The latest demand by ISIS that a failed female suicide bomber be released is a reminder of the group’s ties to the Iraq war and al Qaeda in Iraq — but the request may be nothing more than a propaganda ploy, an expert told NBC News.
Sajida al-Rishawi, a would-be suicide bomber whose explosives failed to detonate during a 2005 attack on an Amman, Jordan, hotel, is the sister of a top commander under the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. The current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also served as a lieutenant under Zarqawi.
ISIS on Saturday released a video claiming it executed one of two Japanese hostages it had threatened, and, in the video, said it now wanted the release of al-Rishawi, who has been held by Jordan since 2005 — instead of its previously-demanded ransom of $200 million — or it will execute its second captive.
Japan's prime minister said the video was likely authentic, and President Barack Obama offered his condolences over the apparent execution.
"Those family and organizational links may indeed be significant in the call to free al-Rishawi,” said Karima Bennoune, professor of international law at the University of California, Davis, School of Law and the author of "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism."
"However, it is also likely that ISIS has sought to switch its ransom demands for propaganda purposes, to position itself — wrongly — as a defender of Muslim women," Bennoune said. Bennoune said the language used in the video, which refers to al-Rishawi as its "imprisoned sister," suggests propaganda.
In the video released Saturday, ISIS claimed it had executed Japanese captive Haruna Yukawa. In the video, fellow hostage Kenji Goto is heard talking and is seen in a still image holding a photograph of a beheaded Yukawa, and he says that he will be freed if Japan secures al-Rishawi’s release.
We will not cave in to terrorism and we will contribute to the international community in their counter-terrorist measures. That hasn't changed.
Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday did not directly say that the country was negotiating for al-Rishawi's release. "Things are currently moving as we speak, so I would like to refrain from commenting on this," he said in an interview with NHK in Japan.
"From the standpoint of placing priority on ensuring the safety of the individual, we are working on it as we continue to work closely with Jordan," he added. Abe condemned Yukawa's apparent murder as "an outrageous and unforgivable act of violence" and said it left him "speechless."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters at a Sunday press conference that, "we are doing everything in our power to ensure the release of the hostage," including working with Jordan.
"But at the same time, we will not cave in to terrorism and we will contribute to the international community in their counter-terrorist measures. That hasn't changed," he added.
Al-Rishawi tried to blow herself up during an attack on a wedding party at an Amman hotel in 2005, after her husband successfully detonated his explosives and killed nearly 40 people. She was convicted in 2006. Al-Rishawi is the brother of Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, who was once Zarqawi’s right hand man. Mubarak was killed in Fallujah. Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006.
ISIS threatened the lives of the two Japanese captives in a video released Tuesday, and gave the Japanese government 72 hours to pay a $200 million ransom. Based on the time that the video was released, the deadline expired at 12:50 a.m. E.T. on Friday.
The new video was very different than previous videos released by the terror group after it beheaded other captives.
Goto's mother, Junko Ishido, told NHK that in the purported message her son "seemed to be taking seriously what may be happening to him as well."
"I'm petrified," Ishido said. "He has children. I'm praying he will return soon, and that's all I want."
— with Arata Yamamoto
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.