By Sara Elizabeth Williams and Tom Coghlan
Islamic State has pressured Jordan into pulling out of the US-led bombing campaign with the help of a propaganda video staging a trial by public opinion for the captured F-16 pilot captured in Syria.
The vox pop video shows Syrian residents in the Isis stronghold of Raqqa calling for the execution of the pilot, an apparent new tactic by Isis to claim a popular mandate for the frequent beheadings of their enemies.
Analysts believe that the move was designed to increase pressure on Jordan’s government, which has sought to negotiate the air force pilot’s release in the face of rising popular unease.
The Syrians featured in the video all call for the man’s death. “If he was a Muslim then he should not help the infidels,” said one man. “His missiles hit Muslim cities, mosques and civilians. He should be killed.”
“We want to slaughter him,” said a boy of about 12. “He hit the Muslim people and he is an apostate. My brother cries when he hears a plane in the sky. When I grow up, I will join the Islamic State.”
Jordan has declined to comment on reports that it has suspended its role in the US-led aerial campaign against Isis since the capture of First Lieutenant Muath al-Kasaesbeh, 27, who claims he was shot down with a heat-seeking missile during a bombing mission over Raqqa. Photographs later emerged of the bloodied, terrified pilot being dragged, half-naked, from a river by jubilant jihadists.
In what appears to be a choreographed media campaign aimed at the Jordanian public, Isis also released a transcript of an interview with the pilot, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, in which he said he expected he would be killed.
The loss of the aircraft was the first casualty of the US-led campaign against Isis. US officials said that it had probably suffered mechanical failure, rather than being hit by a missile.
A Jordanian MP, Rula al-Hroob, told an American radio station that Jordan had “temporarily frozen” its involvement in bombing raids on Isis sites in Syria. She said that it was unlikely to be a permanent decision, but rather “a kind of step back to think and reflect and get the deal done with”.
The looming risk of more widespread casualties was acknowledged by US military spokesmen this week who said that their forces were coming under regular indirect fire from rockets and mortars at the al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq.
The US has announced $1.6 billion of funding for a training programme for the Iraqi army which it is hoped will deliver 45,000 battleworthy troops. Iraqi and Kurdish forces are expected to lead a military offensive to retake the city of Mosul from Isis later this year.
Diplomatic sources said yesterday that Jordan had suspended its combat missions at the end of December but had since restarted, although much less frequently than before. Jordan is a crucial regional partner for the US and a key member of the coalition, but in recent weeks it has adopted a far lower profile.
The pilot’s family has begged for him to be treated as “a guest” by Isis, arguing that he was only following orders, and stressing his piety. The pilot’s brother has called for an end to Jordan’s involvement in the aerial campaign.
Despite the calls for the pilot’s blood, experts say that the video is an encouraging sign that his life may yet be saved. “The video puts more pressure on Jordan. There’s a certain ambiguity that suggests Muath’s fate isn’t sealed yet,” said Charlie Winter, a researcher with the Quilliam Foundation. “In the past, if they’ve decided they’ll kill someone, they haven’t taken an opinion poll.”
Jordan has thus far refused to comment on what negotiations are taking place. Government sources confirm that officials are trying to reach out to the group, through both the shadowy network of Jordanian jihadists and possible intermediaries such as Turkey and Qatar. It is thought that Jordan’s powerful tribal network might provide a means of reaching out to Isis and facilitating negotiations.
Government channels haven’t used the word “war” since December 24, the day the pilot was captured.