Jordan would swap a mass murderer for its ISIS-held pilot. Is that a mistake?
Jordan said today it's willing to release Sajida al-Rishawi, a would-be suicide bomber who participated in a 2005 attack that murdered 38 people at the Radisson Hotel in Amman, in exchange for a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot held by the so-called Islamic State since his F-16 went down over Syria in December.
It's not clear how advanced any negotiations are for a swap – the details of which would be tricky. Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said the government hadn't yet received "proof of life" on pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh.
The possible exchange – which might include Japanese IS hostage Kenji Goto – is being framed by many as giving into terrorism. In the US, the news comes amid debate over Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan who was released in exchange for five senior Taliban officials. The Pentagon said yesterday Bergdahl will be charged with desertion for walking off his Afghan post, which led to his five-year captivity.
But the principle of bringing soldiers home when you've sent them into harm's way is a powerful one.
In the case of Bergdahl, Obama and his advisers were convinced that the men swapped for Bergdahl – none of whom were ever charged with participating in attacks against the US, and some of whom have been part of reconciliation talks with Kabul – didn't a pose a serious risk to Americans.
In the case of Jordan, Ms. Rishawi is a figure both far more notorious, and far less powerful, than the Taliban five. Her husband detonated the bomb at a wedding party at the Radisson, killing guests as well as the fathers of both the bride and the groom. Had her suicide vest detonated, the gruesome toll would have been far higher. Her family was deeply involved with Al Qaeda in Iraq – the forerunner to the Islamic State – and the heinous nature of her crime was clear.
But aside from preempting a gruesome video of his pilot's death, Jordan's King Abdullah has much to gain domestically by sending a message he'll do what he can to get his pilots and soldiers back. Jordanian pilots typically come from influential families (the Kasasbehs have repeatedly been referred to as such in press supports), and the extended clan has held rallies demanding Abdullah do everything he can to secure the pilot's release and insisting that his choice to participate in the US-led air campaign against IS was not their choice.
There's also strong opposition to Jordan's ongoing involvement in the air war in Syria, leaving Abdullah to walk a political tight-rope. Though his country is close to the US and has relied on US aid since signing a peace deal with Israel in 1994 – joining Egypt as the only two Arab states to make a formal peace with the Jewish state – he also has to manage public anger at his close ties to both America and Israel.
Being the king who saved Kasasbeh is one thing, being the king who sent him to die in an unpopular war quite another.
And what does Abdullah lose by releasing Rishawi?
Some argue that he'd be conceding that terrorism directed at Jordan – and by extension, its allies – works. But Rishawi was willing to blow herself up in 2005, as her co-conspirators all successfully did. The risk of a death sentence, given to Rishawi in 2006 but not yet carried out, seems an unlikely deterrent to such people.
And she is no Carlos the Jackal, someone likely to be a planner or instrument of malevolence against Jordan again. In that respect it can be argued that trading her rather than paying a ransom, for instance, is a better option. Ransoms paid to groups like IS make them materially stronger.
The principle of never negotiating with "terrorists" is one thing. But countries like the US and Israel have made such deals in exchange for captive soldiers. These aren't journalists or aid workers or adventurers who made their own choices and ended up kidnapped. These are soldiers sent by governments, by whole nations, into conflict.
In 2011, Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, all of whom widely viewed by the Israeli public as "terrorists," in exchange for Sgt. Gilad Shalit, who'd been held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip for five years. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet voted 26-3 in favor of the swap, and he explained the decision at the time:
“With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region, I don’t know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal — or any deal at all for that matter ... this is a window of opportunity that might have been missed.”
Rishawi, a 50-year-old woman sent to live out her days in areas IS controls, in exchange for Kasasbeh, seems cheap compared to that price. And long-term, the Islamic State's goal will remain the same: To do as much damage to governments like Jordan's it can, in pursuit of its dream of one day taking over the region.
King Abdullah knows that, and his calculations, like those of his father Hussein before him, will be to hold on to his tiny country and maintain security as best he can, putting internal security first and foremost.