3 February was supposed to be a good day for Jordan. King Abdullah was in Washington in part to mark the agreement on a new $1 billion annual assistance package. Aid to Jordan has long received bipartisan support – a rarity in Washington – in no small part because of the king’s frequent visits to Capitol Hill, along with his White House meetings. The updated assistance package increases economic and security assistance to Jordan by more than $300 million annually for the next three years. It is intended to offset Jordan’s persistent economic struggles, help it contend with the ongoing influx of Syrian refugees and strengthen its military capacity to contend with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) on its borders.
As much as the Hashemite kingdom benefits from its close ties with Washington, politics in Jordan demands a careful balancing between King Abdullah’s pro-Western policy inclinations and the need not to appear to be a puppet of the West (as I explored in the December 2014–January 2015 issue of Survival). Exploiting that vulnerability was no doubt the intention behind the horrific execution of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh whose plane crashed over Syria on 24 December 2014 due to mechanical issues. The sophisticated media apparatus of ISIS released the video of al-Kasasbeh’s immolation shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh signed the new assistance agreement. If the timing was not planned to the minute, ISIS certainly knew about the king’s visit to Washington this week and chose to release the video during his absence from the kingdom.
ISIS’s message seems clear: align with the enemy and Jordanian soldiers will be treated even worse than the apostate Shi’ites and Kurds fighting them in Iraq. It is a message to Jordanian Islamists to challenge the pro-Western monarchy, and to Jordan’s tribal population – the foundation of the military – that following King Abdullah will only lead Jordan to disaster.
This time, however, ISIS may have overplayed its hand. Initially, the capture of al-Kasasbeh led to some protests by the pilot’s family and tribe against the palace for not doing enough to secure the pilot’s release, and in opposition to Jordan’s participation in the war against ISIS altogether. Pictures of al-Kasasbeh in his uniform reflected this sentiment.
But when ISIS demanded a prisoner release to spare the pilot’s life, the tables suddenly turned. ISIS demanded the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, a convicted terrorist who, together with her husband, attempted to detonate a suicide vest at a five-star hotel during a wedding (part of a series of near-simultaneous hotel bombings in Amman in November 2005 that killed more than 57 people). Her husband’s vest exploded but Rashawi’s bomb failed to detonate. She escaped but was later turned in by a relative.
Even the groom – who lost several family members during the 2005 attack – supported Rashawi’s release, telling the New York Times, ‘She’s a nobody; I don’t think she’s very important … If it’s 100 percent sure to get Moaz back, we support this, even though I know if she’s released she will probably do this again.’
The Jordanian government offered to release Rishawi, but only if it received proof that Kasasbeh was still alive. Over a week passed before ISIS released the video, on 3 February, foregoing the now familiar decapitation in favor of burning Kasasbeh alive in a metal cage.
Jordanian nationalism will almost certainly peak in the immediate aftermath of Kasasbeh’s killing. The King, in a recorded message before he cut his visit to Washington short, appealed for national unity and condemned ISIS (also known as Daesh) ‘as the terrorist and cowardly Daesh organisation, this criminal, stray gang that has nothing to do with our true religion’. Other government officials and the army have vowed revenge. Rishawi and an aide to former al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a native Jordanian, were executed early on 4 February. Both had previously been sentenced to death.
Jordanian nationalism will likely persist for the next several months, but Jordan remains vulnerable as the war with ISIS drags on. For its longer-term stability Jordan will depend on the commitment of the US-led coalition to fully defeat ISIS, as well as the ability of the new Iraqi government to be truly inclusive and rebuild the military with Sunni participation.
If Jordan’s friends really want to help ensure its future stability, they will need to find a way to ‘degrade and defeat’ ISIS’s military and ideological strengths more rapidly. For its part, Jordan can play a leading roll in coordinating a more aggressive strategy with other Muslim communities to counter the group’s messages and appeal. If anything positive is to come of Moaz al-Kasasbeh’s tragic death, he could become a symbol for those who reject a return to medieval brutality in the name of religious fundamentalism.