Feb 1, 2015 1:21 PM

Jordan committed to anti-IS coalition, despite hostage drama

The Associated Press

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) Jordan remains "as committed as ever" to a U.S.-led military coalition against the Islamic State group, the kingdom's foreign minister said Sunday, amid heightened fears for the life of a Jordanian fighter pilot held by the militants.

Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh spoke a day after another Islamic State hostage, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, was purportedly beheaded by the militants. The fate of the two captives had been linked but a video of Goto's purported slaying made no mention of the pilot.

The killing of 47-year-old Goto shocked Japan which until now had not been directly embroiled in the battle against extremists.

"I feel indignation over this immoral and heinous act of terrorism," said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In a phone call with Abe, Jordan's King Abdullah II condemned the killing as a "criminal act."

Japan responded to new threats from the militants by ordering tighter security at airports and at Japanese facilities overseas, including embassies and schools. Japan said it would not budge from its non-military support for fighting terrorism.

The failure to save Goto raised new concerns about the fate of the pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh. Jordan's government renewed an offer Sunday to trade Sajida al-Rishawi, an al-Qaida prisoner, for the pilot. Al-Rishawi, a failed suicide bomber, faces death by hanging in Jordan for her role in a 2005 hotel attack that killed 60 people.

The Islamic State group demanded her release last week, and in response Jordan offered to swap her for the pilot. But the militants didn't say at the time if they were considering such a deal.

An audio message last week, purportedly from the Islamic State group, only said the pilot would be killed if al-Rishawi was not released Thursday.

That deadline passed, with al-Rishawi remaining in custody, after Jordan said it cannot free her without proof that the pilot is alive.

Government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani said Sunday that "we are still ready to hand over" al-Rishawi in return for the pilot. However, Judeh, the foreign minister, said that "so far, we have seen no proof of life, which we have been asking for."

Judeh said Jordan, a staunch Western ally, is not second-guessing its participation in the military coalition over the hostage drama.

"We have said before, and we continue to say, that this is our fight and we are in this together for the long haul and we are as committed as ever," he told the CBS program "Face the Nation" by phone from Jordan.

The coalition has been attacking Islamic State targets from the air since September. The militants control about one-third each of Syria and Iraq which border Jordan.

Al-Kaseasbeh, 26, fell into the hands of the militants in December when his F-16 crashed near Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of the Islamic State group.

His capture has left Jordan with tough choices.

Jordan's king has portrayed the campaign against the extremists as a battle over values. In a statement carried by the official news agency Petra on Sunday, he called for "concerted international efforts against terrorism and extremism."

However, Jordan's participation in airstrikes against fellow Muslims is not popular among Jordanians. The hostage crisis has prompted more vocal criticism of the government's position, including from the pilot's family.

Such sentiments could intensify pressure on the government to dial back its role in the coalition, said David Schenker, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He said he expects the country to remain a primary base of air operations against the Islamic State group, but that the pilot's capture may "make the kingdom more hesitant to put their troops in harm's way."

Experts are divided over whether Jordan faces a greater threat from extremists outside its borders or from those within. In recent months, there have been signs of greater support for the Islamic State group's ideas among Jordan's young and poor.

Last year, the government intensified a crackdown on IS sympathizers and the al-Qaida branch in Syria.

Currently, about 220 Jordanians are in prison because of alleged ties to such groups, including 30 who are serving terms from three to five years, said Marwan Shehadeh, an expert on militant groups. The rest are awaiting trial on charges such as fighting in jihadi rebels ranks in Syria, incitement and recruiting, he said.


Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.


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