Outrage spread across the Arab world on Wednesday over an Islamic State video purporting to show the burning to death of a captive Jordanian pilot, while Jordan vowed to press its campaign against the extremists.
The video released Tuesday appeared to show First Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh being burned alive inside a cage. It shook other Arab governments involved in U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and raised fresh alarm over the group’s brutal tactics.
Jordan responded early Wednesday by executing two convicted terrorists, one of whom the government had offered to swap for the pilot’s release.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar—the three key Gulf Arab partners in the anti-Islamic State coalition—all offered condolences to Jordan, calling the killing a crime and a defamation of Islam.
U.A.E. Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan called it a “brutal escalation by the terrorist group” and a “defining moment” in the battle against the extremists.
Saudi Arabia’s new king said the killing was an “odious crime” that is “inhuman and contrary to Islam,” according state-run media.
Muslim scholars in the region—even some with radical views not far from those of jihadist groups such as Islamic State called the killing a violation of Islam’s prohibition on mistreating captives or mutilating bodies, even in wartime.
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Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. reiterated their commitment to combating terrorism and fighting Islamic State.
Despite their public affirmations, analysts said it was likely these governments were more concerned now about their military participation in the U.S.-led campaign.
The killing has exposed “the lack of a unified strategy on dealing with hostages…and highlighted the military vulnerability of those participating in this coalition,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, a think tank.
Jordan, however, is under more pressure to show resolve in the aftermath of its failed negotiation efforts to save Lt. Kasasbeh, said Jordanian officials and analysts. It is likely to both crack down domestically on terror cells, and to try to rally public support for the international bombing campaign against Islamic State.
Will the high-profile killing of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh prove a turning point in how countries view the fight against the Islamic State? Washington Institute senior fellow Andrew Tabler discusses with Sara Murray. Photo: AP.
A pro-Western Arab monarchy, Jordan is a key ally in the U.S.-led campaign. Since the pilot’s capture in December, his fate has stirred internal debate over the costs of getting involved militarily against a Sunni extremist group that—despite its brutality—has attracted young, disenfranchised Jordanians and other Sunni youth across the region.
Some Jordanians worry that their government’s participation in the campaign against Islamic State will bring a violent backlash at home from extremists, while others say militants will eventually strike Jordan anyway and should be battled at home and as part of the international coalition.
A senior official in Amman estimates that 1,500 Jordanians are fighting in Syria, most with extremist groups, while analysts say the real number is likely higher.
On Wednesday, the government acted quickly to rally solidarity against the killing. And some officials said the shocking killing of an Arab Muslim hostage—the first such move by Islamic State—helped ease doubts among Jordanians critical of their governments role in the coalition.
King Abdullah II, arriving to Amman from a trip to Washington, D.C., that he cut short, said the war against Islamic State “will be a war without hesitation.”
He arrived to a throng of loyalists, bused in from factories and schools, chanting pro-monarchy slogans at the airport.
A member of parliament said the country would intensify attacks on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq to persuade the public that it will avenge the pilot’s death.
“Jordan wants to prove that its action speak louder than words,” said Awni Adwan, a senator in Jordan’s parliament and retired army general.
The government released few public details about its decision to execute two convicted terrorists early Wednesday, a swift response to the pilot’s killing.
Interior ministry spokesman Ziad al-Zoubi told The Wall Street Journal their execution was “a message to all those extremist groups that Jordan’s response will be earth-shattering against those who attack this country.”
The two executed were Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman whose release the militants had demanded, and Ziad al-Karbouli, a man convicted in 2007 of plotting terror acts, according to an interior ministry statement.
Jordanian officials said they two convicts were already on death row and that the news of the pilot’s killing expedited their execution.
Jordan last week offered to swap Ms. Rishawi for Lt. Kasasbeh. Ms. Rishawi—a self-described al Qaeda operative—was sentenced to death for her role in Amman hotel bombings in 2005.
The militants had demanded Ms. Rishawi be handed to them by Jan. 29 to spare the lives of Lt. Kasasbeh and another hostage, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.
Jordan asked for proof the pilot was alive, however, and the talks stalled.
On Saturday, an Islamic State video purported to show Mr. Goto’s decapitation. Then on Tuesday, the video of Lt. Kasasbeh was released, marking both a new method of killing by Islamic State and a move described by officials and analysts in the region as a defiant shock tactic.
Hasan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordanian expert on Islamic radicalism, said Islamic State likely wanted to deliver the message that “despite the coalition, and everyone against them, they don’t fear anyone. They do whatever they want.”
Some analysts are now questioning whether the outrage over his death may serve to undermine the support that such high-profile killings are designed to generate, even from its base of fanatic jihadist supporters.
So far, Islamic State has focused its propaganda efforts on the beheading of Western hostages, though Iraqi soldiers have been executed and burned to death by the militants before.
Among moderate Muslim scholars and within the radical jihadist community, there was some debate on whether the act of immolation was a violation of Islamic teachings on how to treat prisoners of war. Top Muslim scholars, including Egypt’s Al Azhar, the seat of Sunni Islamic learning, uniformly condemned it and called it a violation of Islamic prohibitions on such actions.
“We are against the Western coalition and we oppose their agenda, but there is no such religious decree that allows the burning of prisoners in Islam,” said Hussam Salameh, a spokesman for the Islamist Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham. The group opposes Islamic State and al Qaeda but is also extremist.
Newspapers in the region reflected horror over the killing.
Pan Arab daily Al Hayat ran a single-word headline on its front page to describe the killing: Barbarity. Asharq al-Awsat, another pan Arab newspaper, described a state of “global shock.”
Still, some said the greater the shock value of Islamic State’s actions, the wider the appeal to the group’s supporters. In jihadist commentary online, the killing was widely praised as a just action against an Arab state that had allied with the Western enemy.
—Asa Fitch, Maria Abi-Habib, Mohammad Nour Alakraa
and Dana Ballout
contributed to this article.
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