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Jordan Considers Handing Over Prisoner For Hostage Pilot


The deadline passed today for when the self-proclaimed Islamic State or ISIS said it would kill two hostages, a Jordanian pilot who was flying bombing runs against ISIS and a Japanese journalist. And now the Jordanian government says it will consider handing over a notorious prisoner in a trade - a woman named Sajida al-Rishawi. ISIS says that if it doesn't receive that woman it will kill the hostages, and if it does, it would release the Japanese prisoner.

NPR's Alice Fordham joins us now. And Alice, what's happened today?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, first, Jordan released a carefully worded statement. It didn't mention the Japanese hostage, but it did say Jordan would release Sajida Rishawi in exchange for the pilot Moaz al Kasesbeh, who crashed over Syria about a month ago. Now that is raising ISIS a bit on what they offered in their audio recording yesterday which, as you say, is just that they wouldn't kill Kasesbeh if Rishawi were released. We've spoken to several people in Jordan including the family of the pilot, and it's clear the situation there is very tense as everyone waits to see what happens next. This - you know, this has really been a big issue there.

SIEGEL: Well, why has ISIS asked for a prisoner held in Jordan in exchange for a Japanese hostage?

FORDHAM: Right, it's confusing. Analysts think that the answer lies in looking at what ISIS wants. Really, there's not much Japan can do for them. They were never very likely to get this $200 million they initially demanded in exchange for two Japanese hostages. It seems they have already executed one, and perhaps they rethought their priorities and decided to leverage the remaining Japanese hostage to get a more achievable goal in a place much closer to home, Jordan.

SIEGEL: And what do they hope to actually gain closer to home?

FORDHAM: Well, Jordan is important because it's one of the few Arab countries that participate in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. It has borders with Iraq and with Syria where ISIS hold territory. And people think that for ISIS, having Jordan hand over a high-profile prisoner would show that a coalition member has been forced to do a deal with them, and it would have the secondary purpose of showing ISIS's support base that they don't forget their fighters even years later.

SIEGEL: Now, tell us about the prisoner who's being talked about here - the woman named Sajida al-Rishawi.

FORDHAM: Right. So Iraqi sources say that she's Iraqi. She's from Anbar province. She was arrested after attempting to be part of a series of suicide bombings in hotels in the Jordanian capital Amman in 2005 which killed dozens and dozens of people and left a deep mark on what's usually a pretty calm country. Of course, ISIS wasn't around then, but she was linked to their precursor, the regional Al-Qaida affiliate. She was convicted and sentenced to death, although there has been a long appeals process.

SIEGEL: Well, put us in the mind of Jordanian officials. We hear what's in it for ISIS. What's in it for them?

FORDHAM: Jordanian officials, I think, are in a very difficult position. They really took a risk in a way when they joined the coalition. Very few Arab countries did so, as I say, and it was somewhat controversial among the population. They are suspicious of the motives of the coalition in the region. They see this as not their war, not their problem. And so in order to keep the Jordanian population to some degree on side, they have to get this pilot back. If they don't, then it will be politically very difficult for them to stay in the coalition in terms of domestic politics. But because of regional dynamics - because of their relationship particularly with the United States and with Saudi Arabia, both of which are big patrons of Jordan which is a very poor country, they are under a lot of pressure to stay in the coalition.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Alice Fordham. Alice, thank you.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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