Islamic State extremists released a horrific video Tuesday showing a Jordanian pilot being burned to death in a cage by his captors, an execution that drew international condemnation and a vow from President Obama to redouble efforts to destroy the terrorist group.
Jordan responded immediately by executing two including Sajida al-Rishawi, the failed suicide bomber whom the group had wanted to trade for the pilot, and scheduling for Wednesday more executions of convicted terrorists. A government spokesman vowed a “strong, earth-shaking and decisive” response.”
“The revenge will be as big as the calamity that has hit Jordan,” army spokesman Colonel Mamdouh al Ameri said in a televised statement confirming the death of the pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh.
In a short televised address, Jordan’s King Abdullah II called Lt. al-Kaseasbeh’s killing an act of “cowardly terror by a criminal group that has no relation to Islam. … It’s the duty of all citizens to stand together.” He cut short a trip to Washington to return home.
President Obama, who met with the king at the White House Tuesday, said the militants had acted “cruelly and brutally.”
“The coalition fights for everyone who has suffered from [the Islamic State’s] inhumanity,” Mr. Obama said. “It is their memory that invests us and our coalition partners with the undeterred resolve to see [the Islamic State] and its hateful ideology banished to the recesses of history.”
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British Prime Minister David Cameron called the execution “sickening” and said it would strengthen the coalition’s resolve to defeat the Islamic State.
Lt. al-Kaseasbeh, 26, fell into the hands of the militants in December when his Jordanian F-16 crashed near Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate. He is the only pilot from the U.S.-led coalition to have been captured to date during airstrikes against the group in Iraq and Syria.
Following militant demands, Jordan’s government had said it was willing to trade al-Rishawi, an al Qaeda prisoner, for the pilot, but that it wanted proof of life first. Al-Rishawi. 44, was executed in Jordan for her role in 2005 triple hotel bombings that killed 60 people. Al-Rishawi’s suicide belt did not detonate at the time and she fled the scene, but was quickly arrested. After a televised confession, she recanted, but her appeal was turned down.
Al-Rishawi, an Iraqi national, had close family ties to the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda, a precursor of the Islamic State group.
The pilot’s execution was believed to have been carried out on Jan. 3, and the video appeared aimed at pressuring Jordan to leave the coalition that has been battling to roll back the Islamic State group. King Abdullah, a close Western ally, has portrayed the campaign against the extremists as a battle over values, but the airstrikes against fellow Muslims are not popular in Jordan.
Jordan has made clear that the hostage crisis will not prompt it to leave the U.S.-led military coalition against the Islamic State.
“We now all know in Jordan, beyond any doubt, how barbaric ISIS is,” said al-Momani, the government spokesman, using an acronym for the terror group. “Whoever doubted the unity of Jordan will now be proved wrong. Whoever doubts Jordan’s stern and lethal response will be proved wrong.”
Experts are divided over whether Jordan faces a greater threat from extremists outside its borders or from those within. In recent months, there have been signs of greater support for the Islamic State’s ideas among Jordan’s young and poor. Last year, the government intensified a crackdown on sympathizers of the Islamic State, which controls around a third of Syria and neighboring Iraq, and the al Qaeda branch in Syria.
The execution of the Jordanian pilot could also lead to a backlash against the terrorist group in Sunni-majority Jordan, where citizens have expressed ambivalence about the Islamic State. In a poll published last September by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, only 62 percent of Jordanians said they considered the Islamic State a terrorist organization.
David L. Phillips, a former State Department adviser on the Middle East, said he believes the pilot’s killing could backfire, antagonizing Sunnis against the extremists, including Sunni tribes in Iraq.
“They need to have a welcome from Sunni Arabs in Anbar Province (in Iraq) to maintain their operations,” said Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University.
He said the extremist group’s recent military setbacks may have fueled the killings. “They need to compensate for that with increasingly gruesome killings of prisoners,” he said.
The ordeal of Lt. al-Kaseasbeh drew intense interest in Jordan, with many of its citizens increasingly rallying behind the fight against the terror group after he was shot down.
But at a tribal meeting place where the pilot’s relatives had waited for weeks for word on his fate, chants against Jordan’s king erupted, and some family members wept after news of his death was announced. An uncle shouted in Arabic: “I received a phone call from the chief of staff saying God bless his soul.”
In the video, the burned man wore orange clothes similar to those worn by other foreign Islamic State captives who have been killed since the U.S.-led coalition started bombing the militants in July.
In the video, Lt. al-Kaseasbeh was led through the ruins of a building, which appeared to have been destroyed by an airstrike. He was then seen in a cage at the same site, with a line of flames ignited by an Islamic State militant creeping toward the cage, then engulfing him.
The Islamic State has released videos showing the beheadings of five U.S. and British hostages and said that it killed two Japanese captives in the same way. It has meted out the same treatment to many more Arab prisoners, including Syrian government soldiers.
The militants have stepped up the gruesome killings while coming under increased military pressure from the airstrikes and a ground campaign by Kurdish and Iraqi troops to reverse their territorial gains in Iraq and Syria.
• This article is based in part on wire service dispatches.