The Perverted, Powerful Logic Behind ISIS’s Burned Pilot

An Islamic State that beheads innocents and burns its enemies: Why would Muslims want it?

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Feb 8 2015

“We will fill the sea with blood,” the jihadists chanted as the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbah was being burned alive in a cage. In Raqqa, the defacto capital of ISIS in Syria, the crowds cheered as the pilot’s death was shown on big TV screens.

In contrast, Jordanians and people around the world watched with anger and shock at the horrific execution by ISIS. Outraged, Jordan took action and launched a massive air attack on ISIS strongholds. "This is just the beginning and you shall know who the Jordanians are," Jordanian forces said in a statement on state TV.

Related: The Three Hidden Messages Behind ISIS’s Bloody Rampages

Almost immediately after, ISIS claimed the Jordanian air strike killed Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old aid worker who was kidnapped on August 4, 2013 in the Syrian city of Aleppo after leaving a Spanish Doctors Without Borders Hospital. Jordan insists the announcement is a PR stunt, and the U.S. won’t confirm her death without proof.

 Kidnappings, mass executions, beheadings, and now killing a prisoner of war by putting him in a cage and burning him to death. People throughout the world are baffled by what’s motivating the terror group to such inhuman levels of barbarism.

Make no mistake, though ­— ISIS does have a strategy behind its violence. Understanding that strategy is crucial in thwarting the terror group’s ambitions and ultimately defeating it. For example, ISIS is obsessed with revenge and it is very aware of the political landscape at the national and local levels. Those factors all played a role in the group’s decision to burn al-Kaseasbah alive.


ISIS is obsessed with revenge and it is very aware of the political landscape at the country and local levels.


While ISIS is most active in Iraq and Syria, it has a long history of enmity with Jordan as well. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS’s predecessor organization, was Jordanian. Zarqawi was imprisoned in Jordan in the 1990s for terror activities. In retaliation, Zarqawi’s first car bomb in Iraq was aimed at the Jordanian embassy in August 2003.

After his fame grew as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, he invested manpower, funds, and planning to conduct attacks in Jordan. One of these operations involved suicide attackers who blew themselves up in three of Amman’s hotels. An Iraqi man and his wife were among the attackers. While the man achieved his mission, his wife Sajida al-Rishawi couldn’t complete hers for technical problems. She was captured and sentenced to death.

Jordan’s Enlightenment
Zarqawi’s personal history isn’t the only reason ISIS hates Jordan. For historical reasons, the Jordanian government is universally hated by extremists. In the late 1950s, the regime was part of the western-backed Baghdad pact that opposed the Nasser government in Egypt. The pact members sided with the west during the cold war while Nasser promoted a non-allegiance policy. In 1970 and 1971, the Jordanian army fought Palestinians fighters revolting against the Jordanian government and killed thousands of them, when their activities were perceived as a threat to security.

Related: Jordan’s Revenge and the Arab World’s ISIS Awakening

In 1977, The Washington Post leaked that the late king Hussein of Jordan was on the payroll of the CIA, solidifying Jordan’s status as a target for radical Islamists. There was no doubt that Jordan was a staunch ally of the U.S. and acted as a partner to U.S. initiatives in the Mideast.   

Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994 and supported the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. In 2003, Jordan was the base for the U.S.-led coalition of Special Forces operations in Iraq. Finally, Jordan participated in the 2014 U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS.

Jordan’s participation in the 2014 air campaign was crucial, not only because of its tactical aircraft raids, but because the Jordanian intelligence service is one of the most vital sources about potential targets of the raids. Jordan acquired this intelligence after years of working with the Syrian rebels since 2011.

That history complicated any Jordanian efforts to secure the return of their pilot. For ISIS decision makers, such as the emirate council headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the decision to kill al-Kaseasbah involved clear pros and cons.

Hostages as a Wartime Strategy
When the Japanese hostage crisis broke out in last month, ISIS demanded $200 million for the hostages’ release. The figure matched Japan’s recent contribution to the air campaign, but the demand was rebuffed.

There are two ways to handle a hostage crisis with ISIS. Either the American-British way or the European way.


