Jordan prepared to swap terrorist convict for pilot captured by Islamic State

Jordan is prepared to free an Iraqi woman it sentenced to death in exchange for a Jordanian pilot who was captured by the Islamic State militant group after his F-16 crashed in Syria, a government spokesman in Amman said Wednesday.

Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad al-Momani said the kingdom was ready to release Sajida al-Rishawi, who was convicted of involvement in a 2005 terrorist attack in Amman that killed 60 people, if the pilot, Lt. Muath Safi al-Kaseasbeh, is released unharmed.

Momani made no mention of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, who is also being held by the Islamic State, an al-Qaeda offshoot that holds territory in Syria and Iraq and that is also known as ISIS or ISIL.

In Tokyo, Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, pleaded with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to save her son, and Japanese news media were abuzz with rumors that Goto would be included in the swap.

An exchange of prisoners would be a first for the Islamic State, which has beheaded a number of captives including U.S. and other Western journalists and aid workers. Previously, the group had reportedly released European captives in exchange for ransom.

Efforts to release the pilot and the journalist gained urgency late Tuesday with a purported online ultimatum that claimed the Islamic State would kill both hostages within 24 hours if the Iraqi woman was not freed, the Associated Press reported.

Such a swap would seemingly contradict Jordan’s hard-line stand against Islamist militants and risk alienating Washington, which opposes negotiating with terrorists.

But Jordan is under pressure domestically to obtain the release of Kaseasbeh, and the government is reportedly engaged in indirect talks with the militants through religious and tribal leaders in Iraq, AP reported.

Rishawi was captured by Jordanian authorities after a suicide belt she wore failed to detonate during an attack with her husband on the Radisson Hotel in Amman in November 2005. Her husband was killed in the blast, which occurred in the midst of a wedding in the hotel attended by women and children. She was sentenced to death in September 2006.

Although Rishawi is little known outside Jordan, the Islamic State wants to obtain her release apparently because she is the sister of a former close aide to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a ruthless Jordanian terrorist leader whose group, called al-Qaeda in Iraq, battled U.S. forces there. The group eventually morphed into the organization now called the Islamic State. Zarqawi, whose real name was Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq in 2006 at age 39.

Kaseasbeh, 26, was captured after his warplane crashed during a bombing run over Syria as part of airstrikes carried out by a U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. The militants claimed to have shot down his F-16, but the U.S. Central Command said the incident “was an aircraft crash and not the result of enemy action.”

The pilot ejected from the plane and was seized by militants near the north-central Syrian city of Raqqa, an Islamic State stronghold. Kaseasbeh was the first known military member of the coalition to be captured by the Islamic state since the airstrikes began last summer.

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