The west’s strongest ally in the fight against Islamic State is steeling itself for the nightmare of a hostage crisis after the terrorist group seized one a Jordanian pilot whose plane came down over northern Syria.
Jordan vowed to do everything possible to bring home First Lieutenant Muath al-Kasaesbeh, 27, after the loss of his F16 fighter jet on a bombing mission over Raqqa on Christmas Eve. The pilot, looking groggy and terrified, was paraded by Isis fighters in images on social media before being taken to an undisclosed location.
It is the biggest propaganda coup for the jihadists since the start of the anti-Isis coalition’s three-month bombing campaign, and the most significant setback suffered by the US and its allies.
It also raises the fear that US and British pilots could be shot down as they fly missions over territory controlled by Isis. The jihadists insist that the plane was shot out of the sky, but the US claims that it crashed.
RAF Tornados fly daily missions over Iraq while the US targets Isis positions in Iraq and Syria.
As Isis revelled in the capture, Safi al-Kasaesbeh, the pilot’s father, made an impassioned plea for his son’s safety. “I do not want to describe him as a hostage,” he said yesterday. “He is a guest among brothers of ours in Syria, Islamic State. I ask them to treat him well.”
Isis and a monitoring group both claimed that the aircraft had been shot down with a heat-seeking missile — as, initially, did the Jordanian government. But Jordan backtracked after US officials said they believed that mechanical failure, pilot error or weather-related problems were more likely to have been the cause.
Western aircraft have so far conducted 830 airstrikes against Isis in Iraq and 590 in Syria.
The US was quick to counter the Isis claim to have shot down the aircraft. “Evidence clearly indicates that Isil [Isis] did not down the aircraft as the terrorist organisation is claiming,” US Central Command said.
General Lloyd Austin said that the US would “not tolerate Isil’s attempts to misrepresent or exploit this unfortunate aircraft crash”.
The loss of the aircraft heaps domestic political pressure on Jordan, which is regarded as the US-led coalition’s most staunch regional ally. The country’s Hashemite monarchy has been unequivocal in demanding action against Isis, but the kingdom is seen as vulnerable to homegrown militancy and has been dangerously stretched politically, militarily and economically by the chaos on its Syrian and Iraqi borders.
The government daily al-Rai said in an editorial yesterday that the Jordanian government was “making all efforts” to free the pilot. “We are confident that our brave one will be released . . . He has not been forgotten,” it wrote.
King Abdullah of Jordan was among guests who visited the pilot’s family to offer condolences. The pilot’s brother, Jawad al-Kasaesbeh, told Jordanian radio that he was a strict Muslim who only carried out orders and flew with a copy of the Koran in his pocket.
Isis has killed thousands of Iraqi and Syrian military prisoners as well as western civilian hostages. The Sunni militant group has reserved its most merciless treatment for Shia and non-Muslim prisoners but has also killed Sunnis for fighting alongside its enemies.
Activists in Raqqa claimed that Isis jihadists were divided over the fate of the pilot, with extremist foreign fighters wanting him to be killed and others wanting him kept alive.
Despite the jihadists’ boasts, the group is thought to have few answers to the threat posed by high-flying western jets armed with precision-guided missiles and bombs.
The militants have captured vast amounts of military hardware from Syrian and Iraqi army bases. The US did not supply modern anti-aircraft weaponry to Iraqi forces, however, and the most modern systems seen in Isis hands are a small number of Russian made SA18 missiles, which would pose a moderate but not overwhelming threat to sophisticated aircraft at high altitude.
Isis released images showing the fighter pilot, bleeding from the lip and wearing just a singlet, being dragged from a body of water by jubilant jihadists. Subsequent photos showed militants bowed in prayer, thanking God for their prize.
There were also photos found in the pilot’s belongings — a young man posed with his car and his plane, with the same man grinning from a dune buggy — as well as identity documents.
The US has special forces teams positioned to carry out search and rescue of downed pilots using V22 Osprey aircraft, which can land and take off vertically like helicopters, but Raqqa, where the aircraft came down, is hundreds of miles inside Isis-held territory.
There has been no indication that the US has landed forces inside Syria in an attempt to reach the pilot.
Jordan flies a fleet of elderly F16 aircraft that were bought from the US after refurbishment. Their airframes are about 30 years old, making it more likely, according to air analysts, that a mechanical failure caused it to crash.
Local media speculated that Jordan might be able to exchange the pilot for a militant held in a Jordanian prison. Among possible bargaining chips is Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, who took part in the bombing of three hotels in Amman in 2005.
Rishawi was close to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian religious leader who began the movement that became Isis.