The Japanese Prime Minister condemned ISIS sharply from the onset and he continued doing so, an absolute violation for hostage negotiation protocol..


Americans do not negotiate with terrorists. Yet, there might be military operations to rescue the hostages as happened before in Syria and Yemen. In most cases, the crisis will end with the killing of the hostage. Europeans, on the other hand, negotiate discreetly via their intelligence agencies. In most of these cases, ISIS has released hostages for ransom. During that process, government officials remain silent.

The Japanese government chose neither path. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe condemned ISIS sharply from the onset and he continued doing so, an absolute violation for hostage negotiation protocol.

ISIS has its own internal logic and goals for taking hostages. Kidnappings attract public opinion and media attention. They are also used to boost the morale of ISIS fighters and increase their awareness of foreigners among members. When King Abdullah of Jordan cut short his visit to the U.S. and condemned the pilot’s death, or when President Obama and other high profile figures also condemned the “barbaric” actions of ISIS, they were doing exactly what ISIS wanted them to do. The politicians’ statements attract global attention and make ISIS appear strong, sending a message that regional and global enemies had better leave them alone.

ISIS chooses as its main targets the citizens of countries that are fighting against it or supporting the fight, even if those citizens were against their country’s policies. This was also Osama bin Laden’s justification for targeting civilians. Zarqawi was the one to execute that policy on hostages, using his security cells of his organization to kidnap diplomats, aid workers, contractors and journalists, then killing them with his own hands.

Related: With Yemen in Chaos, al-Qaeda Terrorists Are Unleashed

Ransom is sometimes a motive, but not in the case of the Jordanian pilot. It is widely known among intelligence circles that ISIS made about $50 million from ransom over the last few years. Usually, ISIS starts bidding with an unbelievably high figure and then settles the negotiation at a few million dollars. 

A major endgame of taking hostages is to embarrass a government in front of their people. This was a main motive that played into the Jordanian pilot’s fate. The objective is to turn the situation into a scandal for the government and its intelligence agency, emphasizing their incompetence in handling such a crisis. The Iranian embassy hostage crisis that overshadowed the Carter’s demonstration between 1979 and 1980 is a classic example.


‘When the negotiation fails, hostages are killed. Even the bodies are sold’


ISIS hostage taking is far from wanton. The ISIS commander overseeing hostages is Abdul Nasser al-Turkumani, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on ISIS with access to Iraqi intelligence records. Bander al-Shalan, a Saudi member of ISIS, assists as well. “The negotiation process is conducted with consultation with the emirate council, one of the highest decision-making bodies within ISIS leadership. With Baghdadi as head of that council, he is constantly briefed about the process. Specialized cells protect and move the hostages. Mediators bring the ransom and mediate with intelligence agencies,” Hashimi said.

When the negotiation fails, hostages are killed. Even the bodies are sold, according to Hashimi.

The Strategy Surrounding the Death of the Jordanian Pilot
In the case of the execution of the Jordanian pilot, it is hard to imagine that a terror organization that killed aid workers who had converted to Islam would spare the life of a fighting pilot whose aircraft launched attacks against ISIS. In this case, there was negotiation, but little reason for hope.

Jordan hosts many Iraqi tribal leaders from the Sunnu al-Anbar province, western Iraq. Some of them are well-known insurgency leaders who have relations with ISIS. According to Hashimi, a tribal Iraqi leader mediated the negotiation with ISIS to release the pilot. The Jordanian Salafi Islamist leader Mohammed al-Shalabi said also that Saddam Hussein’s former deputy, the fugitive Ezat al-Duri mediated too. The theorist of the Jihadis around the world, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi said he mediated too, only to discover that ISIS lied to him and gave him false hopes that the pilot was alive. When Jordan did not see any results from these paths, they asked the Turks to interfere, Hashimi added.

