A video released by Al-Furqan, a media arm of the Islamic State, showing the captured Jordanian Air Force pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh being burned alive in a cage was unthinkable in its ruthlessness, even for the extremist group.
The horrific killing sent a message — the Islamic State is raising the stakes in their brutal propaganda war.
Social media has become a battleground in today’s conflicts, offering a platform for both sides to drive agendas, curry favor, recruit followers, boast of victories, and instill terror in the hearts of opponents. And no other group is more adept at pushing propaganda than the Islamic State.
Despite the group’s bloody history, the 22-minute propaganda video showing the killing of al-Kasaesbeh, who was carrying out airstrikes when his F-16 went down in northeast Syria, was the most gruesome yet. Having a hostage from the US-led coalition campaign offered IS a unique opportunity to send a heavy-handed message, and they did.
The video surfaced on social media shortly after the Islamic State issued an ultimatum threatening to kill the pilot if the prisoner Sajida Reshawi was not released by Jordanian authorities and delivered to the Turkish-Syrian border by sunset on January 29. The complex high-definition footage, released on February 3, would have taken a substantial amount of time to script, stage, produce, and edit, indicating that the pilot was killed days, if not weeks, before January 29.
Jordanian State TV soon reported that al-Kasaesbeh was killed by Islamic State militants on January 3, at least a month before the propaganda video was released and shortly after he was captured, in late December. An account affiliated with a Raqqa-based group of anti-IS activists known as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently suggested that the pilot was actually killed on January 8. On that date, the account @alraqqawi tweeted that an “IS leader said they had killed the Jordanian pilot by burning.”
While the exact date of the filming could not be independently verified by Storyful, the video signaled that the hostage swap was a perverse charade designed by IS to escalate the theater around the pilot’s death.
As if to underline that fact, the media wing of the Islamic State in Raqqa — the group’s de-facto capital — released footage showing a public viewing of al-Kasaesbeh’s killing on a large outdoor screen in the town center. While the video played, an interviewer polled Raqqa residents about the killing. In one chilling interview, a young boy says that he was “very happy” and wishes there could be more pilots to be captured and burned.
Jordan received Islamic State’s message loud and clear.
King Abdullah II of Jordan vowed on February 4 to exact “earth-shattering” revenge in response to the grisly killing of al-Kasaesbeh. In swift retaliation, Jordan hanged Rishawi, a failed suicide bomber with ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq; and Ziad al-Karbouli, a lieutenant for the same branch of al-Qaeda, according to Petra news agency.
Within days Jordan had launched Operation Martyr Muath, releasing its own counter-propaganda footage of Jordanian F-16 fighter jets conducting airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. The video shows members of Jordan’s military scrawling messages to IS on bombs to be dropped in the mission. “From a brave Jordanian woman to you Baghdadi,” one message addressed to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi read. One pilot was pictured holding a sign that read, “Do not believe that God is unaware of the actions of the unjust.”
While Jordan did not report the locations targeted in airstrikes, Storyful was able to geolocate the aerial footage to Al Shadadi in Syria’s Hasakah province, a stronghold for IS militants.
An Islamic State-affiliated web forum posted photos of the same incident, which tallied with the location.
As Jordan entered its second day of airstrikes, the Islamic State released a statement that would prove to be yet another unexpected twist in its bizarre propaganda war. The Raqqa information office of the Islamic State released a photo set on February 6, announcing the death of 26-year-old American humanitarian worker Kayla Jean Mueller, who was taken captive in August 2013. The photo set was described as showing the aftermath of Jordanian airstrikes, which purportedly hit a building on the outskirts of Raqqa where Mueller was being held hostage.
In a statement released alongside the photos, IS claimed that the airstrikes were carried out at noon during Friday prayers and that no militants were injured. While the statement asserted that the strikes took place on Friday, the photos are dated to Thursday according to the Islamic calendar.
At the time, Jordan rejected the IS statement as “criminal propaganda.” On February 10, Mueller’s family released a statement confirming her death. According to reports, Islamic State militants sent an email, which included photographs of her corpse. The Mueller family also shared a letter written by Kayla last year, in which she wrote, “I have surrendered myself to our creator.”
At the time of writing, it was still unclear if Mueller had been killed in an airstrike or at the hands of the Islamic State.
In response to the news, President Barack Obama said that, “No matter how long it takes, the United States will find and bring to justice the terrorists who are responsible for Kayla’s captivity and death.” The president sent Congress a proposed joint resolution on February 11, asking for formal authorization to use military force against the Islamic State.
This tangled, ongoing exchange signals a disturbing escalation in “eye-for-an-eye” retaliation, much of which is playing out on social media. The momentum behind these tit-for-tat actions builds with each new propaganda video, photo set, or statement that surfaces — and now seems unlikely to stop.
“Jordan’s interests would still be better served by holding back and making a clear distinction between themselves and these criminals running around Syria,” Human Rights Watch’s representative in Amman, Adam Coogle, told the New York Times. “Today it’s hard to make that argument. People are calling for vengeance.”