The calculated savagery of the self-styled Islamic State's murder of Jordanian F-16 pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh will likely prove to be one of the most polarizing atrocities carried out by the group.
A video of his murder was posted online Tuesday and quickly generated widespread condemnation, from President Barack Obama to Jordan's King Abdullah. It's unclear exactly where and when the murder took place. A Jordanian army spokesman said Tuesday it happened a month ago, confirming skepticism over a series of recent deadlines set by IS in its negotiations with Jordan, which had demanded proof that the captive was still alive.
Lt. Kassasbeh was captured last December after his plane came down during a bombing raid over northern Syria, an IS stronghold. Jordan is an ally in the US-led coalition against the Sunni extremist group that emerged as a major force in Syria and Iraq in 2013.
The video of his death resembles a lavishly produced snuff film. It begins with Kassasbeh surrounded by graphics to make it look like he's in a video game about aerial bombing. We see him being forced to denounce Jordan's support for the air-war against IS, and calling for regional armies to be used to attack Jews and the "Nusayri forces ... of Bashar al-Assad." He's surrounded by flags of what the group calls the "Crusader coalition," the US flag central and largest among them.
"Nusayri" is a bigoted term of abuse among salafi jihadis like IS for Shiites and offshoot religions like the Alawite faith that Syria's President Assad belongs to.
The video then cuts to Kassasbeh in a small cage in a courtyard, presumably in Syria. He's been doused in gasoline and a small trench filled with the fuel runs from the cage to where his masked murderer stands yards away, holding a torch. Next, the masked man lights the fuel and over minutes the pilot's agonizing death is shown.
Citing juristic rulings
This was a death designed to achieve maximum horror and suffering, both for the victim and the audience. Tens of thousands have been killed by Sunni jihadis in Iraq and Syria in recent years. But the calculated torturing to death of a hostage, filmed by the perpetrators, rightly or wrongly has a special power.
When IS murdered Japanese hostage Kenji Goto last week, they only circulated pictures of his decapitated body. This contrasts with last year's uploading of videos of the beheadings of captured American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Most mainstream Muslim interpretations of the faith's early years believe that burning a captive alive is completely forbidden. In the video released Tuesday, IS tried to justify the act by a reference to Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th-century Muslim jurist who issued expansive rulings calling for the killing of anyone who cooperated with unjust rules. His teachings have long been cited by Al Qaeda and offshoots like IS, particularly for his ruling that Muslims who didn't practice the faith correctly could be declared non-Muslim and killed with impunity.
Still, the practical effect of the gory show, which echoes a low-budget horror movie, is already revulsion in the Middle East. The act itself would seem to narrow the potential pool of recruits to only the most sociopathic for whom such barbarism holds appeal.
And while in Jordan there have been stirrings of political discomfort over King Abdullah's participation in the air campaign against IS, news of the pilot's murder has hardened quickly into calls for revenge.
Last week Jordan said it was willing to release Sajida al-Rishawi, a would-be suicide bomber who survived a series of deadly attacks on Jordanian hotels in 2005, in exchange for Kassasbeh.
IS spurned that offer – and it's unclear if Kassasbeh was even still alive to make it possible. Now it seems that retaliation by Jordan is almost inevitable. Reporters in Amman say the execution of Rishawi, who worked with IS under its previous name, Al Qaeda in Iraq, has been moved up to dawn Wednesday. She's been on death row since 2006, and other jihadis convicted of murder are likely to join her, including some veterans of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
AQI was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, until he was killed in a US airstrike in Iraq in 2006. The core of what is now Islamic State, formerly ISIS, draws from the ranks of Zarqawi's Sunni insurgency in Iraq. The group has long wanted to topple the Jordanian monarchy, much as it does every other government in the region. But Jordan has seen little unrest in recent years, and many Jordanians felt that the country was looking for trouble it didn't need by participating directly in the air war against IS. That sentiment was expressed by Kasasbeh's parents and members of his influential clan multiple times before his murder.
But now Bedouin tribal traditions argue for revenge. And whatever restraints Abdullah's government was placing on handling supporters of IS inside the country are likely to be removed entirely. While the country has a limited ability to project force on its own, its intelligence services have a reputation for ruthlessness and effectiveness.
Randa Habib, who has lived in Amman for about 30 years, most of that time as bureau chief for Agence France Presse, captured the mood.
I can tell you for living in this country for years, Jordanians are not bloodthirsty, but today they are calling for blood #Kasasbeh— Randa HABIB (@RandaHabib) February 3, 2015
King Abdullah, who was visiting Washington Wednesday and was scheduled to meet with President Obama in the afternoon, issued a brief video statement on the murder, calling the IS jihadists cowards and deviants who have "no connection to Islam." He called for the Jordanian people to stand together against the group.
Speaking ahead of Abdullah's comments Jordanian military spokesman Gen. Mamduh al-Amir vowed retaliation. "The blood of the martyr will not have been shed in vain.... Vengeance will be proportional to this catastrophe that has struck Jordanians."