U.S. says ISIS did not down plane; Jordanian pilot held captive
AMMAN, Jordan — For the first time since a U.S.-led international coalition began airstrikes against ISIS, a coalition pilot has been captured.
After a Jordanian military plane crashed over Raqqa province in Syria, ISIS took the pilot hostage, Jordan’s state-run news agency Petra said.
Although ISIS claimed it had downed the aircraft, the U.S. military rejected the claim.
“Evidence clearly indicates” that the terrorist group “did not down the aircraft,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
Cmdr. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, overseeing coalition military operations in Iraq and Syria, said, “The Jordanians are highly-respected and valued partners and their pilots and crews have performed exceptionally well over the course of this campaign. We strongly condemn the actions of ISIL which has taken captive the downed pilot.
“We will support efforts to ensure his safe recovery, and will not tolerate ISIL’s attempts to misrepresent or exploit this unfortunate aircraft crash for their own purposes.”
The U.S. military refers to ISIS by another of its acronyms, ISIL.
Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani said his country “initially thought the plane might have been shot at.” But later, state news said the plane crashed.
Pilot’s family pleads for his life
The family of pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh is calling on the terrorist group to free him.
Speaking with CNN Arabic, the pilot’s brother Jawad al-Kasasbeh asked that ISIS “be supportive of our brother Moaz and to be merciful on him, please send him back to us. He is just a soldier who is following orders and has no authority.”
Moaz al-Kasasbeh is a “pious man who prays and fasts and he always flies with his Quran with him,” his brother said.
The captured pilot’s uncle is retired Jordanian Maj. Gen. Fahd al-Kasasbeh who identified his nephew in photos of the pilot that appeared on ISIS-affiliated Twitter account. The retired general told CNN that he’d asked Maj. Gen. Mansour S. Al Jabour, head of the Royal Jordanian Air Force, to investigate and take all necessary actions.
In one image, four men appear to pushing a dazed and bloody man through shallow water, perhaps to shore.
“The Jordanian pilot Kasasbeh is a model of heroism and all of us stand with his family and his colleagues in-arms,” said Jordanian government spokesman Al-Momani told CNN.
Jordan key in coalition fight
Jordan is one of several nations helping the United States and other Western nations degrade and destroy ISIS which has cut a murderous path through Iraq and Syria in its ultimate quest to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, across those countries.
The air campaign has recently stepped up against Raqqa, located on the banks of the Euphrates river. In the beginning of December, for example, the coalition hit the city with 30 air strikes in a single night. There was one coalition airstrike in the area on Wednesday and one on Monday, according to the U.S. military.
It’s critical that Jordan lead an investigation to determine exactly what happened, Maj. Gen. Ali Shukri, a retired Jordanian commander and military adviser, told CNN. He said he doesn’t think the capture will change Jordan’s role in the fight against ISIS.
Al-Momani on Wednesday acknowledged the “enormity of this incident” but said it was his nation’s choice “to fight those terrorist organizations that threaten Jordan’s security.”
“Jordan participated in this war acknowledging that this war will have casualties,” he said.
Bordering Syria, Iraq and Israel, Jordan has been a critical regional player in the coalition and has a history of working with Washington.
Though the United States has led the coalition, President Barack Obama has maintained that there will be no U.S. ground troops in Syria.
But the Defense Department last week announced that up to 1,300 more U.S. troops, including approximately 1,000 soldiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, will begin to deploy to Iraq in late January.
Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said December 19 that the mission is to train, advise and assist Iraqi security forces.
The U.S. led-coalition has relied tremendously on a number of other countries to help militarily as well as to help legitimize the effort internationally.
Other key regional allies include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The coalition has been conducting nearly constant airstrikes against ISIS in Syria since September, an effort that began weeks after first going after the group in neighboring Iraq. In that period, the coalition has said it landed several strikes that have damaged ISIS infrastructure, equipment and fighting capacity.
While Iraq has posed complex battle demands, Syria has its own set of complications.
The country has been ravaged by years of civil war as forces try to unseat Syria President Bashar al-Assad. Those forces are not only fighting al-Assad now, but trying to keep up the strength to fight ISIS.
ISIS’ grisly reputation for atrocities
What will ISIS do with Moaz al-Kasasbeh?
The group’s track record portends very bad things.
They have beheaded previous hostages, including American journalist James Foley, and have openly committed mass killings rapes and enslavement of civilians.
The Jordanian military source cited by PETRA noted ISIS’ past and wondered about the fate of the captured of the F-16 pilot.
“It is well-known that this organization does not hide their terrorist schemes,” the source said. “And they have carried out many criminal acts of destruction and killing of innocent Muslims and non-Muslims in Syria and Iraq.”
Journalist Hadel Ghaboun reported from Amman, Jordan, and CNN’s Ashley Fantz, Josh Levs, and Greg Botelho reported and wrote this story from Atlanta. CNN’s Barbara Starr, Salma Abdelaziz, Mohammed Tawfeeq and Jethro Mullen contributed to this report.
By Ashley Fantz, Josh Levs, and Hadel Ghaboun