The barbaric, elaborately stage-managed video that showed Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh being burned alive was a calculated move by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to weaken the resolve of Jordan and other Sunni Arab powers that have joined the U.S.-led coalition against the terror group. But the early signs indicate the video, which may have been shot a month ago, has had the opposite result, creating a significant backlash from Sunnis in the region.
Spreading terror has worked before for ISIS, allowing it to punch above its weight. In the weeks before launching an assault on Mosul, Iraq, in June, the group released a series of gory videos showing the militants brutalizing and killing Iraqi soldiers they had captured. It put the scare in the Iraqi army. When ISIS fighters attacked Mosul, Iraqi soldiers turned and fled despite greatly outnumbering the attackers.
Al-Baghdadi was no doubt hoping to pull off the same trick this time. The release of the video to coincide with Jordanian King Abdullah II’s visit to the United States may have been deliberate — the optics of the Jordanian King in Washington served ISIS’ narrative of the kingdom being a vassal of the “Crusaders.”
But ISIS appears to have badly miscalculated. Al-Kasasbeh was from a prominent Sunni tribal family in Jordan, and his killing has sparked outrage. And if support in Jordan for King Abdullah’s involvement in the anti-ISIS coalition was lukewarm before, it is now red-hot. There has also been outrage across the Sunni Arab world, with the head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious center of learning, reportedly calling for ISIS fighters to be crucified.
Indeed, while the video has electrified ISIS’ most hard-line supporters around the world, and will likely help persuade foreign fighters to join it rather than al Qaeda, it is also likely to shrink its potential pool of recruits. The reality is that burning to death a fellow Muslim is so at odds with mainstream Islamic teaching that even some ISIS sympathizers may have second thoughts. It’s a point underscored in November when Sulaimaan Samuel, a mentor in a UK Home Office scheme to prevent radicalization, said ISIS’ beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning was putting off young British Muslims from joining the group.
In the long run, ISIS’ brutality is not a winning strategy, as al Qaeda has recognized. Exactly a year before the release of the video of the Jordanian pilot being burned alive, al Qaeda’s general command severed ties to ISIS for its excess brutality and killing of Muslims.
In the coming weeks, Jordan is likely to step up its air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But its greatest contribution to the anti-ISIS coalition will likely be its significant intelligence gathering capabilities in those two countries, which we can expect to be expanded. Jordan intelligence played a key role in gathering intelligence that led to the U.S. airstrike that killed Jordanian ISIS founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq in June 2006.
Of course, such expanded action carries the risk that ISIS and its supporters will retaliate with attacks in Jordan. The pre-dawn executions of Sajida al-Rishawi, an ISIS female icon who was part of a team that killed almost 60 in hotels in Amman in 2005, and Ziad Karbouli, an al-Zarqawi aide captured in 2006, has deeply angered the group.
Plus, Jordan already had a significant home-grown radicalization problem — as many as 2,000 Jordanians are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight, many with ISIS. Meanwhile, several Jordanian fighters appeared in an ISIS video released last year calling for King Abdullah to be slaughtered. In addition, last summer saw significant pro-ISIS demonstrations in Zarqa (al-Zarqawi’s birthplace near Amman) and Ma’an (a southern desert tribal town) by extremists excited by ISIS’ declaration of an Islamic caliphate.
Altogether, there are an estimated 9,000 pro-jihadi extremists in the kingdom, according to The Associated Press, and analysts fear that number is growing due to high unemployment and other socioeconomic problems that are creating a fertile atmosphere for recruitment. Another worry is the presence of extremists among the 620,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to Jordan.
All that said, the picture in Jordan is not all gloomy — its overwhelmingly Sunni population at least has meant there is relatively little sectarian tension. And the brutal burning to death of one of their own has also mobilized Jordan’s conservative tribes against ISIS.
But in taking the fight to ISIS and its supporters inside and outside the kingdom, one thing is clear — King Abdullah will need every ally he can get.
Paul Cruickshank is an analyst on terrorism for CNN and the co-author of Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.