With A Son Missing, Family Questions Jordan's Mission Against ISIS

Jan 8, 2015
Originally published on January 9, 2015 7:13 am

In Jordan, the talk these days centers on the fate of the Jordanian pilot who was captured by the self-styled Islamic State after his plane crashed in Syria on Christmas Eve.

Little is known about the condition of Moath al-Kasasbeh since the extremists tweeted pictures of him, bloody and bewildered, after the crash.

He was participating in the U.S.-led coalition's bombing raids against the self-styled Islamic State, or ISIS. The militants who captured him also published an "interview" with him in one of their online propaganda magazines.

The family say they know nothing more, not even whether he is still alive.

"I am proud of my son for being a member of the Jordanian Royal Airforce," says Moath's mother, Saafia al-Kasabeh. "But I am very pained about the incident — that my son should be taken as a prisoner of war, despite his young age."

Moath al-Kasasbeh's father, Safi, is a sheikh of the Kasasbeh tribe, and as a retired education professor he speaks thoughtfully and with control. He described his son, who was married five months ago, as a devout Muslim who with his parents has made the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

News of the downed plane came like a thunderbolt, al-Kasabeh says.

"I was very, very panicked and very, very sad," he says. "I was on the verge of a breakdown."

And he wasn't just shocked, but angry. Safi al-Kasasbeh says there's no way his son should have been bombing Syria in the first place.

Safi al-Kasasbeh says he knows Jordan has a long-standing relationship with the U.S. and that its economy depends on American aid, but that Jordan shouldn't be assisting in attacks on fellow Sunni Muslims. These people are our sons, he says, our brothers.

"I wasn't OK with it at all. And all Jordanians strongly condemn our participation in the coalition," he says. "Our army is for defending Jordan. It's not supposed to spread throughout the world like American forces."

Jordan is a rarity in the Middle East — a country accustomed to stability and peace — and the capture has shaken the country deeply. Many there privately express misgivings about involvement in a conflict that some perceive as an American-led attack on Muslim Arabs.

Analysts say these doubts — coming so publicly from a traditional, tribal family, that typically would be loyal to the king and demographically represents the bedrock of the armed forces — present a problem for King Abdullah as he tries to satisfy both internal opinion and the U.S.

If that popular opinion calcifies, analysts and diplomats say it could undermine the monarch's enthusiastic support for the U.S. action against the Islamic State and Jordan's role as a key partner in those efforts — a turn that becomes much more likely if the Islamic State fulfills its threats to kill the pilot.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The small Middle Eastern kingdom of Jordan has long been a loyal ally of the United States. President Obama speaks effusively about his friendship with King Abdullah. He's a key Arab ally in the U.S.-led coalition against the self-styled Islamic State, or ISIS, but Jordan is now focused on the fate of the Jordanian pilot recently captured in Syria. NPR's Alice Fordham spoke with his relatives, whose statements questioning the pilot's mission are ringing through the kingdom.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Talk of Moath al-Kasasbeh, the pilot captured by ISIS on Christmas Eve after his plane crashed in Syria, dominates the media in Jordan - a rare Middle Eastern country accustomed to stability and peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Moath al-Kasasbeh (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: On the radio, hosts pledge their support. Little is known of the pilot's fate since the extremists tweeted pictures of him, bloody and bewildered, after the crash. The radio hosts wish that he come safely home. That home is here, nestled in hilly, tribal heartland two hours south of the capital, Amman.

SAAFIA AL-KASASBEH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: On a bleak, windy day with snow flurrying around the olive trees, the pilot's parents welcome me in the mountain village of Aie. His father, Safi, is a sheikh of the Kasasbeh tribe, a retired education professor. His mother, Saafia, is a retired teacher. Their elegant parlor is stiff and formal, and it's so cold we all keep our coats on as they tell me about their son.

SAAFIA AL-KASASBEH: (Through interpreter) Of course, I'm proud of my son for being a member of the Jordanian Royal Air Force, but I'm very pained about the incident.

FORDHAM: The 26-year-old was married five months ago. A devout Muslim, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca with his parents. News of the downed plane came like a thunderbolt, says his father.

SAFI AL-KASASBEH: (Through interpreter) I was very, very panicked and very, very sad. I was on the verge of a breakdown.

FORDHAM: And not just shocked - angry.

SAFI AL-KASASBEH: (Through interpreter) Yes, I'm proud that my sons are serving in the armed forces in order to defend the homeland, but only to defend the homeland.

FORDHAM: He says there's no way his son should have been bombing Syria in the first place. Jordan has a long-standing relationship with the U.S. and its economy depends on American aid. So, he reckons, that's why Jordan's in the coalition, but he says he hated it from the outset.

SAFI AL-KASASBEH: (Through interpreter) I wasn't OK with it at all and all Jordanians strongly condemn our participation in the coalition.

FORDHAM: A big part of his problem is that the airstrikes are striking Sunni Muslims like them. These people are our sons, our brothers he says.

SAFI AL-KASASBEH: (Through interpreter) Our army is for defending Jordan. It's not supposed to spread throughout the world like American forces.

FORDHAM: Back in the capital, Amman, I meet the pilot's brother Jawad.

J. AL-KASASBEH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He himself was in the Jordanian Air Force and served in the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan where he says he too was confused about why Jordan was battling fellow Muslims. He and the other relatives speak carefully. They know the people holding Moath could be hearing them. They don't even know if he's still alive. But analysts say these doubts coming so publicly from loyalists to the King and the armed forces present a problem for the country's leader as he tries to satisfy internal opinion and his U.S. allies - a problem which will get much bigger if ISIS fulfill their threats to kill the pilot. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Amman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.