Jordan called Wednesday for a decisive battle against the Islamic State group, declaring “this evil can and should be defeated,” after the militants burned a Jordanian pilot to death in a cage and gleefully broadcast the horrific images on outdoor screens in their stronghold.
Waves of revulsion over the killing washed across the Middle East, a region long accustomed to violence. In mosques, streets and coffee shops, Muslims denounced the militants’ brutality and distanced themselves from the group’s violent version of Islam.
Even a prominent preacher with close links to jihadi groups said Islamic State militants miscalculated if they hoped the images of the pilot’s agony would galvanize greater opposition to a U.S.-led military coalition that has been bombing targets of the group.
“After millions of Muslims were cursing every pilot (in the coalition), with this act, they (IS) have made the burned one into a symbol,” Abdullah al-Muhaysni, a Saudi sheik, wrote on his Twitter account.
The Islamic State group, which controls large areas of Iraq and Syria, has killed captives in the past, posting videos of beheadings and sparking widespread condemnation. However, the killing of Lt. Muath al-Kasaesbeh, who crashed over Syria in December, also highlighted the vulnerability of Jordan, a key Western ally in the region, to threats from extremists.
Jordan was long considered an island of relative stability in a turbulent region but in recent years had to absorb hundreds of thousands of war refugees, first from Iraq and then Syria, at a time of a sharp economic downturn.
Jordan receives hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid every year, but grinding social problems persist, including high unemployment among young men, a reservoir of potential IS recruits.
Experts estimate Islamic State and other jihadi groups have thousands of supporters in the kingdom, with an upswing last year after they declared a caliphate in the areas they control.
The United States and Israel are particularly concerned about any signs of turmoil. Israel views Jordan as an important land buffer, and the two countries share intelligence.
In September, Jordan joined the U.S.-led military coalition that began bombing Islamic State group targets in Syria and Iraq.
The decision was not popular in Jordan, with the bombing campaign widely seen as serving Western, not Jordanian interests. During weeks of uncertainty about the fate of the airman, some of his relatives and supporters chanted against Jordan’s role in the coalition.
In Washington, congressional support built Wednesday for increased U.S. military assistance to the kingdom. Currently, the United States is providing Jordan with $1 billion annually in economic and military assistance.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Jordan’s King Abdullah II — who met with lawmakers and President Barack Obama on Tuesday — must be given “all of the military equipment” he needs to combat the group. He said Abdullah did not ask for ground troops.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration would consider any aid package put forward by Congress but that the White House would be looking for a specific request from Jordan’s government.
Sen. John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he expected his panel to swiftly approve legislation. He repeated his criticism that the Obama administration has “no strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State group and said he hoped the video of al-Kasaesbeh’s death will galvanize not only U.S. leadership but “the Arab world.”
Abdullah rushed home after his Washington meetings, cutting short his U.S. trip, to rally domestic support for an even tougher line against the militants.
On Wednesday, Hammam Saeed, the leader of Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, visited relatives of the pilot in the southern tribal town of Karak and called on Jordan to pull out of the anti-IS coalition, saying that “We have no relations with this war.”
Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani on Wednesday urged the international community to work together and deliver a decisive blow to Islamic State militants.
In an initial response, Jordan executed two Iraqi al-Qaeda prisoners, Sajida al-Rishawi and Zaid al-Karbouly, before sunrise Wednesday.
Over the past week, Jordan offered to trade al-Rishawi, a failed female suicide bomber, for the pilot but insisted on proof of life ISIS never sent. Al-Momani said Wednesday that Jordan now believes the pilot was killed in early January.
Dozens more suspected Islamic State sympathizers are in detention in Jordan, most rounded up during a crackdown in recent months.
Public outrage over the pilot’s death and calls for revenge against IS could help Abdullah broaden support for the coalition, said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory firm in Austin, Texas.
“Sentiments (about the airstrikes) are going to start changing across the Middle East after people see the video, especially the Jordanian people,” he said. Stewart said a similar shift occurred a decade ago in Iraq after Sunni Muslim tribes turned away from a local branch of al-Qaeda, a precursor of the Islamic State group, over its brutality.
Marwan Shehadeh, a Jordanian expert on jihadi groups, said he expects the opposite outcome. “Public opinion rejected the IS behavior, but at the same time, more voices are questioning the participation of Jordan in the international coalition,” he said. “The killing (of the pilot) will drive more people to question that.”
The Islamic State militants appeared to be goading Jordan.
In the northern Syrian city of Raqaa, the Islamic State group’s de facto capital, the militants showed graphic footage of al-Kaseasbeh’s slaying on outdoor screens, with some chanting “God is great!” according to a militant video posted online Wednesday that conformed to Associated Press reporting of the event.
In the 20-minute video of the killing, the pilot displayed signs of having been beaten, including a black eye. Toward the end of the clip, he stood in the outdoor cage in an orange jumpsuit, and a masked militant lit a line of fuel leading to him. The AP could not independently confirm the authenticity of the video.
A senior Iraqi Kurdish official, meanwhile, echoed Jordan’s appeal for a decisive campaign against the militants.
Fouad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, said U.S.-led coalition airstrikes are helpful, but “to finish ISIS … you need to finish it on the ground,” he said, using an alternate acronym for the militant group.
“And on the ground, we are most of the time alone. So we need partners,” he said. “It means advisers. It means special forces. It means a collective fight against ISIS. It means equipment; it means munitions.”
Though Islamic State fighters have been forced to retreat from Kobani, a strategic town on Syria’s border with Turkey, the battlefield picture suggests they are far from beaten in northern Iraq, where harsh winter weather and thick mud underfoot hamper military moves.
The Kurdish peshmerga fighters have struggled for months to inch ahead, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.