The place: Wadi Musa near Petra in Jordan. The time: 7:30 A.M., Wednesday 4 February 2015. A group of Christian pilgrims from the United States, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia were waiting in their bus, ready to drive north after touring Petra the day before. Then word came from a military commander? No one is to leave the Petra area until further notice. The reason: Jordan was in a state of military readiness after waking up to the most unwelcome and distressing news.
What news? Jordanian pilot Lieutenant Moaz al Kassasbeh, 26, who was captured by the Islamic State after his plane was shot down in Syria on 24 December 2014, had been brutally executed by being caged, doused in petrol, and then burned alive.
The Islamic State continues to grab headlines. They forcibly expel groups of people in Syria and Iraq whose beliefs are considered ‘unorthodox,’ commit capital punishment through beheadings, crucifixion, and pushing homosexuals off rooftops. Now, they have added to their list a new method: immolation.
IS does these graphic public executions to fulfill four purposes:
1. Power: To create an image of power and invincibility, which is attractive to would-be jihadists worldwide;
2. Humiliation reversed: By executing westerners, they are saying in symbolic terms that the perceived humiliation of the Muslim world by the West has been reversed;
3. The Impotent West: They also are taunting the West by saying that despite their satellites and advanced technology, they are impotent in finding or rescuing hostages;
4. Warning to the Arabs: Lieutenant al Kassasbeh’s execution, so horrific as to make the beheading of westerners look humane in comparison, was a warning to the Arab states of the fate their pilots if they dare join the Allied coalition aerial attacks against IS.
Once the gruesome video of Lieutenant al Kassasbeh’s execution was released, Jordan was plunged into twin-emotions of mourning and rage. King Abdullah II cut short his trip to the US to return home to crowds of thousands: "The blood of martyr Moaz al-Kassasbeh will not be in vain and the response of Jordan and its army after what happened to our dear son will be severe," he said
Jordan also acted swiftly. Two al-Qaeda operatives, a woman Sajida al-Rishawi and Ziad al-Karbouli, both Iraqi nationals and on death row for years, were executed almost immediately. Jordanians, some questioning whether their country should be part of the anti-IS coalition, quickly rallied behind their government to demand continued and intensified bombing of Islamic State sites. These bombing raids have already killed 55 Islamic state fighters and allegedly, according to IS, a US hostage Kayla Mueller.
The world was quick to condemn the attack. The European Union, the United States, and even al Azhar in Cairo expressed their outrage.
The brutality of the Islamic State is nothing new. In the Jordanian case, however, it has had a stunning effect: helping to dry up potential support for the group within Jordan, bringing public unity of purpose behind their respected military, and allowing King Abdullah to lead his country together for a very common cause.
Jordan is also angry at being mocked and manipulated by the Islamic State - they offered a prisoner swap, including maintaining the ‘safety’ of Lt. Kassasbeh, while knowing all along he had already been murdered (when Jordan asked for proof that he was still alive, all they got was silence from IS). People on the Jordanian street have expressed anger and defiance towards the Islamic State, yet mourning and pride over the slain Lieutenant Kassasbeh. He became every Jordanians ‘son’ or ‘brother.’ One man said he was a ‘hero and martyr, and we are proud of him - we are all family now.’
The world needs a peaceful, stable Jordan. It has been the place of refuge for a least seven waves of refugees including 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel, 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars, and the current Syrian civil war. Despite being almost landlocked (it does have a port at Aqaba on the Red Sea) and resource poor, there has been stability and relative freedom - no doubt due to Western influence on the Hashemite dynasty. As one Jordanian Christian put it, God has blessed our country because we have been a refuge for the homeless. Should Jordan become destabilized - and IS would love to do it - the region and the world would feel the tremors.
Yet even this oasis of peace was struck by terrorism. In 2005 a Jordanian named Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal a-Khalaylah, known to the world as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, sent suicide bombers to luxury hotels in Amman, killing up to 60 people. Zarqawi was head of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a Sunni terrorist group that supported the resistance to the US-occupation and was renowned for videoed beheadings of westerners in orange jumpsuits. AQI was almost put out of business by the Bush military surge in 2007 but found new life through the Syrian civil war and morphed in 2013 into what we now know as the Islamic State.
Being sandwiched by some seasonally troubled neighbours, Jordan often chooses to act by quietly. Though it is possible the fiery rhetoric will give way to quiet action, it is equally possible that al-Kassasbeh’s death will cause Jordan to rise up, tribes uniting behind their king, to go from containment to confrontation. After all, IS already declared war against Jordan long before, even back to the 2005 hotel bombings. Failure to act strongly can be viewed as defeat.
As for the group of pilgrims, sitting on the bus? After some prayer, the all-clear was given in a matter of minutes. Yet, where ever they went, local Arabs expressed grief, shock, and outrage over the murder of the pilot. If the current momentum results in permanent national unity then Lieutenant Kassasbeh will not have died in vain.