Jordan makes Islamic State a counteroffer: Your bomber for our pilot

The Jordanian government agreed Wednesday to open negotiations with the Islamic State over a prisoner exchange that would swap an Iraqi woman convicted in a 2005 suicide-bombing plot for a Jordanian air force pilot the group has held since December.

Whether the exchange would include a Japanese journalist being held by the Islamic State wasn’t clear. A statement from the Jordanian Foreign Ministry didn’t mention the journalist, and the Jordanian offer was different from what the Islamic State had proposed a day earlier, leaving it unclear what exactly was on the table.

In an audio clip posted Tuesday, the Japanese journalist, Kenji Goto, had said the Islamic State was proposing to swap him for Sajida al Rishawi, an Iraqi who’s been in a Jordanian prison since her suicide belt failed to explode during a series of hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan’s capital.

Goto said that if Rishawi wasn’t released within 24 hours, the pilot, Moaz al Kasasbeh, would be killed and then Goto. There was no mention of releasing Kasasbeh.

“It’s me for her,” Goto said. “What seems to be so difficult to understand?”

On Wednesday, however, Jordan said it had engaged Arab tribes in Iraq with close ties to the Islamic State to arrange an exchange of Kasasbeh for Rishawi, leaving Goto unmentioned.

“Jordan confirms that it is completely prepared to release the prisoner Sajida al Rishawi if Moaz al Kasasbeh is released and his life is intact,” said the Foreign Ministry statement, which was broadcast on state television and confirmed by a government spokesman.

“The priority of Jordan from the start of the crisis was to insure the life of our son, the pilot Kasasbeh,” said the spokesman, Mohammed al Momani.

Jordan’s announcement represented the first time a government has indicated a willingness to negotiate with the Islamic State publicly over a prisoner exchange. Previous efforts by European nations to win the freedom of citizens held by the Islamic State have involved ransom payments in negotiations that were closely guarded secrets.

Analysts of Islamic State behavior were reluctant to discuss the situation Wednesday on the record. One noted that the public back and forth was “uncharted territory” because of the unusual nature of the negotiation, with the Islamic State demanding one thing and being granted partial conditions with a major modification: Kasasbeh instead of Goto.

Kasasbeh also is the first Islamic State military prisoner who’s from the U.S.-led coalition that’s conducting airstrikes against the group in Syria and Iraq, which may alter his value in Islamic State eyes.

Jordan’s willingness to negotiate a swap came a day after Kasasbeh’s father, Yousef, made a strong public statement demanding the exchange of his son for Rishawi. The move shocked Jordan, which generally doesn’t allow open criticism and political pressure on the regime and King Abdullah.

“Who is Sajida to us?” the elder Kasasbeh said, according to news reports. “Sajida is a burden on us. Let them release her. I am asking for the release of Sajida and all the prisoners, and the return of Moaz to us. Keeping her in prison is a burden on us.”

Goto was kidnapped in October after he entered Islamic State territory in an apparent effort to obtain the release of his mentally ill friend, Haruna Yukawa, an adventurer who’d been captured in August. Last week, the group demanded a $200 million ransom for both men before announcing Saturday that Yukawa had been beheaded and Goto would be released only in exchange for Rishawi. The ransom demand had been dropped.

Kasasbeh’s plane crashed – the circumstances are still unclear – during a bombing run over Raqqa, the Syrian city that’s the Islamic State’s de facto capital.

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