Shortly after news broke that Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kassasbeh had been burned alive by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, Jordan took swift, if indirect, revenge. Two Iraqis convicted on terrorism charges — Ziad al-Karbouli and Sajida al-Rishawi, the woman who tried to blow herself up inside a Jordanian hotel in 2005 and ISIL pressed Jordan to release in exchange for Kassasbeh — were dragged from their cells and executed at dawn on Wednesday.
Though neither had any connection to ISIL, their deaths were seen as eye-for-an-eye retribution in Jordan, where demonstrators swarmed the streets of the capital, Amman, and of the pilot’s hometown, Karak, demanding fierce reprisal after the graphic video of his death surfaced on Tuesday. Kassasbeh, 26, has been embraced as a hero ever since his F-16 was shot down over ISIL territory in Raqqa, Syria, and he was taken prisoner in late December.
In the long term, however, analysts say Jordan’s role in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL — the very reason Kassasbeh was taken hostage — is in question. Middle East experts wonder if the death of one of its citizens will lead Jordan to quietly ease off the gas pedal, as critics of the war have called for, or double down against ISIL.
In its first public statements since the pilot’s killing, the Jordanian government has vowed the latter. Army spokesman Col. Mamdouh al-Ameri said in a brief televised address on Tuesday night that Jordan would deliver a “strong, earth-shaking" response. Another Jordanian official, who spoke in the condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that Kassasbeh’s death “doesn’t change our position or resolve on this fight. You can count on that.”
But analysts say his execution may deepen a rift that has formed in the desert kingdom since he was taken hostage. In recent weeks, expressions of solidarity with the captured pilot became increasingly intertwined with a growing anti-war sentiment. Once spearheaded by Jordan’s marginalized political groups, including the Islamic Action Front and a leftist faction in parliament, criticism of the war on ISIL has expanded, piggybacking on popular sympathy for Kassasbeh. The Twitter hashtags #WeAreAllMuath and #NotOurWar have been simultaneously trending in Jordan of late.
Unusually for Jordan, public demonstrations on behalf of the pilot have taken explicit aim at King Abdullah, whom many accuse of dragging his country — and Kassasbeh, personally — into a war it has no incentive to fight. Even the pilot’s Bararsheh tribe, whose loyalty has long helped prop up the Hashemite monarchy, has taken to the streets to call Abdullah a coward who takes orders from the U.S. It did not help matters that Abdullah was on a visit to Washington on Tuesday when news broke about Kassasbeh’s death.
According to Taylor Luck, a longtime journalist in Jordan, the hostage crisis “essentially escalated into a referendum on Jordan’s role” in the coalition. If Kassasbeh “is not returned to Jordan safe and sound, we’ll see a much louder rejection of the U.S. coalition and Jordan’s role,” he told NPR last week.
Still, many analysts suspect Kassasbeh’s death will serve the king’s mission, hardening public opinion in Jordan against his killers. Safi al-Kassasbeh, the pilot’s father, urged Jordan on Wednesday to “destroy this terrorist group” — a departure from his prior criticism that Jordan should never have entered a war against fellow Muslims, however radical they are.
“I think a divided Jordanian society will unify with this news,” said Hassan Hassan, an analyst at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi. The execution, he said, will be seen as a broadside assault on Jordan’s most esteemed institution, the military, which has helped maintain Jordan’s status as a bastion of stability in the Middle East for decades.
In a nation of just over 6 million people, the armed forces employ over 150,000 people, meaning that nearly everyone has relatives and friends they will see in Moath al-Kassasbeh. “Even those cynical about being involved in the war will have to be quiet for the next few days,” Hassan said.
Analysts say the trademark ISIL messaging in the execution video was meant to intimidate all Arab members of the anti-ISIL coalition, not just Jordan. The mode of Kassasbeh’s death — setting him on fire in a cage — was new for ISIL, which is infamous for its videotaped beheadings of foreign journalists and aid workers. “This is a clear message to the Arab members of the coalition. ‘We burned him to death because we want to tell you this will be the fate of any pilot or soldier we capture,’” said Abdel Bari Atwan, an independent Middle East analyst.
Jordan and the Arab Gulf nations are crucial to the coalition not only because they serve as the front lines against ISIL (along with Turkey) but also because their cooperation undermines ISIL’s narrative of an Islamic uprising against Western oppressors. The death of an Arab pilot has already set off fresh debate over whether fighting in the coalition is worth it for ISIL’s regional rivals, many of whom feel they are not directly threatened by the insurgent group. According to a New York Times report on Wednesday, the United Arab Emirates stopped sending its planes on missions as soon as Kassasbeh was taken hostage.
But with its 350 miles of border with Syria and Iraq, Jordan is perhaps the coalition's most vulnerable member. And expectations for vengeance will be high, especially since Jordan was apparently strung along by ISIL, which feigned interest in a prisoner swap for Kassasbeh even though he was reportedly killed in early January.
Analysts say Jordan must walk a tightrope, being careful not to play into ISIL’s propaganda machine by overreacting. According to a new report from the Soufan Group, an intelligence consultancy, “The desire for national revenge will need to be balanced with the reality that the Islamic State wants such revenge to be as spectacular as possible, so that its fighters die but once more in front of a global audience.” ISIL has suffered under coalition strikes and is more reliant than ever on “the opiate of spectacle” to maintain its intimidation factor, Soufan said, so Jordan would be best-served by bearing down on ISIL away from the headlines.
As Jordan executed two death-row prisoners on Wednesday who had nothing to do with Kassasbeh’s death, commentators pointed out that it inadvertently made them martyrs to ISIL’s radical cause, which is probably what they wanted all along. Though Jordan is not thought to be vulnerable to ISIL invasion from abroad — security services are powerful and the country does not have the same sectarian tensions ISIL exploited in Syria and Iraq — there are rising fears that homegrown cells in Jordan have been excited by ISIL’s dramatic surge. A disproportionate or misdirected internal reaction from the kingdom in the coming weeks could fuel the fire in Jordan’s southern city of Ma’an, where ISIL supporters have occasionally flown the group's black flag above rooftops.
“Jordan has long been a fortress against jihadists in the region,” said Hassan. “But this is a risky time.”