Is the Jordanian Pilot Still Alive?

Amman says it’s willing to trade a jihadi bomber for the life of a pilot held by the Islamic State. It may already be too late.


No video of a kneeling hostage in an orange jumpsuit begging for his life. No recordings of a hostage reading a prepared statement calling for an end to the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State. No images of a masked man, knife at the ready, threatening to behead the hostage if that demand isn’t met.

When it comes to missing Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, whose plane went down over Syria in late December, the Islamic State hasn’t just abandoned its usual practice of parading a hostage like him before a camera and recording a propaganda video. After releasing a series of images showing his capture on Dec. 24, the militants have refused to release any evidence whatsoever that he is still alive.

This means that Jordan’s announcement that it is willing to meet the group’s demands and release a female militant, Sajida al-Rishawi, involved in a notorious 2005 plot to attack several hotels may be Amman’s way of calling the Islamic State’s bluff in a last-ditch effort to find out what happened to Kasasbeh — and whether there’s any way of bringing him home.

On Wednesday, Jan. 28, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh wrote on Twitter that his government has requested confirmation of Kasasbeh’s “health and security” but has not received it.

The release of previous videos by the Islamic State in which it has threatened to execute one or several of its hostages has been followed by widespread speculation that the group executes its hostages all at once and releases edited videos designed to bluff foreign governments into thinking their citizens are alive and could be freed in exchange for a variety of concessions.

That hasn’t been the case recently. In a video released Saturday, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, a hostage of the Islamic State, delivered an audio message that included that ultimatum for Rishawi’s release. The video was set against an image of Goto holding a photograph of what appears to be the decapitated body of another Japanese captive, Haruna Yukawa. In a video released Tuesday, Goto holds an image of Kasasbeh and says he and the pilot have only 24 hours left to live. Late Wednesday, an audio recording attributed to Goto surfaced in which the captive journalist says Rishawi must be presented at the Turkish border by sunset on Thursday or Kasasbeh will be executed.

The image of Kasasbeh bears no indication of when it was taken and provides no indication about his health. Goto says in the video that he and Kasasbeh will be executed if Rishawi is not released. Goto proposes a “straight exchange” for Rishawi, but it is unclear from the video whether that swap would include Kasasbeh as well or only the journalist.

That lack of clarity speaks to the Islamic State’s mercurial qualities as negotiators. Although the group has reportedly released some hostages in exchange for ransoms, it has also presented ridiculous demands for the freedom of others. The group reportedly asked for a 100 million euro ransom in the case of kidnapped American journalist James Foley. And this month, the group demanded $200 million for the freedom of the two Japanese hostages.

But with one of those hostages now likely beheaded — given that in the video released Saturday, Goto holds an image of what appears to be Yukawa’s beheaded body — the group has now shifted its negotiating tactic to focus on the freedom of Rishawi, who was one of four suicide bombers dispatched to attack three Amman hotels, but whose vest failed to detonate. Sixty people died in the strikes.

She is currently on death row, and a volatile debate is now playing out in Jordan over whether the country should swap the terrorist for the imprisoned pilot. Kasasbeh hails from a prominent tribe, and his father has been waging a loud campaign against the government to secure his release. On Wednesday, the Jordanian government appeared to at least partially give in to Kasasbeh’s father’s demands with its gambit to secure the freedom of the pilot. “We want the government to not leave a stone unturned,” Safi al-Kasasbeh, the pilot’s father, told Foreign Policy. “Whatever the Islamic State wants, we should give them.”

But such a move is likely to lead to tensions with the United States, a close ally of Jordan. At Wednesday’s press briefing, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki refused to say whether the United States would support such a swap but said Washington broadly opposes such measures.

“Our position is well known. The United States’ government policy in terms of how we operate is, we don’t make concessions to terrorists,” Psaki said. “I think everybody understands the — the pain and the suffering that the people of Japan and the people of Jordan have gone through.”

If the Jordanian swap goes through, it is sure to draw comparisons to the U.S. decision to trade five members of the Taliban imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the militant group. The exchange that led to his release was described by U.S. officials as a normal wartime prisoner exchange that secured the freedom of the last American prisoner of war in the Afghanistan conflict.

At Wednesday’s briefing, Psaki refused to compare the two deals and said she would reserve judgment until the deal is executed.

“As you know, different governments make decisions about what’s appropriate,” she said.

 Photo credit: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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