December 24, 2014

Downing of a Jordanian fighter aircraft and ISIS capture of the pilot

Caption: Urgent / Jordanian 1st lieutenant pilot Ma'az after
his aircraft was downed by an infrared [guided] missile

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claims to have downed a Royal Jordanian Air Force F-16 with an infrared guided missile (sarukh harari) today. The aircraft was conducting airstrikes on targets 11 kilometers east of the self-proclaimed ISIS capital city of al-Raqqah. ISIS has published photographs of the pilot being taken into custody - one is shown above. Arabic language media has identified the pilot as 27-year old 1st Lieutenant Ma'az Safi Yusif al-Kasasbah.

The RJAF has acknowledged the loss of the aircraft and the capture of the pilot, and is holding ISIS responsible for the safety of the pilot. The family of the flier has also confirmed that the pictures posted by ISIS on social media indeed show Ma'az al-Kasasbah, and that he is a pilot in the Jordanian air force. It is not clear if the aircraft was shot down or was lost due to a problem with the aircraft.

ISIS is in possession of hundreds of Russian-made and Chinese-made shoulder-fired infrared-guided missiles that the Islamist group has seized from both Syrian and Iraqi army units, as well as the Free Syrian Army. The missiles are capable of downing low-flying aircraft, including fighter aircraft. The Syrian air force has lost numerous helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to such missiles. The F-16 - which is flown by several countries who are members of the coalition, including the U.S. Air Force - is equipped with heat flares to defeat these systems, but they are not foolproof.

Today's loss of an aircraft - whether a shootdown or not - highlights the danger coalition pilots face every day, especially over Syria and near the ISIS stronghold of al-Raqqah. This danger is complicated by the fact that the Syrian Air Force is also conducting airstrikes in and around al-Raqqah. ISIS has concentrated much of its air defense weaponry near al-Raqqah. The risk of such events cannot be ignored.

ISIS now has a trophy - a coalition pilot, in this case an Arab and a Muslim. This creates a serious situation for the coalition, especially the Jordanians. The question is whether ISIS will use the pilot for potential leverage against the Hashemite Kingdom, or murder him in a grisly manner and publish the event on social media. ISIS has beheaded at least three Americans and several other nationalities in the recent past. An indication of how he might be treated is the description in Arabic, al-tiyar al-urduni al-murtad - "the apostate Jordanian pilot." Under Islamic law, apostasy is punishable by death.

Captured Arab military personnel - both Syrian and Iraqi - have been summarily murdered, often beheaded and the videos of the murders posted online. Given the location of the pilot's capture - deep in the heart of ISIS's territory, the chances of a successful rescue are extremely small. The next move is up to ISIS.

The Jordanians are a small country and will rally around their pilot and his family. In that vein, there have been at least seven Arabic-language Facebook community pages set up in solidarity with the captured pilot with more than 25,000 followers.

(Personal note: In the 1980's, I served as an adviser to the Jordanian Armed Forces. Some of the officers I worked with were RJAF pilots - fine officers. I have always felt a kinship with the Jordanian military and remain in touch with several of them. I am joining the "We are all Ma'az al-Kasasbah" community page.)