The 22-minute video released Tuesday by the Islamic State depicting the brutal death by immolation of a captured Jordanian pilot includes a long and detailed account by Lt. Moaz al Kasasbeh of his last mission as well as a general outline of the contributions of Arab countries to the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.
In the video, Kasasbeh said he ejected from his aircraft over Raqqa, Syria, after it was hit by anti-aircraft fire, disabling his F-16’s single engine. That detail contradicts American statements at the time, which said there was no evidence his plane had been shot down.
It is difficult to judge the accuracy of Kasasbeh’s statements. He was no doubt speaking under duress, dressed in the orange jumpsuit that has become the hallmark of prisoners the Islamic State is about to put to death and with an obvious bruise under his left eye. But his account of the mission is consistent with what is known about Arab militaries generally and conforms to military practice. If accurate, it would be the first detailed accounting of an Arab bombing mission over Syria.
Col. Patrick S. Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq and Syria, declined in an email to discuss Kasasbeh’s assertions, saying the Jordanians were still investigating the cause of his aircraft’s crash and “it therefore would be inappropriate to discuss specific details.” The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment.
Arab participation in the campaign against the Islamic State has been controversial, with several of the participants requesting that the United States not release information about their aircrafts’ participation in bombing missions. As a result, Centcom’s daily summaries of airstrikes no longer include the role of Arab aircraft.
But Kasasbeh’s account suggests that Arab nations have been taking a robust role in the campaign over Syria, though at least one country, the United Arab Emirates, reportedly suspended its combat missions after Kasasbeh’s plane went down. The New York Times reported this week that the UAE stopped flying missions after Kasasbeh was taken prisoner by the Islamic State Dec. 24 because it did not believe the U.S. had stationed search-and- rescue aircraft near enough to the combat zone to rescue downed pilots.
Reporting on the video has focused primarily on Kasasbeh’s horrific death – confined to a cage, his orange jumpsuit soaked in a flammable liquid, and set aflame, a sequence that consumes approximately two minutes and 26 seconds.
The vast majority of the video, however, is devoted to making the case that Kasasbeh deserved his fate. In addition to Kasasbeh’s nearly nine-minute account of his last mission and the contributions of Arab nations to the coalition, the video includes two minutes in which Kasasbeh is shown walking through bombed-out structures, interspersed with scenes of rescuers pulling burned bodies from under rubble. The video closes with the names of Jordanian air force pilots under a label that reads “Wanted Dead.”
Unlike many previous videos, this one contained no English subtitles, making clear it was intended for an Arabic-speaking audience.
In Kasasbeh’s account, he was briefed on his mission at 4 p.m. Dec. 23. He said the aircraft took off the next day from Muwaffaq Salti air base, a facility in the Zarqa governorate of eastern Jordan. The aircraft were refueled in the air at 7:55 a.m. before turning toward their target in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.
In addition to his aircraft, Kasasbeh said the contingent of planes included a Saudi Arabian F-15, an F-16 from the United Arab Emirates and a Moroccan F-16. Those planes made up a “sweeper” team assigned to clear the approaches to the designated targets. The targets themselves were to be bombed by a pair of more advanced aircraft from Morocco.
“Then two up-to-date Moroccan planes would bomb the targets assigned to them using laser technology and laser-directed GBU bombs. After that, Saudi and Emirati planes would intervene to do secondary cleanup,” he said. GBU stands for “guided bomb unit.”
“After the process of entering was completed, I heard the sound of one anti-aircraft weapon hitting my plane, and 1st Lt. Saddam Mardini told me that there was fire coming out of the opening of the engine. I checked the instruments and discovered that the engine had broken down and a fire had started. The plane started to veer off course so I ejected and fell in the river.”
He said he remained fastened into his seat until Islamic State fighters “imprisoned me.”
The rest of his detailed explanation of how the operations work is consistent with widely known facts: That targets are chosen and operations coordinated from a central command center in Qatar, where the U.S. has long coordinated Middle East military operations.
“As for the countries that share the strikes against the Islamic State whether in Iraq or Syria, I will speak in particular about Arab states,” Kasasbeh said, before breaking down the types of planes used by the Arab air forces. “These are Jordan, Emirates, Saudi, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Morocco: Jordan is participating with F-16s, Emirates uses F-16s that can use lasers to direct accurate bombs, Kuwait flies mid-air tankers for refueling, Bahrain uses the F-16, the Saudis use F-15s and modern F-16s with laser-guided weapons and the first participation of Morocco was by laser-equipped F-16s.”
He added that most missions were flown from Jordanian air bases as well as bases in Qatar and Oman. He said midair refueling was provided by Kuwaiti tankers.
“As for the foreign planes, especially the American and the French, they fly from Jordanian bases especially from Muwaffaq Salti and the base of Emir Hasan,” he said. He also mysteriously referred to American planes flying missions from Turkey, which has so far refused, at least publicly, to allow its bases to be used for anti-Islamic State missions.
Roy Gutman in Amman, Jordan, and special correspondent Mousab Alhamadee in Gaziantep, Turkey, contributed to this report.