AMMAN, Jordan—No one is sharing the video, but almost everyone has seen it. Local news channels have run just one segment since Tuesday night: the 30 seconds or so right before Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh is burned alive. He stands surrounded by masked fighters in desert-toned camouflage. The camera flits between angles, showing the fighters lined up, then Muath looking straight ahead, breathing. The fighters picking up a rope, then Muath in a cage, head down. One fighter setting the rope afire, then Muath’s eyes.
The TV channels stop here.
February 4 was a warm day, the winter sky clear and blue above the Hashemite Kingdom’s capital. Across Amman, many Jordanians looked like they hadn’t slept much the night before—some because they’d gone to protest at al-Dakhiliya circle, demanding the execution of the Iraqi prisoner and would-be suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi, and others perhaps because they’d lain in bed, tormented by a figure dressed in orange, twisting into a flare of black and fire. Some had flocked to the diwan, a meeting place for tribes from Karak, where Kaseasbeh grew up. Relatives and friends of Kaseasbeh’s tribe raised posters of his face, chanting, “We are all Muath.”
“Daesh is not Islam,” said Jordanians on Wednesday night, distancing themselves from the Islamic State in the streets and in the newspapers, on the radio and on Twitter and Facebook, where profile photos were swapped for graphics of the Jordanian flag in a heart, or waving behind Jordan’s King Abdullah, or with a roaring lion promising revenge. Within minutes of the video’s online release, Jordanian officials were condemning ISIS on national television. “The blood of our hero martyr, Muath al-Kaseasbeh, will not be spilt for nothing,” said military spokesman Mamdouh al-Ameri. King Abdullah and his aides vowed an “earth-shaking” response of “relentless” war to avenge the “cowardly act of terrorism.”
Within a few hours, Sajida al-Rishawi and Ziad al-Karbouli, another Iraqi convicted on terrorism charges, had been executed by the state.
When Kaseasbeh’s plane was shot down over Raqqa, Syria on Christmas Eve, Jordanians responded with a mix of support and frustration. “Bring our son Muath back,” Jordanians demanded, but many with a postscript: He shouldn’t have been flying over Raqqa in the first place. In Karak, Kaseasbeh’s father complained that King Abdullah had forced his son—and Jordan’s sons—into someone else’s conflict. To average Jordanians, who are struggling to survive employment and energy crises as chaos sweeps the region and sends refugees flooding across their borders, stability is the first priority. “Two days ago, people were still saying, ‘This isn’t our war,’” said the Jordanian journalist Etaf Roudan on the morning after the video surfaced. “They thought, ‘Daesh didn’t come to us. Why should we go to them?’”
Until recently, Jordanians had shown no more than wavering support for the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS (Jordan has long provided a military base for American operation in the region, but its participation in the anti-ISIS coalition has involved not just hosting Westerners but conducting airstrikes with them). Patriotic songs blasted on national TV when airstrikes were first announced in August. But in Amman’s cafes, Jordanians huddled and whispered, “How can we bomb our Muslim and Arab brothers?” When I asked Syrian friends in Jordan what they thought, they shared photos of injured children in Raqqa. The captions sarcastically thanked Barack Obama, asking what had happened to his “red lines” on the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Conspiracy theories proliferated in private conversations that I had and on social media, with some saying ISIS was sponsored by the CIA, others speculating about Israeli involvement with the group, and many deriding the coalition as another Western-led crusade. Meanwhile, Jordan tightened its anti-terrorism laws, reactivating the death penalty and expanding the jurisdiction of military courts to detain and prosecute suspected jihadist supporters.
But the ISIS threat became personal with Kaseasbeh, wending its way into the consciousness of Jordanians in recent weeks as a game of bluffing and hypothetical hostage-trading played out between ISIS, Jordan, and Japan. The Islamic State ultimately killed two Japanese hostages and declined to offer Jordanian authorities proof that Kaseasbeh was alive in exchange for releasing Rishawi, who had been on death row in Jordanian jails since failing to detonate a suicide bomb in Amman in 2005. Then ISIS posted its video, amid reports that Kaseasbeh had been burned alive on January 3, nearly a month before the fitful negotiations. Jordanians had prayed and waited for the pilot’s release for days, when he’d been dead all along.
