Each time the Islamic State releases an execution video, brutality is redefined. The execution of the Jordanian pilot Flight Lieutenant Muath al-Kaseasbeh was, however, unlike most other murders by the IS. The video of the murder first shows scenes depicting Jordan’s involvement in the campaign against the IS, with missiles being fired and targets hit. Kaseasbeh is then shown walking through the scenes of devastation. He is then locked in a cage with his jump suit doused in fuel and is set on fire. The camera then pans to a close-up shot, capturing Kaseasbeh crying out in pain. A day after the video surfaced, an IS-controlled radio station said his execution by fire was “punishment for what he had done of burning Muslims with the fire of his plane”. Kaseasbeh was captured by IS terrorists after his jet crashed while on a bombing mission near Raqqa—an IS stronghold in Syria—on December 24. His F-16 was the first such aircraft to be downed by IS terrorists. He was later shown on the IS publication Dabiq saying that his aircraft was hit by a heat-seeking missile while on a mission to destroy anti-aircraft batteries operated by IS. “I landed in the Euphrates river by parachute and my seat caught on some ground, keeping me fixed, until I was captured by soldiers of Islamic State,” he said. US officials, however, dismissed reports of the heat-seeking missile. From the moment he was captured, Kaseasbeh’s fate was sealed. Although the IS appeared to be willing to exchange him for Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman who was sentenced to death for her role in a 2005 suicide bomb attack on a hotel in Amman that killed 57 people, the group was already asking its supporters on social media to suggest precisely how Kaseasbeh should be executed.
If the IS was seeking further global attention with the gruesome video, they were successful. Within an hour of its release, US President Barack Obama took note and issued a statement condemning it. Jordan’s King Abdullah cut short his US visit and flew back to Amman.
The IS has chosen to justify Kaseasbeh’s murder in religious terms. Clerics close to the IS say Kaseasbeh was set on fire based on the Islamic principle known as qisas, which justifies equal retaliation for crimes and suggest that the concept can be found in Quran (chapter 16, verse 126), which says, “If you punish an enemy, O believers, punish with an equivalent of that which you were harmed.” Since Kaseasbeh as a fighter pilot would have dropped bombs, IS jurists say their retaliation was equal and appropriate. Religious justifications notwithstanding, the gruesome murder of a young Muslim man has turned the public opinion in the Muslim world completely against the IS. Many of his family members and friends thought the IS might release him on account of his Sunni Muslim identity. Yet, unlike Al Qaeda, the IS has reserved the most stringent punishment for apostates and, in their eyes, Kaseasbeh fit the bill.
Whether Kaseasbeh’s murder will have any long-term impact on the fight against the IS remains to be seen. With the groundswell of anti-IS emotion across the country, Jordan has been quick to retaliate and in what appears to be a knee-jerk reaction, executed Ziad Karbuli, an Iraqi national with ties to the late Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Sajida al-Rishawi. The Jordanian air force also carried out air strikes, targeting IS bases in Syria. Operation Muath the Martyr was successful and hit IS bases, training camps and arms and ammunition dumps and returned safely, said a military spokesperson. Officials also hinted at the possibility of extending air strikes to Iraq, something which no Arab member of the anti-IS coalition has done so far.
Following Kaseasbeh’s execution, the US military, which had resisted pressure from the Arab anti-IS coalition to move search and rescue aircraft to northern Iraq to help downed pilots in Syria, has indicated that it was willing to do so now.
On the flip side, the execution of Kaseasbeh could affect the morale of Arab forces in their fight against the IS. The UAE had withdrawn from the coalition altogether, after Kaseasbeh was captured. With his execution, that stand may not be reversed and could also influence the policies of other leading members of the coalition like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In this regard, the IS has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear. Moreover, many observers fear that Jordan’s decision to swiftly execute Karbuli and Rishawi could lead to a rapprochement between the IS and Al Qaeda since both of them were Al Qaeda activists. If that happens, then a number of towns in southern Syria, which are presently dominated by Al Nusra front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, will come under IS control, making Jordan next in line for an IS run. And, that is a nightmare which Jordan and the anti-IS coalition can ill afford.