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Weekly Analysis: Jordanian pilot immolated by Islamic State

The Islamic State released a video on Tuesday, Feb. 3 showing a caged man being burned alive. Jordanian officials have confirmed that the man was Moaz al Kasasbeh, a pilot in the Jordanian Royal Air Force whose plane was shot down on Dec. 24. He has been held captive since then by the Islamic State.

Until now, Jordanian negotiators have aggressively pursued a prisoner exchange with the Islamic State involving Sajida al-Rishawi, an imprisoned Iraqi woman who was convicted on charges of involvement in the 2005 hotel bombings which rocked the Jordanian capital, Amman. Al Rishawi has familial connections with Abu Musab al Zarqawi, commander of Al Qaeda at the time. Despite the Islamic State’s breakaway from Al Qaeda, the group continues to honor her and value her suicide-bombing attempt, referring to her as their sister during negotiations. 

The video of al Kasasbeh, which blames his killing on Jordan’s King Abdullah II and his cooperation in the U.S.-led coalition consisting of the United Kingdom, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and various European countries, incited demonstrations in Amman demanding revenge for the slain pilot. Jordanians are referring to al Kasasbeh as a shaheed, or “martyr.”

The theatricality of al Kasasbeh’s death is a card from the hand of the Islamic State’s now infamous PR strategy, composed of cutting-edge use of social media and video-recorded executions designed to shock the world. IS’s ideology discourages cooperation with and involvement in the international community, as they see it in its current form as a product of Western imperialism and corruption.  As a newcomer to the political arena of the region, the Islamic State is posturing itself as a force that will not cooperate rationally with its neighbors. Their execution of al Kasasbeh after negotiating for his release raises serious doubts about their intentions to release him should the negotiations have been fruitful and demonstrates their contempt for neighboring nations.  Seeking to portray to the residents of its territory and to outsiders its supposed strength and desire for longevity, the Islamic State has coupled these PR moves with its own minted coins and passports (the utility of which is dubious, as neither will likely be accepted outside of their territories in Syria and Iraq).

As Gertrude said in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the IS “doth protest too much, methinks.” The State’s insistence on these tactics is a thin veil to the instability and inherent weakness of the group in their current form. Lack of international recognition has the potential to hamstring the nascent economy of the Islamic State, and popular support for their regime is under stress due to the strictness of their legal and punitive system.

The success of this strategy will be determined in hindsight. However, if IS intended to goad Jordan into deeper involvement, then they have succeeded. The Jordanian people cry out for revenge, but what would be the cost? Could the Islamic state simply be trying to deplete the Jordanian treasury? They would not be the first Jihadist organization to use prolonged asymmetric warfare to drain the resources of their enemy, similar to Al Qaeda’s strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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