January 29, 2015

Jordan to exchange suicide bomber for its pilot - professional opinion and personal comment

Sajidah al-Rishawi and 1st Lt Mu'az al-Kasasbah

Jordan has agreed to release a convicted suicide bomber to the group calling itself the Islamic State or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in exchange for the release of a Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) pilot who was captured by ISIS in Syria after his jet went down during a bombing mission near the self-proclaimed ISIS capital of al-Raqqah. That exchange was supposed to take place on the Turkish-Syrian border before sunset on January 29.

That deadline passed as the Jordanians asked for proof that 1st Lt Mu'az al-Kasasbah is still alive. See my earlier article on the December 24, 2014 on the downing of the Jordanian F-16, Downing of a Jordanian fighter aircraft and ISIS capture of the pilot.

Jordan's agreement is a stark reversal of Jordan’s normally hardline refusal to negotiate with terrorists, and could set a precedent for future concessions to terrorist organizations. I understand the position of Jordanian King 'Abdullah II - the Kasabah family is large and influential in the kingdom. The Kasasbahs have been long-time supporters of the Hashemite dynasty that has ruled the country since its founding in the aftermath of World War One.

Before we cast stones at Jordan's seeming acquiescence to ISIS, we should remember that just last year, the United States made a deal with the Taliban in which it released five senior Taliban officials from the detention center in Guantanamo in exchange for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who many believe deserted his post in Afghanistan. See my article on this from June, The Bowe Bergdahl exchange - a mixed blessing.

As I said, I understand King 'Abdullah's position - I can only imagine the pressure he is under from not only the Kasasbah family, but from popular demonstrations in the kingdom against Jordanian involvement in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS.

While many in the kingdom - those demonstrating for sure - believe that this is not Jordan's fight, most rational thinkers understand that Jordan is probably next on the agenda for ISIS. ISIS fighters have already skirmished with Jordanian army units on the border with Iraq.

A major question is what will Jordan's role be in the coalition after this issue is resolved, one way or the other? If Jordan withdraws from active participation in the coalition - its stance since the loss of the F-16 and capture of Lt. al-Kasasbah - will they still allow coalition access to Jordanian air bases, a key to effective air operations against ISIS in Syria?

In my professional opinion, Jordan is making a mistake in changing its position in dealing with ISIS. That said, I understand why they are willing to do so, although they may regret it later. I was also against the U.S. (read President Obama) decision to release five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for a likely deserter.

Now to my personal comments. I realize that I am supposed to be a Middle East analyst, and a military analyst - I am paid for my professional opinions. However, I am going to diverge here for a few minutes and talk about my personal opinion - please bear with me.

In the mid-1990s, I was an adviser to the Jordan Armed Forces. While many of the details of that assignment remain classified, suffice it to say that I gained a healthy respect for my colleagues in the storied "Arab Legion" (the Jordanian Army) and the RJAF. They are professionals with whom I am proud to have served.

The suicide bomber the Jordanians have agreed to release is Sajidah al-Rishawi. She is originally an Iraqi and was recruited to become a suicide bomber by a Jordanian national who was the head of al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI), Abu Musa'ib al-Zarqawi. As we all know, AQI is the forerunner of ISIS. The couple was assigned to detonate explosive vests at the Raddison Hotel in Amman, Jordan. While attempting to do just that on November 9, 2005, her vest failed. Her accomplice/husband pushed her aside and detonated his vest - Sajidah survived.

The attack on the Radisson - where I have spent many nights - was part of a coordinated attack on three Amman hotels frequented by foreigners and wealthy Jordanians. The other attacks took place at the Grand Hyatt and the Days Inn.

It is the attack at the Grand Hyatt - where I have also stayed - that is germane. A suicide bomber named Rawad Jasim Muhammad 'Abid, operating in collaboration with Sajidah al-Rishawi and her husband, detonated his explosive vest, killed seven hotel employees and Syrian-American movie producer Moustapha Akkad (Mustafa al-'Aqad), along with his 34 year-old daughter, Rima.

Moustapha Akkad was born in Aleppo, Syria and emigrated to the United States with his family. He ended up as a Hollywood filmmaker, producing "The Message" and "Lion of the Desert," both starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Pappas. His younger brother Usamah - known to those of us who know him as Sam - ended up as an instructor of the Arabic language at the Defense Language Institute (DLI), located at the Presidio of Monterey, California. I was among Sam's many Arabic language students there and later got to know Sam much better when I served on the faculty of the Arabic department at DLI in the late 1970s.

In 2005, I called Sam and offered my condolences, but what really can you say? We have had numerous conversations since then on the current state of affairs in the region. Until today Sajidah al-Rishawi, one member of the conspiracy that ended with Sam's brother's death, was in custody and sentenced by a Jordanian military court to death by hanging and remained on death row.

I get the Jordanian government's decision to exchange her for their pilot. I almost understand (but still disagree with) the Obama Administration's agreement to release five senior Taliban officials for a likely deserter.

I get it, but I don't like it - it's personal.