on such issues. In a poll conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan last September, 62 percent of Jordanians considered the Islamic State to be a terrorist group, while 10 percent said it wasn’t, and 28 percent said they did not know.

Jordanian King Abdullah II has said his government is working intensely to free Kasasbeh, who was captured by the Islamic State after his plane, which was flying sorties in Syria as part of the international coalition against the jihadi group, crashed on Dec. 24. But in conversations over the past week, Jordanian officials said that they did not expect that a resolution to the hostage crisis was imminent, suggesting that it could take months. The new ultimatum, however, could mean that this timeline will have to be vastly accelerated.

For Safi al-Kasasbeh, there is no question what Jordan should do. “We want the government to not leave a stone unturned,” he said. “Whatever the Islamic State wants, we should give them.”

Safi’s words seemed consciously aimed at winning the Islamic State’s sympathy for his imprisoned son. He continuously returned to Moaz’s religiosity, saying that his son loves Islam deeply and that one of his favorite pastimes as a young man was to read the Quran. In a previous interview with NPR, he expressed anger at Jordan’s airstrikes against the jihadi group in Syria, saying, “All Jordanians strongly condemn our participation.”

But rather than shifting the grand politics of the Middle East, the Kasasbehs are focused on mustering support from family and friends to ensure that Moaz’s plight remains in the public eye. The family arranged one rally in which 400 cars displaying the captured pilot’s picture roamed the streets and eventually stopped in front of the prime minister’s home, according to Moaz’s brother, Jawad. However, they are finding it difficult to avoid the political minefield over Jordan’s role in the anti-Islamic State coalition.

“I was the only one who said under the dome [of Jordan’s parliament] that this war, this is not our war,” said Islamist MP Abdelmajid al-Aqtash.

Aqtash was one of eight parliamentary deputies, out of 150, who signed a statement opposing Jordan’s involvement in the coalition against the Islamic State. He is also one of the loudest in opposition.

Aqtash, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood for four decades before splitting from the group, described interrupting Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour during a parliamentary session on Sept. 28 to raise the issue of the country’s involvement in the coalition. “At this minute, we are discussing the income tax, which has exhausted Jordanian pockets,” the parliamentarian remembers saying. “And now we are part of this coalition against the Islamic State.… We have been dragged into this war.”

Aqtash is not, however, an Islamic State sympathizer. When asked why he opposes Jordan’s involvement in the coalition, he launched into a lecture about last summer’s war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, contrasting the lack of international response to stop the destruction there with the quick action following the rise of the Islamic State. Originally born in a small town outside the West Bank city of Hebron and forced to flee at 2 years old during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, he says he is instinctively hostile to any form of Western-led intervention in the Middle East.

“Who brought the Israelis to Palestine, and who made the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria?” he asked, rhetorically. “The one who made Sykes-Picot and the 1917 Balfour Declaration — the one who created the Islamic State, the first one, is America.”

Aqtash believes his position is backed by far more Jordanians than his low level of support in parliament would suggest. He blames pressure from the government for parliamentarians’ decision to stay quiet: “If there was a secret referendum, more than 90 percent would be against the coalition,” he said.

The parliamentarian believes that Moaz al-Kasasbeh’s capture sparked a sea change in Jordanian public opinion, turning the public against involvement in the coalition. If Jordan has become so exercised over the fate of one pilot, he asked, what would happen if the country were dragged into a land war and 20 or 30 soldiers were killed?

It’s likely that Jordan will never find out. Public disapproval could prevent deeper Jordanian involvement in Syria’s brutal war. And while some Jordanians may grumble quietly about the airstrikes, most aren’t willing to openly defy the monarchy.

Even Safi al-Kasasbeh, willing to do anything to secure the release of his son, did not want to repeat his earlier criticisms of Jordan’s role in the war against the Islamic State. In his conversation with Foreign Policy, he waved off a question on the issue, saying solely: “We have to be careful.”

Photo credit:Jordan Pix/ Getty Images

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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