According to research by the Arabic-speaking TV channel al-An, the pilot was executed in a site in the Syrian city of al-Raqqa that was bombed on Oct. 29, 2014. It used to be the headquarters of al-Khansaa female fighters unit of ISIS. The attack left 30 members dead. A blogger from al-Raqqa tweeted a few days after the execution that took place on Jan. 3 that he heard a group of ISIS fighters telling another group that the first group participated in the burning of the pilot. The blogger tweeted the story with disbelief. The pilot was tortured and forced to confess on video. The first part of the half-hour cinematic-style video was produced, then he was executed, after which the second part was produced. It was reported that the victim was let without food for five days before his death.


ISIS wanted to make money from the Japanese government, but after Prime Minister Abe began denouncing ISIS, they executed the first victim.


The Japanese hostages were handled differently. ISIS wanted to make money from the Japanese government, but after Prime Minister Abe began denouncing ISIS, they executed the first victim. Despite the fact that the Jordanian pilot was already dead, ISIS wanted release of Sajida al-Rishawi and to achieve whatever it could by creating a perfect show of horror.

Related: 9 ISIS Weapons that Will Shock You

There is an established belief that Jordan is a stable country, but it is actually composed from several disengaged pieces created after World War I, mostly from a sparse, tribal part of Syria. Ever since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Jordan became the hub of Palestinian refugees who now make up roughly 70 percent of its population of 6 million. With the Syrian civil war in 2011, no fewer than a million Syrians have fled to Jordan, menacing the country’s weak infrastructure. Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians in Jordan were the main audience for ISIS propaganda during the pilot crisis. The endgame for ISIS is to turn them against the Jordanian government.

When the horrific video of the pilot’s death by burning was finally released this past week, ISIS began to see some of its objectives achieved. The first was a riot in the pilot’s town, where people burned government buildings to express anger. The second was when the government crossed into tribal justice — an eye for an eye — with its execution of Sajida al-Rishawi and another Iraqi member of al-Qaeda the following morning. Rishawi was sentenced to death a decade ago but her sentence was not carried out. The facts that she was executed only after something that she had absolutely nothing to do with, and that she was a woman, will not be interpreted well among Arabs, Muslims or much of the rest of the world.

While it is true that the burning of the pilot has created some unity behind Jordan’s King Abdullah and more support for the U.S.-led campaign around the world, it is hard to see how that could translate into practical steps against ISIS. Jordan might seek to conduct Special Forces operations in Syria, as it did in Iraq after the 2003 invasion to arrest Iraqis who killed Jordanians. The escalation in the air raids might continue. Despite the competence of the Jordanian army, though, Jordan can’t go into a ground war with ISIS without a green light from the U.S.

Related: ISIS Is Growing Its Terror Army of Global Jihadists

On the other hand, the reactions to the burning have given ISIS some more ammunition in its war. One day after the release of the video, Iraqi tribal fighters in Anbar burned some of the bodies of 25 ISIS fighters. The Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar in Cairo, Ahmed al-Tayeb, a sort of an equivalent to the Pope for Muslims, asked to amputate ISIS members’ limbs. ISIS had succeeded in bringing its most determined enemies down to its level, giving its actions some perception of legitimacy.

Another achievement for ISIS was the declaration that the United Arab Emirates has withdrawn from the U.S.-led air campaign, until there's better protection and rescue for pilots who might be downed. This decision was made before the release of the video, but it was declared afterward, giving ISIS the appearance of another objective achieved-- convincing the less-determined enemy to quit fighting. 

It was reported later that UAE will send aircraft to support the Jordan air campaign against ISIS, but it was not clear whether the planes will be manned by pilots from UAE or Jordan. 

The video of the pilot’s death was addressed only to the Arabs and to the Jordanians in particular, giving the names and some photos of the Jordanian pilots who are flying their aircraft in the anti-ISIS campaign. ISIS offered a reward for every pilot killed.

It’s hard to imagine that ISIS would sacrifice a valuable American hostage like Kayla Mueller. But there is always the possibility that the group calculated that the U.S. government wouldn’t negotiate for her release and it is hard to sell the idea that she was a crusader enemy combatant — especially as a woman who made a video in support of the Syrian revolution. So ISIS decided to send a message to the U.S. and Jordan to let them know that they will start killing U.S. hostages and claim they were killed by the air raids.

Either way, another show of horror is anticipated.     

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