January 30, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Hostage Strategy

• The still-unresolved hostage situation involving Jordan, Japan, and the Islamic State is unlike any of the group’s previous kidnappings

• Jordan is in a precarious position, as it seeks the release of one of its citizens—a national hero who comes from a prominent tribe—while not wanting to free one of the perpetrators of the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history

• By demanding the release of failed suicide-bomber Sajida al-Rishawi from Jordanian custody, the Islamic State is trying to elevate itself to the status of negotiating nation-state, and weaken and embarrass a vital member of the coalition seeking its destruction

• In a striking difference with previous Islamic State hostage situations, current circumstances provide a chance for the group to bolster its standing in the vital Iraqi province of al-Anbar—where al-Rishawi is from—and perhaps slightly lessen tribal pressure on the group

• The issue is causing tensions between the Iraqi-born leadership of the Islamic State, who want to make the exchange, and a small faction of primarily Saudi fighters, who want to execute the Jordanian pilot for bombing the group.


As much as anything, the Islamic State craves legitimacy. It wishes to be seen by others as it sees itself, as the true Caliphate and equal to other nation-states. This, and other factors, might explain the marked difference between the ongoing hostage negotiations between the Islamic State, Jordan, and Japan, and the group’s previous hostage situations. The plight of Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the captured Jordanian F-16 pilot, presents the group with a unique opportunity to elevate itself, however marginally, by negotiating with a country which has a long connection to the group, Jordan.

The pilot’s family is quite influential in Jordan, particularly in the military, which is the most respected of all Jordanian institutions. There is tremendous pressure on the Jordanian government to secure his release, as well as that of the Japanese hostage, Kenji Goto. Jordan is one of the most vital countries in the international anti-Islamic State coalition, yet its participation isn’t deeply popular across the country. Adding to the tension is the prisoner whom the Islamic State has demanded in exchange for not harming al-Kasasbeh: Sajida al-Rishawi.

Only by a faulty trigger mechanism did al-Rishawi not join her husband-and-fellow-suicide-bomber in death at the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman in 2005, part of the worst terrorist attack ever on Jordanian soil. Al-Rishawi’s family had long ties with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor group to the Islamic State. She is a direct link between the group’s perceived previous glory and its current heights, and a possible way, given her family’s influence in Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, to lessen tribal pressure against the group in that province. Her release, which the Jordanian government has agreed to—pending proof that al-Kasasbeh is alive and unharmed, and subsequently released—would be a tremendous public relations victory for a group badly in need of regaining momentum. That Jordan, which has a long and distinguished record of fighting terrorism and extremism, has agreed to this exchange shows just how important it views the return of al-Kasasbeh.

The issue of what to do with the Jordanian hostage has apparently created a small rift in the Islamic State, as the Iraqi-born senior leadership wants to make the exchange as it fits their strategic interests, while a small faction of primarily Saudi and Gulf Arab fighters want to execute the pilot for the crime of bombing Islamic State personnel. This small group, led by Abu Talah al-Kuwaiti, reportedly split from the group over the issue, which highlights how difficult it is for the group to manage its diverse membership of violent extremists, regardless of their shared ideology. Foreign fighters are frequently more hyper-violent than those fighters with ties to the local environment, and they infrequently occupy positions of leadership in the Islamic State, meaning they care less about strategy and more about visceral messaging and impact.

It is unknown but unlikely whether or not future hostage situations will play out as this one, given the unique status of the Jordanian hostage, as well as the shared border and history between the two parties. The Islamic State might believe that its barbaric beheading videos of 2014 led to this possible breakthrough, in that it’s shown resolve and willingness to kill for no reason. The group might see this as affirmation of its preference for the ‘blade’ over the ‘bullet, a long-running disagreement between it and al-Qaeda over the ‘spectacle’ of death that the Islamic State (and AQI previously) revel in, while al-Qaeda prefers simpler methods of murder, but murder nonetheless. In its quest for legitimacy, the Islamic State will seek every opportunity to elevate itself and weaken its opponents, while staying true to its violent nature.


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