Breaking News Emails
As Jordan mourns the young pilot who was burned alive by ISIS, questions are mounting over what the government knew about the fate of Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh — and more important, when.
Rumors of al-Kasasbeh's death have been circulating for weeks.
State media reported on Tuesday that al-Kasasbeh was killed on Jan. 3 — which could suggest Jordan knew its negotiations weeks later for the pilot's release would be for nought. It would also indicate that ISIS was bluffing — and never had any intention to spare the pilot's life.
There are some in Jordan who even believe the government was already aware of al-Kasasbeh's death before the video of his murder emerged Tuesday — and thus want to know why that information wasn't shared with the public from the beginning.
Many, like Weam Marrar, are angry.
"The government made mistakes — they didn't tell the pilot's family," Marrar said from outside of the al-Kasasbehs' home, where she'd come to pay condolences. "We are used to the government not telling the truth — as always. We need an honest government."
Breaking News Emails
Did Jordan know the pilot was dead all along and try to embarrass ISIS by calling their bluff about a prisoner swap? Or was it that they lacked the certainty to confirm what has amounted to a national trauma?
"It's very, very curious," said Charlie Winter, a researcher for Quilliam, a London-based research and policy organization that studies extremist organizations. "There's so many indications that he was killed ages ago."
The main reason is probably that the intelligence around his death was not rock solid — or solid enough — to come out with a confirmation.
"If they did know then I don’t think they can have known for certain and that's the only reason that would have stopped them from saying anything officially," Winter said. "Imagine if they'd come forward and said he was already dead and then a video had come out with him saying, 'You've abandoned me.'"
He said that explains why instead the government made numerous public professions that prisoner-swap negotiations were underway and even on the table — as a way to keep a lifeline open.
A side consequence, meanwhile, was heaping more pressure on ISIS.
"It maximized coverage of it, which meant it would maximize condemnation of it," Winter said. "That means, in turn, it would maximize the spectrum of a response that Jordan and the coalition could have."
The coalition and its pilots have long been a fixation of ISIS. More than a month before al-Kasasbeh was captured, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself criticized the "effeminate pilots from the soldiers of the Gulf rulers" in a Nov. 13 audio message, calling their participation in the U.S.-led coalition "a media farce."
ISIS supporters went wild once al-Kasasbeh was captured on Dec. 24, celebrating and calling for the pilot's execution. They launched a hashtag on Twitter that translated to "We All Want the Slaughter of Mu'ath," and jihadists on social media brainstormed creative ways to kill him — from beheading to harvesting his organs to even shooting him out of a canon across the border into Jordan.
As early as Jan. 8, tweets suggested the pilot had met a fiery end.
"A group of ISIS members in #Raqqa are talking among them enthusiastically about the execution of Jordanian pilot…who was burned to death by #ISIS," one activist account, @raqqa_mcr, tweeted.
Still, though, there was no confirmation — and al-Kasasbeh's family pleaded for his release.
Meanwhile, a video released on Jan. 24 by ISIS of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto said that countryman and fellow hostage Haruna Yakawa had been killed and that the militants were demanding the release of a prisoner — would-be suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi. That brought Jordan to the forefront of hostage negotiations, as al-Rishawi was on Jordan's death row for years.
A subsequent video — posted on Jan. 27 — purportedly featured Goto saying that he and the Jordanian pilot would be killed if al-Rishawi was not freed within 24 hours.
"I only have 24 hours left to live, and the pilot has even less," he said in the recording.
But Jordan demanded proof of life — a move that now suggests there may already have been suspicions the hostages were dead — and the negotiations stalled.
“Clearly, Jordan knew more than they were letting on, and kept demanding proof of life for the pilot," said Evan Kohlman of Flashpoint Partners, a security firm and NBC News intelligence consultant. "Proof of life is typically something you see in cases of hostages who have been held incommunicado for months or years, not necessarily someone who has been held captive for two weeks.”
When ISIS released a video on Jan. 31 purporting to show the beheading of Goto, no mention was made of the pilot — setting off alarm bells.
It was only on Tuesday that the new video emerged — and with it further clues that perhaps all of the negotiations and tactics had been a ruse.
An interview with al-Kasasbeh which appeared in ISIS' Dabiq magazine — released on Dec. 30 — featured an image of the pilot in an orange jumpsuit and quotes about the U.S.-led coalition's efforts. That same jumpsuit — and the same words — appeared in the video showing al-Kasasbeh's purported murder.
This time, however, the words were on camera — al-Kasasbeh speaks from a table with a noticeable black eye. When he is shown from a cage before being set alight, he has the same black eye — which suggests the murder was filmed shortly after the interview.
"The fact that his black eye was still in a similar stage of bruising fairly clearly shows that he was killed shortly after when they released the interview," according to Winter.
Then there was a document — allegedly from the "Research and Fatwa Committee" — that appeared to legitimize the use of death-by-fire as punishment and was circulated on Twitter on Tuesday.
The document — with an ISIS logo and seal — could not be independently verified by Flashpoint Partners. But Flashpoint said it appeared to have been distributed by locals justifying the burning of the Jordanian pilot.
The document — with a date on the Hijri calendar corresponding to Jan. 20, 2015 — says that there is not an absolute prohibition on fire as a mortal punishment.
"So it would seem that the decision to kill the pilot was made at least two weeks ago," according to Flashpoint's Kohlman.
To observers, it was long clear that ISIS would never let the pilot live. Doing so would risk upsetting the ranks, who had called so vocally and voraciously for his murder, and essentially violate the group's ideals.
So why, then, the lag in releasing the video? Experts say the latest release featuring al-Kasasbeh's murder was expertly edited and produced — meaning it would have taken a lot of time to put together.
"They took their sweet time to produce a very high-quality video to bring the message home that we're going on every single PR platform to make our message clear, and our message is: just as you treat us, we shall treat you," Flashpoint's Laith Alkhouri added.
Moufaq Khatib of NBC News contributed to this report.