Jordan drawn deeper into mire as ISIL demands release of Al Qaeda prisoner

The militant group wants to exchange Japanese journalist Kenji Goto for Sajeda Al Rishawi, a militant who tried to carry out a suicide bombing in 2005.

A file photo showing Sajeda Al Rishawi, the woman suicide-bomber who failed to blow herself up at a Jordanian hotel in 2005, in Amman on April 24, 2006. EPA
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AMMAN // A demand from ISIL for the release of an Iraqi woman on death row in Jordan in return for a Japanese hostage has further complicated the kingdom’s efforts to free a captured air force pilot.

The extremists released a video last week demanding US$200 million (Dh745m) for the release of journalist Kenji Goto and his friend Haruna Yukawa. The figure was the same amount the Japanese government had pledged to help countries affected by the militants.

On Saturday, a second video showed Mr Goto holding what appeared to be a picture of Yukawa's decapitated body. The video included a demand that the journalist is swapped for Sajeda Al Rishawi, an Iraqi sentenced to death in Jordan for her involvement in the 2005 bombings of three hotels in Amman that killed 60 people.

Jordan, a member of the coalition against ISIL, has been trying to secure the release of First Lieutenant Maaz Al Kassasbeh, a 26-year old pilot captured by the group on December 24 after his jet crashed during a bombing run in northern Syria.

Japanese and Jordanian officials emerged from talks in Amman on Monday with no signs of progress. Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga avoided a straight answer when asked if the latest demand makes the situation more complex. “Naturally, Jordan has its own thoughts,” he said. “We are seeking cooperation from every possible party toward a release [of the remaining hostage].”

The latest video from ISIL drew widespread condemnation, including from the UAE’s foreign ministry which described it as a “horrible and unforgivable act which reflects the group’s criminal ideology and brutal methods”.

The coalition, which includes the UAE, has carried out hundreds of bombing raids against ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria.

Jordan’s King Abdullah, told tribal leaders south of Amman last week that authorities are exerting intensive efforts to secure the release of Lt Al Kassasbeh.

There has been speculation in Jordan that authorities would use Al Rishawi as a bargaining chip to negotiate the pilot’s release, or even exchanging both the Japanese journalist and the pilot in the same deal. ISIL, however, has not made any offer regarding Lt Al Kassasbeh.

The group’s offer to swap Goto for Al Rishawi, placed Jordan in a difficult position as the country is cracking down on terrorism both at home and abroad.

Some analysts said ISIL is trying to send a message to Amman that Al Rishawi will be excluded from any deal in Jordan to free Lt Kassasbeh and that ISIL will seek far higher demands when it comes to the pilot, such as pressuring the country to pull out of the coalition.

“This complicates matters even further. ISIL wants to pressure Jordan and confuse it,” said Mahmoud Irdaisat, a retired major general and a former director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the King Abdullah II Academy for Defense Studies.

“By asking to free the Japanese hostage in return for Al Rishawi, this will create an embarrassment for Jordan, who has a captured pilot that it wants to free. What will they [ISIL] then ask in return for the pilot?”

At the same time, the retired general said, ISIL is trying to tell its followers that it will look after them.

“It is part of ISIL propaganda to relay a message to the extremists that they can protect them and look after those who have been involved in terrorism in any part of the world.”

Al Rishawi, now in her mid forties, was part of an Iraqi cell dispatched by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch killed in a US airstrike in 2006. She is currently jailed at Jwaideh prison for women in Amman.

She was sentenced to death for attempting to blow herself up at a hotel full of wedding guests. Her explosives failed to detonate, but her husband who was with her, blew himself up.

In 2007, she wrote a letter to King Abdullah asking for mercy and to be spared from execution. Soon after, Jordan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty. That moratorium came to an end last month.

Al Rishawi’s lawyer, Hussein Masri, said she had told him that she did not attempt to detonate the explosives. He said he last saw her seven or eight years ago.

At a rally in Amman on Monday, demonstrators raised photos of Lt Al Kassasbeh. One poster read, “It is not our war.”

“We have no information about my brother,” said Jawad Kassasbeh, the pilot’s brother. “I am very sad about what happened to my brother and I call on the Jordanian government to hurry … so my brother would return home.”

“I believe that Jordan has a prisoner who must be part of the swap deal,” he added referring to the pilot.

Jamil Nimri, a member of parliament said he believes ISIL will ask Jordan to withdraw from the US-led coalition in return for the pilot. “I don’t think Jordan should pull out. It will be political suicide to give in to Daesh.”

The Jordanian government has declined to comment on any efforts or negotiations involving either the pilot or the Japanese journalist, out of concern for their safety and over fears it would thwart attempts to free them.

* with additional reporting from Associated Press