The Jordanian government Wednesday confirmed that an F-16 fighter-bomber crashed over the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa in Syria and that the jihadist group had captured the pilot after pictures of the wreckage and pilot appeared on social media sites linked to the group.
A statement released on the Internet, apparently by the Islamic State, said the group had downed the jet with a anti-aircraft missile, a claim that could not be verified and was not confirmed by Jordanian authorities in the statement they released to a state television station in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
“During a mission Wednesday morning conducted by several Royal Jordanian Air Force planes against hideouts of the IS terrorist organization in the Raqqa region, one of the planes went down and the pilot was taken hostage,” a military source was quoted as saying.
“Jordan holds the group and its supporters responsible for the safety of the pilot and his life,” the Jordanian army statement said.
It is the first time a plane has crashed and the group has captured a foreign soldier since Jordan and more than a dozen Arab and European countries joined a coalition and began a coordinated bombing campaign in Syria against the Islamic State. The militant group has taken control of much of eastern Syria and northern, central and western Iraq. The U.S. government, which provides regular updates on the progress of the bombing campaign, which began in Iraq in early August and Syria in late September, has yet to comment on the incident.
Pictures released on social media from accounts commonly associated with the group showed a man in a white undershirt being pulled from a river or lake by gunmen who appeared to be members of the Islamic State. Photos also displayed a Jordanian armed forces identity card belonging to First Lt. Muath Safi Yousef al Kaseasbeh.
A Jordanian newspaper quoted a man claiming to be Yousef al Kaseasbeh, the pilot’s father, confirming that his son was a pilot for the Jordanian military and that he had been captured by the Islamic State, and he called on the group to show his son mercy.
The Islamic State also released a number of photos of what it claimed was the plane’s wreckage being displayed on the streets of Raqqa, including a windscreen.
If confirmed that the plane was actually shot down by a missile fired by the group, as opposed to crashing because of a technical malfunction, it could greatly complicate the daily bombing campaign led primarily by U.S. planes, but which also includes European and Arab allies. They might be more reluctant to bomb Islamic State areas if a credible anti-aircraft threat materializes.
The Islamic State and its rivals in Syrian rebel groups have frequently downed Syrian regime helicopters and occasionally much less advanced jet aircraft in use by the coalition, with anti-aircraft guns or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that lack the range to properly confront modern jet aircraft. The Islamic State, however, has overrun a number of Syrian military bases and might have access to more advanced anti-aircraft weaponry. Wednesday’s incident could indicate that such weapons are capable of being effectively deployed.
Many commercial airliner companies have begun avoiding Syrian airspace out of concerns that the group has access to such weapons. But until Wednesday there was no credible reason to think the group had the technical capability to operate more advanced captured weaponry.