By 10 a.m. on Wednesday, journalists at the local station Radio al-Balad were arguing in the newsroom. “We have to get a psychological expert on air,” one producer demanded. “Did you see [ISIS fighters’] eyes in that video? They’re clearly sick, demented, like animals.” Another scrolled through Arabic-language hashtags on Twitter. “Jordan’s Response Is Coming” was a popular one, featuring tweets decrying Daesh as infidels and dogs, cursed and doomed. Some linked to YouTube songs extolling Jordan’s army. Others said that Rishawi should have been burned as well.
Outside, Amman was quiet. The Karaki diwan had been deserted, with the mourners moving to a funeral in Karak. But posters of Kaseasbeh’s face covered street lamps, and Jordanian flags flew from car windows. On a taxi ride across the city, the radio played caller after caller denouncing ISIS and mourning Kaseasbeh. “He is a martyr of Islam and the ummah and the country and Jordan, not just our tribe,” said one caller. “God bless his soul in paradise. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Jordanians, we want nothing now, only to get Daesh out,” the driver said. “Some people here supported Daesh. They’d better leave.” He picked up an apple and bit into it. “We are fighters. We will devour them.”
The “Jordan response,” for now, is grief, anger, and unity. For the first time since Jordan joined the anti-ISIS coalition, people are pushing the state to fight, not the other way around.
Previous ISIS videos of Westerners’ beheadings had provoked conflicted reactions in Jordan. Even as government officials denounced the brutality, many Jordanians pointed out Western human-rights abuses in Iraq and Palestine, drawing on the same narrative of global injustice and oppression that jihadist groups use to frame their actions as revenge. Some had insisted that James Foley and other ISIS victims were still alive. But this time, seemingly no one is questioning Kaseasbeh’s death. They watched him burn.
“It’s not a religious question,” said Yehia Abdullah, a 58-year-old businessman, outside King Abdullah Mosque, where 100 or so men had just attended a midday prayer for the murdered pilot. “If we’d seen [ISIS] burn someone from another country—even if they’d burned an animal—we could not accept it. We are united against anyone who attacks our sons.”
“Allahu akbar,” the imam had said moments earlier. “We remember our brother the martyr, God bless his soul, Muath al-Kaseasbeh, killed by the infidels.” Some had lingered after the prayer, kneeling with eyes closed, foreheads pressed to the ground. Others had sat against the walls, opening Qurans in silence.
Nearby, at the Palace of Justice, Amman’s lawyers and judges halted the courts for an hour in Kaseasbeh’s honor. “Muath is my brother, my son,” said Ali Osama, a 44-year-old lawyer. He wasn’t surprised that ISIS had killed Kaseasbeh, but he hadn’t expected the group to kill him in the way that it did. “This is a turning point for Jordan,” Osama said. “Before, the state was pulling us into the coalition. Now we are in.”
One of the few Jordanians who hasn’t fully condemned ISIS is Abu Sayyaf, the Salafi preacher best known for encouraging Jordanian youth to wage jihad against Assad’s regime in Syria. He criticized Kaseasbeh’s killing but said Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s regime had advocated it, hinting that there was disagreement about killing tactics within ISIS’s leadership.
The lawyers I met brushed this point aside. “Abu Sayyaf doesn’t represent Islam. Every Muslim represents himself. Islam goes from the Prophet Muhammad straight to every Muslim,” Osama said. Whatever claim ISIS had made to Sunni or Muslim legitimacy before had been incinerated with the ashes of Muath al-Kaseasbeh’s body. “They don’t represent us. We are Jordanians. We represent ourselves.”
Given the swell of public support for the fight against ISIS, there’s now speculation that Abdullah could send ground troops to battle the jihadist group. Jordanian military and security officials are currently engaged in closed discussions about how to respond militarily to the provocation. But not every Jordanian wants more death, not even for Sajida al-Rishawi. “I think she was fooled,” said 40-year-old Abu Firas as he left noon prayers at the King Abdullah Mosque. “Sajida was fooled, like so many others in our region. I feel sorry for her.”
“We were against the [U.S.-led] coalition and we’re still against the coalition,” said Yusuf, a worker at a vegetable stand down the street. “But the way [ISIS] killed him—it wasn’t human.” Yusuf hadn’t watched the video. “What will Jordan do now?” he asked, while weighing and stacking tomatoes “God knows. We just want the killing to stop.”
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