The deadline that the self-styled Islamic State set for the murder of captive Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh came and went hours ago, with no word on his fate.
IS has demanded the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman affiliated with its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), who participated in the murder of 58 people in a series of hotel bombings in Amman in 2005. Most of the victims were guests celebrating a wedding at the Radisson Hotel.
The Sunni Muslim militant group has implied that it might release Japanese hostage Kenji Goto if Rishawi is released. Jordan has said it is willing to swap Ms. Rishawi for Kasasbeh. But Jordanian officials say the group has steadfastly refused to provide proof that Lt. Kasasbeh remains alive.
The militants shifting demands – it first wanted $200 million from Japan to release Goto and Haruna Yukawa before turning its attention to Rishawi – raise questions about what their true intentions are, and even whether Kasasbeh is still alive.
When Japan didn't buckle on the original ransom demand the group murdered Mr. Yukawa, but spared Goto, not following through on its threat to murder both. They had also set a deadline for killing Kasasbeh yesterday, but revised their stand.
Kasasbeh hasn’t been seen since he was used in an IS propaganda video shortly after his F-16 fighter jet crashed in Syria in December. The possibility that he's already been killed can't be ignored – nor can the chance that IS is engineering a situation with impossible demands to try to pin the responsibility for murdering its hostages on Jordan's King Abdullah.
Though Jordan is willing to trade for Rishawi, IS is only willing to offer Goto for her. "Her for me – a straight exchange,” said a voice on an IS audiotape released yesterday, presented as being Goto's. “Any more delays by the Jordanian government will mean they are responsible for the death of their pilot, which will then be followed by mine."
While it may seem absurd that responsibility for beheadings by IS could be spread to Jordan, it could play that way in some corners of the country.
IS hates the Hashemite Kingdom, much as its forerunner AQI did, and there are deep reservoirs of potential support to tap in Jordan. The founder of AQI, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was from the Jordanian industrial town of Zarqa, and many Jordanians have been uncomfortable, to say the least, with the country's role in the air campaign the US is leading against IS in Syria.
Any discontent among Jordan's citizens stirred by all this would be viewed as a victory by IS, which is determined to ultimately dominate the region.
But given that Jordan is not responsible for a Japanese civilian – and that IS has signaled it wants Rishawi released – the country would be foolish to give up one of its only pieces of leverage to save Kasasbeh's life. It would be surprising if that hadn't occurred to whoever is running the IS side of this ugly dance.
So, making demands Jordan finds impossible to meet may suit the group right down to the ground. Actually agreeing to a swap for Kasasbeh would be popular in Jordan, but failure to get him back would be quite the opposite. An information campaign to stain Abdullah with some of the responsibility for their murder of the pilot could well be what this is about.
"I firmly ask whomever has sent Muath to fight outside the borders of Jordan, on a mission unrelated to us, to make strong efforts to bring back Muath," Kasasbeh's father, Safi, told reporters on Tuesday. He added that Goto's safety is Japan's concern. This evening in Jordan, Safi al-Kasasbeh, again begged for his son's life. "We plead to you to release our son, the son of all Jordanians ... in the name of Jordanian tribes and Palestinian tribes, release him."
Goto's wife, Rinko, issued a statement from Japan today pleading for both men's lives.
Another complication is recent setbacks for IS in Syria. Kurdish forces drove IS fighters out of the Turkish boarder city of Kobane earlier this week and the group is suffering from frequent US-led airstrikes.
Yesterday alone, 13 airstrikes hit IS positions around Kobane. And in place of the elaborate video productions the group has used to issue its threats and demands, recent statements have come via audio only. It's quite possible that Goto and Kasasbeh, if they're even being held together, are in a location that's extremely dangerous for their IS captors to poke their heads up from.