The Islamic State on Tuesday gave the Japanese and Jordanian governments less than 24 hours to release a female militant who’s been on Jordan’s death row since 2005, in exchange for the release of a kidnapped Japanese journalist and the life of a captured Jordanian fighter pilot.
The demand for the release of Sajida al Rishawi, an Iraqi woman involved in the suicide bombings of three luxury hotels in Amman, Jordan, more than nine years ago, highlights how closely linked the Islamic State remains to its predecessor organization, al Qaida in Iraq, which the United States once thought it had defeated. The operation that led to Rishawi’s arrest, which killed at least 57, was al Qaida in Iraq’s largest ever outside of Iraq.
In a brief voice recording posted on the Internet, Japanese freelance journalist Kenji Goto, speaking English, said that the Islamic State had told him that he and the pilot, Moaz al Kasasbeh, would be killed unless Rishawi was released. Goto’s statement was accompanied by a still image of him holding a photo of Kasasbeh.
Jordanian officials said they were attempting to verify the authenticity of the recording.
“I’ve been told this is my last message, and I’ve also been told the barrier to extracting my freedom is now just the Jordanian government’s delaying the handover of Sajida,” Goto said. “Tell the Japanese government to put all their political pressure on Jordan. Time is now running very short. It is me for her. What seems to be so difficult to understand? She has been a prisoner for a decade and I’ve only been a prisoner for a few months.”
Goto said that “any more delays by the Jordanian government will mean they will be responsible for the death of their pilot, which will then be followed by mine. I only have 24 hours to live and the pilot has even less. . . . The ball is now in the Jordanians’ court.”
Jordan has refused to comment, but a Tokyo news agency quoted a Japanese official as saying talks were underway on Monday. There was no immediate response Tuesday to the substance of the new recording from either government.
“I hope we can all firmly work hard and join hands to cooperate between the two countries (Japan and Jordan), in order for us to see the day when the Jordanian pilot and our Japanese national Mr. Goto can both safely return to their own countries with smiles on their faces,” said Yasuhide Nakayama, a deputy foreign minister and lawmaker who was sent to Amman, according to a translation provided by the Associated Press.
The emphasis on winning Rishawi’s release in exchange for Goto’s freedom and the sparing of Kasabeh’s life marked a change in Islamic State tactics. Last week, the group demanded a ransom of $200 million for Goto and another Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa. When the original 72-hour deadline passed without payment, a recording of Goto was posted saying that Yukawa had been killed and that the demand had changed to Rishawi’s release.
The recording Tuesday was the first mention in relation to Rishawi of Kasasbeh, who was captured after his plane crashed during a bombing mission over Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the Islamic State’s de facto capital. Notably, it did not offer Kasasbeh’s release, only that he would be killed if Rishawi weren’t released.
Analysts were at a loss to explain why the demands appeared to be changing so rapidly. Previously, the Islamic State has demanded ransoms for releasing captives, though it also reportedly had demanded that the United States release another female prisoner, Aafia Siddiqui, in exchange for the lives of three Americans who were subsequently beheaded. Siddiqui was sentenced to 86 years in prison in 2010 for attempting to kill a U.S. military officer in Afghanistan.
But the request for Rishawi’s release was a reminder that the Islamic State is essentially the same organization founded by Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi to battle American troops in Iraq more than 10 years ago. U.S. forces thought the group had been largely vanquished by the so-called surge of American troops during the George W. Bush administration. Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006.
The Islamic State “emphasizes it’s inheriting the legacy of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, hence establishing mosques and training camps in his name,” said Aymenn al Tamimi, a fellow for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum who specializes in studying radical Islamist groups. Demanding Rishawi’s release is consistent with the Islamic State’s identification as the modern incarnation of Zarqawi’s original group.
Rishawi and her husband, Hussein Ali al Shamari, were two of four suicide bombers dispatched against luxury hotels in Amman by Zarqawi’s al Qaida in Iraq in 2005. Rishawi, whose brother, Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, was a top commander and confidant of Zarqawi, had been killed in an airstrike earlier in 2005; in a Jordanian court, Sajida Rishawi said she was motivated by his death to take revenge.
At the time of her trial and conviction, she said that she married Shamari to allow the two to travel together posing as husband and wife in preparation for the attacks. She survived after her explosive belt malfunctioned and Shamari pressed her to leave the room before detonating his own.
UPDATE: Earlier versions of this story contained a different spelling for the Jordanian pilot’s name. The spelling used here is consistent with subsequent Jordanian government statements.