Faced with an outraged public and political commentary that it had been humiliated by the Islamic State, the Jordanian government got a little payback Wednesday at dawn, hanging two jailed militants to avenge the extremist group’s killing of a captured pilot.
But analysts warned that while such a dramatic step might act as a short-term salve for a country in mourning, the move might backfire in the long run by looping a key U.S. counterterrorism ally into a cycle of savagery with a bloodthirsty militant group.
The English-speaking King Abdullah and his glamorous Queen Rania have gone to great lengths to promote Jordan as a moderate, Western-friendly beacon of stability in a volatile region – an unrecognizable description for those who know it better as a monarchy and police state with very little tolerance for dissidents.
Now, with plans for what a Jordanian army spokesman vowed would be revenge “at the level of disaster,” sympathy in some quarters is tinged with concern that Jordan risks sinking to the murderous level of the Islamic State, which is sometimes known by the acronym ISIS.
The Jordanian response also might prove awkward for the Obama administration, as one of its most reliable anti-Islamic State allies takes vengeance by stringing up suspected militants.
“Jordan has put itself in a tough position by vowing to execute ISIS prisoners in retaliation,” said Will McCants, a former government adviser on violent extremism who now heads the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. “If Jordan delivers on its promise, it looks as bad as ISIS and ratifies the group’s brutal tit-for-tat logic. If it doesn’t deliver, it looks weak.”
Jordan defied the United States and other key allies with its willingness to negotiate with the Islamic State on a prisoner swap: failed female suicide bomber Sajida al Rishawi for the return of 1st Lt. Moaz al Kasasbeh, who was captured in December after his plane was downed in Islamic State territory. The U.S. opposes negotiating with terrorist groups, including ransom payments and prisoner exchanges.
Hopes pinned to such a deal evaporated Tuesday with the release of a 22-minute video showing that the jihadist group had killed the pilot, reportedly a month ago, by burning him alive in a cage. It’s unclear whether the Jordanians knew Kasasbeh already was dead when they demanded proof of life in recent weeks as they weighed releasing Rishawi, who’d been convicted of taking part in deadly hotel bombings that struck Amman in 2005.
Rishawi was one of the two prisoners executed Wednesday. The other was a former close associate of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaida in Iraq, the predecessor organization to the Islamic State.
King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh were in Washington meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry just moments before the pilot’s execution video was made public. There was no hint that any of the leaders knew of the death as they exchanged pleasantries during a signing ceremony marking a new billion-dollar U.S. aid package for Jordan.
Immediately after the ceremony, however, the video hit the Internet and statements of condemnation and condolences began flowing from the Obama administration to Jordan. President Barack Obama called it “one more indication of the viciousness and barbarity of this organization.”
The king and his entourage cut short their visit and flew back to Jordan, where a national mourning period was announced and crowds gathered demanding revenge.
The plan for the executions drew condemnation and concern from international human rights groups and Arab activists and intellectuals, who beseeched the government to avoid another spectacle of death. Rishawi was convicted before the Islamic State existed; she was associated with its predecessor, al Qaida in Iraq. She’d languished on death row, largely forgotten, until the surprise Islamic State demand for her release.
“If Jordan now executes alleged ISIS-related inmates on death row, it’ll only reinforce ISIS callousness toward human life, not rise above it,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote on his official Twitter account.
To those who support the U.S. government’s stance against negotiating with militants, Jordan’s predicament underlines why such a hard-line position is necessary: Such groups cannot be trusted to negotiate in good faith. And trust sounds especially misplaced when the target is Jordan, which jihadists loathe because of the monarchy’s crackdown on Islamist dissidents and close cooperation with U.S. and other Western forces in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
“There is no room with IS,” said Aaron Zelin, who researches extremist groups for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and posts analysis on his Jihadology website. “Alfred Pennyworth in ‘ The Dark Knight’ said it best: ‘Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.’ ”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled part of the name of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaida in Iraq.