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Jordan vs ISIS: What is the next phase?

A 22-mintue video published by the group of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the murder of  Jordanian pilot. The video showed disturbing images of 26-year-old First Lieutenant Muath Al-Kasasbeh burned alive. Jordan has officially confirmed the death of its pilot. In reaction to the brutal killing, Jordanian citizens took part in demonstrations in the streets, demanding revenge against ISIS and greater action taken to stop the group.

In the aftermath of the horrific death of the pilot, Jordanians, the Arab region, and the international community are watching closely the next steps of Jordanian authorities.

“There is an intense anger within the Jordanian street,” said Nabil al-Sharif, a Jordanian political analyst. “All options are open for Jordan now,” added al-Sharif who formerly served as a minister of media affairs and government spokesperson.

“There is a huge public support for any decision Jordan [might] take.”

First lieutenant, pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, who has burned alive by ISIS

As part of the US-led coalition against ISIS, Jordan has in recent days begun a new extensive phase of airstrikes against the terrorist group. Al Jazeera reported that the Jordanian Armed Forces has moved a portion of its troops closer towards the border with Iraq.

Jordan has been engaged in the fight against ISIS since the formation of the US-led international coalition in September 2014 with the aim of demolishing the terrorist group. Lieutenant Al-Kasasbeh was captured during an airstrike against ISIS on 24 December 2014, an event that sparked particular focus on the role of Arab countries, such as Jordan, as members of the US-led coalition.

After the capture, ISIS published a supposed interview with Al-Kasasbeh in Dabiq, the organisation’s monthly magazine used for propaganda and recruitment. The article described the pilot to be a “crusader” and quoted Al-Kasasbeh as acknowledging the fact that ISIS planned to kill him.

Negotiations took place between ISIS and Jordanian authorities for the release of Al-Kasasbeh. The Kingdom’s government spokesperson, Mohammad Al-Momani, indicated in late January that Jordan was ready to release Sajida Al-Reshawi, an Al-Qaeda Iraqi female prisoner, in exchange for the pilot’s return. On the same day of the statement, ISIS gave Jordan a deadline to release Al-Reshawi by sunset; however the deadline came and passed with no exchange and no proof that Al-Kasasbeh was still living.

After ISIS released footage of the beheading of hostage Kenji Goto, Japanese journalist, on 31 January, anxiety in Jordan heightened in anticipation of news of the ill fate of its pilot.

When the video of Al-Kasasbeh’s death was released on 4 February, King Abdullah of Jordan cut his visit to the United States short and returned to Jordan the same day. He released a statement, aired on Jordan’s state-run TV, condemning terrorist group and expressing his condolences to the pilot’s family. Moreover, the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) vowed revenge on ISIS in a statement published on Wednesday. “Soon will the unjust assailants know what vicissitudes their affairs will take,” JAF threatened ISIS in the statement.

As the video began to circulate, state-run TV has reported that ISIS had killed the pilot on 3 January, not in February, as the video claimed.

Statements from the Jordanian government asserted that the anger among Jordanians for Al-Kasasbeh’s death will “earth-shatter their [ISIS’s] ranks.”

Al-Sharif commented to MEMO on Jordan’s long history of fighting terrorism, noting that Jordanians still remember what happened to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Al-Qaeda leader who was previously countered and arrested by the Jordanian intelligence. Al-Zarqawi was responsible for several bombings in Iraq during the war in 2003 and responsible for three hotel bombings in Amman in 2005. Al-Sharif added that Jordan’s Special Forces were involved in the killing of Al-Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006.

Jordan could respond by actions that are either “within the [US-led] coalition or outside it in a special mission,” Al-Sharif commented. “Jordan is on the main gate in countering terrorism.”

In the same context, a report for Business Insider has refered to Jordan’s Special Operation Forces to be the “most effective fighting and intelligence forces” in the Middle East, which have been in a consistent training with the US Army. The Jordanian Forces, which since 1971 has maintained a defensive posture until the emergence of ISIS, is also a major provider of military personnel to UN peacekeeping operations.

King Abdullah of Jordan meets with Jordanian Armed Forces on Wednesday.  Photo courtesy of RHC.

Within hours of the release of the video, authorities in Jordan announced that Sajida Al-Reshawi and five others awaiting trial for terrorism would be executed. On 5 February, Al-Reshawi and another al-Qaeda prisoner, Ziad Al-Karboli, were executed, seemingly in response to the death of Al-Kasasbeh.

“The aim wasn’t to respond to ISIS, the aim was more towards the inside front,” says Mohammed Ersan, editor-in-chief of Radio al-Balad, an Amman-based radio station, referring to the protests within in Jordan in reaction to the killing of aAl-Kasasbeh. Ersan suggested that the execution of the two terrorists was conducted to calm down the Jordanian street.

“It [the execution] was expected to happen,” he added. Ersan, who spoke with MEMO by phone from Amman, contended that there is a notable motion of unity among Jordanians with the government and army.

International Response

The video of the killing portrayed the brutal ideology of the group and has attracted international attention; and is likely to have a lasting impact on how the world perceives ISIS.

The UN Security Council condemned the killing of the Jordanian pilot. “The members of the Security Council stressed that such a crime by ISIL [ISIS] demonstrates that terrorism is a scourge impacting all of humanity and people from all regions and religions,” stated the UN body.

World leaders expressed sympathy for Jordan and have praised the role that Jordan has taken in countering terrorism.

“There is a flood of sympathy for Jordan,” said Al-Sharif, the former Jordanian minister and government Spokesperson. “We in Jordan would like this talk translated into practical measures to support Jordan.”

The US, therefore, has increased its aid plan to Jordan to $1 billion following the death of Al-Kasasbeh. In the same sentiment, US President Barack Obama previously requested in his fiscal 2016 budget $50 million for Jordan “to modernise and enhance their ability to counter asymmetric threats and to counter terrorism.”

Arguably, the airstrikes against ISIS will not be effective without action on the ground. Many have expressed that it is now necessary to increase international support to local forces in Syria and Iraq, such as the moderate rebels in Syria, theIraqi army, and the Kurdish Peshmerga.

“If the they [the government] will take revenge for Muath, they will take revenge for the homeland,” said Safi al-Kasasbeh, the pilot’s father.

“Muath is the homeland,” he added.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Canada. His work covers politics and news in the Middle East and Syria in particular. He analyses international politics and the crises in the region, bringing attention to the way that foreign interests influence conflicts. Follow him on twitter at @AbdulrhmanMasri.

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