We have heard the men of Islamic State, or ISIS, say many outrageous things in front of the cameras they so love, despite their otherwise antediluvian worldview. But it was only this past week when - in a video made not by them but about them - that we heard ISIS fighters, their faces masked, for the first time use the word insihab: withdrawal. They were withdrawing from Kobani, a Syrian city on the border with Turkey, where they’ve been doing battle with Kurdish rebels since September.
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Back then, it looked like the Kurdish fighters - the YPG - were about to lose the city to ISIS, which seemed on the verge of chalking up another victory following its sweeping territorial gains over the summer. In several videos that have surfaced over the past week, ISIS admitted that it had to withdraw in the face of relentless aerial bombardments by U.S.-led coalition forces backing the Kurdish fighters.
The word "insihab" has a ring of humiliation to it, an acknowledgment of weakness and defeat any way you interpret it. So the only way to turn it to one’s advantage is to point out, as some ISIS fighters did, that it was a temporary withdrawal imposed by outside forces, namely America and its allies - a sign to its many supporters that this was not a fair fight, but one imposed by infidels in the West.
It is no surprise, then, that ISIS would turn around and try to hurt those allies in a fundamental way, and broadcast to the world that ISIS is very much still in its game. The easiest tools for getting that message across: two Japanese men and a Jordanian pilot, all from countries which have signed up to be part of the coalition against ISIS.
There has been communications between Jordan and ISIS over the possible exchange of Muath al-Kasaesbeh, a Jordanian pilot shot down in Syria last December, for Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman who has been on death row in Jordan for the past 10 years for her role in a series of bombings at hotels in Jordan, along with another Iraqi held on terrorism charges in Jordan. Jordan first demanded a sign that Kasaesbeh was still alive, which never came. It was ultimately more appealing in ISIS' eyes to kill Kasaesbeh for what they perceive as treachery: he was a fellow Sunni Muslim going on bombing missions in the service of the Americans.
And so ISIS brought its selfie-era videos to a sick new low. They put Kasaesbeh in an iron cage and set it on fire, and filmed the entire 22 minutes of his cruel demise. What they also enflamed beyond expectation is anger in Jordan, which now enters the war against ISIS in a more active way than before. On Wednesday, King Abdullah II said he would pursue ISIS relentlessly, a turnaround for a country that largely hoped to stay out of the war on its borders even while giving quiet support at the request of the Obama administration.
“We will be on the lookout for these criminals, and we will hit them in their own homes,” Abdullah said in quotes, according to the state news agency Petra. “We are fighting this war to protect our faith, values and our humanitarian principles. Our fight will be relentless."
In addition to its new resolve to fight ISIS, which has been breathing down Jordan’s neck for some time, Jordan executed al-Rishawi and Zeyad al-Karboli - another Iraqi it was holding in connection to terrorist offenses.
The anger at ISIS over this particularly gruesome stunt has spread far beyond Jordan, and is being felt across the Arab world. From Egypt to Qatar, senior politicians and Muslim clerics have condemned the killing and said that it was inhumane and un-Islamic.
“Something like this could really backfire in terms of their propaganda, because sympathies have been pouring in for all over the Arab world,” says Aliza Marcus, a Washington-based expert on the region and the author of the book “Blood and Belief: the PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.” She adds, “In that sense, it reminds the groups fighting against ISIS that this is not just about territory, it’s about decency.”
Of course, in ISIS’ own jihadist circles, the fact that Kasaesbeh was flying over Syria as part of coalition airstrikes is reason enough for a death sentence. Moreover, ISIS wanted to make a show of Kasaesbeh’s death as a kind of warning to other Muslims who would dare cooperate with the West. The UAE, according to a Reuters report, withdrew from the air campaign after Kasaesbeh was captured in December, fearing for their pilots.
ISIS gave Jordan and the rest of the world the impression that Kasaesbeh was tradable, and why not? They might have managed to get the two Iraqis on death row released. In the meantime, it’s been reported that Kasaesbeh was killed on January 3, and if so, ISIS has had fun playing Jordan, which showed willingness to exchange the prisoners despite such trades being frowned on by the U.S. and U.K.
But when the word insihab went reverberating across the Middle East, broadcasting a suddenly weakened ISIS, it was time to trot out the trump card ISIS had up its sleeve – another high-definition execution.