The Islamic State Captures Jordanian Pilot After F-16 Crash

The extremists have a Jordanian pilot in their clutches after his plane crashed, although the group claims it shot down the jet. The pilot's fate now rests in the hands of the group.

A picture taken on December 24, 2014 reportedly shows an Islamic State group fighter collecting pieces from the remains of a Jordanian warplane from the US led coalition after it was shot down in Syria's Raqa region. The Islamic State group captured a Jordanian pilot after his warplane from the US-led coalition was reportedly shot down while on a mission against the jihadists over northern Syria. AFP PHOTO / RMC / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Militants belonging to the Islamic State captured a Jordanian pilot near the Syrian city of Raqqah after the F-16 jet he was flying crashed, although the group claimed it had shot down the plane raising fears that American and other coalition jets bombing the group’s locations could be just as equally vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire.

The U.S. Central Command disputed assertions by the militant group’s supporters and a report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that the plane was shot down. “Evidence clearly indicates that ISIL did not down the aircraft as the terrorist organization is claiming,” Central Command said in a statement using another acronym for the group, hours after initial reports said the plane had been downed.

“The Jordanians are highly-respected and valued partners and their pilots and crews have performed exceptionally well over the course of this campaign,” Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of Central Command said in the statement. “We strongly condemn the actions of ISIL which has taken captive the downed pilot.  We will support efforts to ensure his safe recovery, and will not tolerate ISIL’s attempts to misrepresent or exploit this unfortunate aircraft crash for their own purposes.”

The downing of a coalition jet fighter would have been a first for the militant group that was suspected to have captured some anti-aircraft missiles when it overran Iraqi military bases in June and established control over the country’s Anbar province. American officials have long known that the group had tanks, armored Humvees, and heavy armaments. The group has shot down three Iraqi helicopters with shoulder-fired missiles but warplanes that fly at higher altitudes have seemed to be beyond the group’s reach.

The loss of an Arab nation’s plane and the capture of its pilot potentially could further raise tensions within the 40 nation, U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State. Most Arab partners in the alliances that includes regional powers like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan have been reluctant to publicly detail their role in the military operations against the Islamic State because of fears reprisal attacks within their own countries.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on its website that the Islamic State had shot down a warplane with anti-aircraft missiles and captured an Arab national. In a statement on Petra, Jordan’s state-run news service, the Jordanian military confirmed that one of its pilots was in militant hands but declined to specify whether its plane had been shot down or crashed for other reasons. “The pilot was taken hostage by the terrorist organization,” an unnamed Jordanian official told the news service, according to media reports from the region.

Supporters of the Islamic State posted pictures on their Twitter accounts of the captured pilot as well as an identification card that gave his name and rank as First Lt. Moaz Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh, the New York Times reported.  The newspaper, citing Jordanian news outlets, said Jordanian officials had spoken to the pilot’s family and said the country’s military was working to ensure his safe return. Given the Islamic State’s practice of beheading journalists and aid workers, it seems highly unlikely that the pilot would make it out of their hands alive.

Earlier on Dec. 24 Jordanian sources and officials at the U.S. Central Command’s Combined Joint Task Force declined to confirm  that the plane — a Jordanian F-16 jet — was shot down because the crash was still being investigated.

A U.S. F-16 jet participating in strikes against the Islamic State also crashed Nov. 30 and the pilot died, the Pentagon said Dec. 1. The plane was trying to return to its base soon after takeoff but crashed before returning, the Pentagon said.

The U.S. military has not ordered any change to how its pilots operate in the region because it’s too soon after the Jordanian plane crash, said Gary Boucher, a spokesman for the task force based in Southwest Asia.

“The cause of the crash has yet to be determined and it would be very early to change anything without knowing what caused the crash,” Boucher said. “We are taking the exact same precautions that we have always taken. There’s no plan or contemplation to change the operation itself and no I don’t think it has affected how we operate.”

The U.S.-led coalition has carried out about 1,300 air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. James Terry, the top U.S. commander overseeing the coalition efforts said at a Dec. 18 Pentagon news conference. The strikes have slowed down the group’s advances within Iraq, he said.

The U.S.-led coalition is also helping the Iraqi army mount a counteroffensive against the militant group’s strongholds in the city of Mosul and the province of Nineveh early in 2015, even as countries in the region try to figure out how to dislodge the Islamic State from Syria.

*Updated to say the Jordanian jet crashed in Syria according to the U.S. military and was not shot down as the militant group claims.


Gopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @g_ratnam